Out to Launch

Guidance for robotic underwater vehicles

by Phyl Newbeck

greensea0818Ben and Joanna Kinnaman moved to Vermont in 2006 to pursue a dream of developing software for control and navigation of marine robots. Their Richmond company, Greensea Systems, was the result.

It was 2006 when Ben Kinnaman told his wife, Joanna, they could move to Vermont, a state where they had been vacationing regularly. “We’d been fantasizing about moving,” he says, “and I told her I’d worked it out at my job so we could do it.” When Joanna asked how he had managed that, he had to be honest. “I quit,” he told her. They contacted a Realtor and soon they had packed up their Baltimore belongings and headed to Richmond.

These days, Kinnaman, Joanna, and their sons, Britton, 8, and Graeme, 6, live in West Bolton, but Kinnaman’s business, Greensea Systems, a developer of control and navigation software for marine robotics, is still in Richmond.

For the first few years, the company was based in their house while Joanna, a clinical psychologist, worked at The University of Vermont. “It was just me and another engineer,” says Kinnaman. “We knew it would be a long incubation period, but we sketched out a technical road map and stayed true to it.”

He remembers a day when Britton was very young and his mother-in-law was visiting. A significant customer in the industry had come to the house to do a factory-acceptance test on a software platform for several autonomous underwater vehicles, and all the furniture had been moved out of the way. There was a tractor-trailer in the driveway, and cables were spread all over the living room.

The presentation was successful, but when the couple had finished celebrating, Joanna gave an ultimatum that Greensea needed a new home. Kinnaman rented a 700-square-foot apartment above John’s Shoe Shop North in Richmond. “One apartment turned to two,” he says, “and two employees turned to 11.” When the Richmond Corner Market moved to its new location, Kinnaman bought the old building and moved in January of 2012. He has already renovated twice and is planning another expansion, but he is committed to keeping the marine robotics company in Richmond.

A job in technology certainly wasn’t the initial career plan for the self-described small-town kid from eastern North Carolina. “In high school I wasn’t the greatest student,” he recalls. “I gravitated towards the visual arts and kind of checked out of math.” Kinnaman began working on boats, and an additional job at the local hardware store gave him some plumbing and carpentry skills. “I really enjoyed making money so that became a hobby,” he says. “I wasn’t terribly interested in college.”

Kinnaman’s social worker mother wanted him to go to college — specifically, Davidson College in North Carolina. “We had an agreement that if I got in, I’d go,” he says.

He was surprised to be accepted and held up his end of the deal, obtaining a number of scholarships to make the expensive private college affordable. He had planned to major in art or philosophy, but a required math course with Dr. John Swallow changed his direction. Impressed by the physical applications of math, Kinnaman switched his major to physics with a concentration in computational physics.

During his freshman year, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. She died in his senior year. The resulting debt and his continued interest in making money led him to work at a dive bar and do carpentry, plumbing, and construction work. His post-graduation goal was to buy a sailboat and sail around the world.

There was one monkey wrench in Kinnaman’s plans. On March 20, 1998, during his senior year, he met a woman at a bar in Raleigh while celebrating his best friend’s engagement. “She asked what I was going to do when I graduated and I told her my sailing plans,” he says. “She asked me if that would be lonely, and I later found out that I had been a bit of a jerk so I called her the next evening and we made a date for the following weekend.”

Enchanted by Joanna, Kinnaman never did buy the boat. Instead, he briefly took a job in construction to settle post-college debt, and then began doing offshore work as a diver, mostly for salvage or treasure hunts. Joanna went to graduate school in Richmond, Virginia, and Kinnaman called that town home despite the fact that he was away as much as 300 days of the year.

“It was fun,” he says, “but I wanted to go deeper and explore and maybe make more money. Being away so much was putting a strain on our relationship, but it let me get back into technology.” He began working with offshore robotics, and although programming wasn’t part of his job, it became a hobby and he began to see the potential for a career.

With Joanna winding down her Ph.D. program, Kinnaman wanted to spend more time at home, but one morning as they were standing in line for bagels, they saw the space shuttle Columbia explode. Phoenix International Holdings, the Washington, D.C., company for which Kinnaman worked, had a contract with the U.S. Navy, and he was asked to spend five days in Hemphill, Texas, near the crash site.

When he got there, he found a lack of coordination so he began to write software to bring all the data together and help organize the water-based search efforts. Before he knew it, five days turned into a hundred. “That period was the end of my off-shore career,” he says. “I really enjoyed the software work and solving difficult problems, and I wanted to be with my fiancée.”

Kinnaman applied to Johns Hopkins for a master’s in mechanical engineering, attending part time while continuing to work full time in unmanned underwater vehicle development, and Joanna was placed in her doctoral internship, then a post-doctoral program at the Veterans Administration in Maryland.

Four years after graduation, Kinnaman pitched his employer with an idea for a software platform on which to develop marine robotics. “The president thought about it for 15 seconds and said no,” he recalls. “It was a bit soul-crunching, but it was a really powerful lesson.” That lesson led him to quit his job, move to Vermont, and start his business.

Part of Greensea’s local network, “and close friends,” says Kinnaman, is the Vermont Center for Emerging Technology (VCET). David Bradbury, VCET’s president has been impressed by what he’s seen.

“He’s an engineer, scientist, and domain expert,” Bradbury says, “but I’ve seen him mature as a leader and an executive.” VCET connected with Greensea as Kinnaman was trying to grow his business, and Bradbury says he’s been thrilled to be part of that process. “The credit all goes to Ben and his team for what they’ve done,” he says. “It’s been a pleasure to play a small supporting role.”

Today, Greensea employs roughly 20 people, with the vast majority holding technology development roles. The majority of its work is in the defense field, and Greensea’s three major areas are providing robotic systems for maritime explosive ordnance disposal, special forces activities, and navigation systems for very complex tasks underwater.

“We’re a software company,” Kinnaman explains, “but we don’t deliver it in the form of apps. We deliver it in circuit boards or vehicles or complete navigation systems.” Greensea does its own systems integration, so its production facility creates hardware to go with the software. “We can ensure better quality if we have full control of the development from start to finish,” he says. “Our biggest growth area, people-wise, has been production and assembly.”

Diving used to be Kinnaman’s passion, but these days he rarely dives for fun. He’s hoping that as his boys get older, he’ll be able to take them diving, but for now, they both enjoy piloting underwater robots.

Another previous passion — art — has somewhat fallen by the wayside. “I don’t paint, but I enjoy woodworking and tattoo art,” Kinnaman says. His arms are covered with works he designed, including a portrait of his wife, a silhouette of the family, a bird, roses, and an ocean-based design. One early passion that Kinnaman hasn’t quite given up is BMX (off-road bicycle) racing. He was a state champion twice in his native North Carolina and has built a track at his house, which is used by the whole family.

Although his is the face behind the company, he takes pains to ensure that Joanna gets the credit he believes she deserves. “I’ve been away three weeks out of the month since November to countries far and wide,” he says, “so she has chosen to balance that by stepping away from her career, which has allowed me to develop professionally and push the company. It’s difficult to overstate her role.”

Peter Kunin, managing partner at Downs Rachlin Martin, has worked with Kinnaman since 2013 in a legal capacity. “Ben is so committed to the people who work at Greensea it’s heart-warming,” Kunin says. “He has a unique ability to connect with all his employees and unify them in a common sense of purpose.”

Kunin wishes there were more employers like Kinnaman in the state. “He is just so bright and so committed and incredibly charismatic and is just the nicest person. These are precisely the types of community leaders we need to make this an economically prosperous community and provide the types of jobs that will enable Vermonters to stay here.”