Origin story

November 9, 2020

After a stormy start, the future for North East start-up Origin Tech looks considerably brighter as its innovative WAIV[TM] invention is set to benefit from the current momentum being placed behind the UK’s offshore wind sector. Alison Cowie found out more when she spoke to commercial director John Marsden.

In December 2019, John Marsden helped launch North East-based start- up Origin Tech with the aim of creating new and innovative technology that could transform integrity inspections for organisations across multiple sectors. The company was spun out of Origin Integrity Management (IM), an engineering consultancy established almost ten years ago by Steve McKenny and Phil Surtees.

“The premise behind Origin IM is to help operators in oil and gas understand the integrity of their assets,” John explains.

“Many, especially in the North Sea, are managing old assets and so their maintenance tends to be reactive. We can provide technical knowledge and understanding of failure and risk to help them become more proactive.”

Over the years, Origin IM has established a reputation for its offshore consultancy services but its directors always recognised the opportunity of developing and patenting its own technology.

Having enticed John – a former business owner with experience of taking products from prototype to commercialisation – into the business last summer, Steve and Phil, along with their new commercial director, launched Origin Tech at the end of last year.

“I moved to the North East of England three years ago from Aberdeen, where I had run my own business specialising in flexible pipes for the oil and gas industry. At the time, Steve and Phil asked if I would join Origin IM. Because it was such a major change for my family and me, I decided it would be sensible to join a more established business. The offer, however, remained open and in the summer of 2019 I felt it was the right time to move back into a smaller company where I could be master of my own destiny again.”

Origin Tech began implementing a strategy to appeal to its target markets of oil and gas, renewables and water and gas utilities. This initially centred around the development of two innovative technologies.

NO DIG[TM] looks to tackle the issue of water wastage and allows water utility companies to prevent, minimise or even stop leaks from water pipelines without the need to excavate them.

The start-up’s second technology is designed with the wind energy sector – particularly offshore – in mind. Meanwhile, WAIV[TM] is a wireless, autonomous inspection vehicle – or crawler – that can traverse the outside of a wind turbine and perform regulatory and ad-hoc inspections.

“It can complete high definition visual, thermal and ultrasonic inspections, detecting anything from visual defects to internal cracks,” John explains, “and it has many advantages to alternative inspection
methods such as having guys abseiling down turbines on ropes.”

The presence of a strong rare-earth magnet, for example, holds the vehicle to the turbines securely, meaning it is capable of delivering tests in the most extreme weather conditions – especially prevalent at offshore wind farm sites. It can also complete inspections with the minimum of disruption or downtime – potentially saving clients time and money – while exact tests can be repeated regularly so that real-time integrity data can be monitored over time.

At the start of 2020, Origin Tech was focused on developing its two flagship technologies in tandem. Then the pandemic hit.

Like all other businesses, Origin IM and Origin Tech were thrown into chaos – with the collapse of the oil and gas sector hitting the consultancy and its tech start- up hard.

Forced to regroup, John reveals that NO DIG[TM] has been the easier technology to progress in these socially distanced times, and Origin Tech is now in talks with several water utilities companies.

The trajectory of WAIV[TM], meanwhile, has been more stunted by the pandemic with a lack of opportunity to extensively test the prototype vehicle and demonstrate its potential to clients and investors.

“We have had the vehicle up turbines but haven’t been able to do the amount of demonstrating and testing that we would have liked to,” John reveals. “We need to show the industry that this technology really does save money and that it’s a safer way to complete inspections.”

WAIV[TM] has progressed, though, thanks to Origin Tech’s acceptance onto the Offshore Renewable Energy (ORE) Catapult’s industry-backed regional cleantech accelerator programme – the Launch Academy North East – in March. The start-up joined five fellow North East- based cleantech innovators – OxraGrid, Beluga Seatech, Utility AR, Wootzano and Build Stream –which won against fierce competition to become the first cohort of the accelerator that looks to enhance the North East of England’s offshore wind supply chain and drive cost reduction through innovation.

The 12-week programme – which was hastily moved online after the UK went into lockdown – provided core modules delivered by ORE Catapult such as technology assessment, supply chain readiness and business case review, as well as essential business support in funding, legal, IP, accountancy and investor readiness support from local partners. Each of the innovative companies also received access to £20,000 of investment, provided by the North East Innovation Fund, supported by the European Regional Development Fund and managed by Northstar Ventures.

While John admits that Origin Tech’s initial reason for applying for the accelerator was to attract a major industry sponsor (made all but impossible after the pandemic struck), the commercial director – who studied naval architecture and marine engineering at Newcastle University – still maintains the accelerator’s virtual programme has been hugely beneficial.

“The workshops have been geared around helping businesses to grow, attract funding and develop a marketing strategy, which have been really useful.

“There’s been a lot for us to learn from a lot of local experts. Being part of a network has also been invaluable.”
John and Origin Tech are now pressing ahead with the commercialisation of WAIVTM and he sees further opportunities in developing its automation credentials.

“There’s no reason why instead of using a remote control to drive the vehicle up a turbine, you can’t programme everything in advance,” says John.

“To do that, we’ll need to recruit coders and people with electronics experience.”

John recognises the advantages of being part of the North East’s strong offshore renewable energy ecosystem
in developing its tech and attracting the right talent, and, the UK Government’s backing of the offshore wind industry as the country looks to ‘build back greener’.

“I’ve been really impressed with how much support there is for renewable innovation,” the commercial director says. “The Government is clearly backing it, and you can see that with the likes of available Innovate UK funding, which we are currently in the process of applying for.”

It seems that despite a turbulent start, the wind may well be blowing in the right direction for Origin Tech.

John Marsden, commercial director of Origin Tech

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