Spanish startup Bound4Blue is applying aeronautical techniques to the maritime industry in an innovative approach to sustainability. The company is currently piloting the installation of rigid wingsails on ocean-going vessels, harnessing the wind for complementary thrust.
The idea originated during the 2006 America’s Cup, in which the New Zealand team won 84 seconds ahead of its old rivals Alinghi. That day José Miguel Bermúdez, CEO and co-founder of Bound4Blue, was watching the race on TV with his father.
“They saw the hard wingsail technology [from aeronautical engineering that was applied to the New Zealand team's boat design] and the performance it was delivering and they thought: why not put it on vessels?” Bound4Blue's CTO David Ferrer said in an interview with CompassList at the recent South Summit in Madrid.
Bermúdez then put together a group of university friends, all with an aeronautical engineering background, and together they started to work on the idea. Thus was Bound4Blue born.
The company wants to offer a solution to addressing the International Maritime Organization’s demand to cut total annual emissions by at least 50% by 2050 from 2008 levels. “With the upcoming changes in regulations, we spotted a big market opportunity,” said Ferrer. The ocean freight sector, which moves nearly 90% of goods around the world, produces approximately 3% of global CO2 emissions – almost the same carbon footprint as Germany.
Bound4Blue’s wingsails can be installed on 60% of the existing cargo fleet worldwide, estimated to be worth €200bn. They are also suitable for over half of newly built vessels, worth €3.5bn annually. The system permits fuel reductions of up to 40% and associated emissions.
Fuel consumption represents between 25% and 85% of a ship’s operating costs, making this form of transportation economically inefficient. Bound4Blue's objective is to provide ship owners with a solution that not only helps them to reduce toxic emissions but which also saves on fuel costs. “When it comes to costs, what is most important for our clients is the return on investment, which in our case has been estimated to take less than five years,” said Ferrer.
The shipowner's initial investment depends on several factors, such as the vessel’s characteristics, routing and weather conditions. It can cost from €200,000 (for a vessel of approximately 40-60 meters) to millions euros for vessels of a much larger size. Through its optimal wingsail configuration system, the Bound4Blue team identifies how many rigid sails should be installed on a given vessel.
With maintenance and operating costs one of the biggest pain points for shipowners, the company wanted to develop a solution that minimises maintenance. “We are using cutting-edge technology to keep this [maintenance] as simple as possible," said Ferrer. "Installing our wingsail system is exactly the same as installing a deck stringer. Anyone specialized in that can do it.”
Automation is what makes the sails economically viable, as it saves crew-related costs on maneuvering the wingsail. “The amount of savings that you get with this technology is directly linked to the amount of wind and the size of the system installed, but especially the cost incurred in making such savings," said Ferrer. "If you save in consumption but then you spend a lot on such technology, the investment makes no sense.”
Innovation and collaboration
Bound4Blue currently holds four patented technologies and three pending ones. “As you can imagine, you cannot patent putting a sail on a vessel," said Ferrrer. "Nor you can patent the telescopic mast because that already exists. What we have patented are different types of rigid wingsail folding systems.
“We have also patented different applications of our system that use sails to produce hydrogen fuel. Basically, it generates energy through turbines as the vessels move through area with strong wind.” This, however, is not a priority. The team is now focused on compounding all the metrics from the existing pilots to understand what needs be improved further.
The company is currently facing fairly limited competition while entering an ecosystem in the midst of disruption. Companies worldwide have already started to work on diverse but similar technologies using the wind to reduce fuel consumption. Airseas is a French spin-off of the Airbus group and is currently testing an automated power kite-sail on cargo ships.
“They are all more or less at the same stage we are right now,” said Ferrer. “In this ecosystem, we are not really competing with each other. Our fight is to prove that wind propulsion technologies are feasible and can save money in the industry. Someone else's success is also our success.” In fact, industry players are joining the International Wingsail System Association, which promotes the implementation of wingsails on ships while sharing knowledge and experience.
Bound4Blue has established two offices: one in Barcelona and another in Santander. “In Cantabria [the province of Santander], there is a big shipping and maritime ecosystem," said Ferrer. "We have found suppliers with the experience and technology to produce and install our wingsails. We do also a lot of R&D, which has significant costs, and the government of Catalonia is helping us to finance it.”
Geared up for launch
The startup was initially incubated at the European Space Agency (ESA) in Barcelona. It has also received Spanish funding from ENISA and the Horizon2020 European fund. To date, Bound4Blue has raised a total of €4m, around €1.5m sourced in the form of public grants. The rest comes from private angel investor funds. Investment so far has been used primarily to install and test the rigid sail on a 60-meter theatre vessel and on one merchant vessel. The company is also running a third paid pilot on a 37-meter fishing vessel.
“Now we are just in the final stage before the commercial launch," said Ferrer. "Our ongoing pilots have proved the viability of our technology. We just need to finalize all three to measure results and we expect this to happen mid-2020.”
The company is now looking to close a pre-seed round of about €3m that will be used to finalize the ongoing pilots and prepare for the official commercial launch, expected at the end of 2020. The team will be soon augmented with three sales units. “We already have some international customers waiting for us to launch and to install our sails on their vessels,” said Ferrer.
Bound4Blue's expansion will focus on the European and Asian markets, particularly South Korea, Japan and China, where most of the global vessel fleets are built. By 2025, the company expects to execute more than 100 projects a year.