Nicolaus Radford has now launched three startup ventures. Including a marine robotics company that has raised over $100M through its IPO. The startup, Nauticus Robotics, has attracted financing from top-tier investors like Schlumberger Limited, AeroVironment, Transocean, and Iain Cooper.
In this episode, you will learn:
- The two other startups Nicolaus Radford has been working on
- How big and important the ocean is compared to space
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About Nicolaus Radford:
Nicolaus Radford is the Founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Nauticus Robotics. He previously worked at NASA as a Principal Investigator. Nicolaus Radford attended Purdue University.
Inspired by his 14-year career in spaceflight robotics at NASA-JSC in Houston, Nicolaus enjoys building companies and teams and is a pure industrialist at heart. Nicolaus sees opportunity everywhere and believes there’s more to great companies than apps. He says that if we’re going to do some big things in this world, we’re gonna need to build some greater things.
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Connect with Nicolaus Radford:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Nicolaus Radford: And it’s alejandro right.
Alejandro Cremades: All righty hello everyone and welcome to the deal maker show. So super excited about the founder that we have today you know we’re going to be learning quite a bit I mean he’s a company. He’s taking his company public. You know quite a ride you know and and definitely interesting. The kind of stuff that they’re doing so I guess. Without fardo. Let’s welcome our guests today Nicholas Radfor welcome to the show. Thanks.
Nicolaus Radford: Thank you Ah quick question can I use profanity. Nice. Okay.
Alejandro Cremades: You can let’s go. So so let’s do a little of a walk through memory lane. So how was life growing up in Rural Indiana
Nicolaus Radford: Wow. Okay, we’re going you’re going back there You’re starting you’re starting pretty starting pretty fresh I got it. It was you know, phenomenal childhood right? So grew up in the eighty s night writer ah hugely influential obviously since our our stock ticker is kit. Loved that show. But you know just I grew up in ah in a fairly rural area so you know out in the middle of Indiana farmland where we have basketball hoops on our barns. And a lot of fond memories of doing that but it was ah it was. It was pretty cool. You know so my my I grew up in a I’d say lower to middle class family. Um, you know parents actually didn’t go to college I was actually one of the first ones on my dad’s side to go to college so it was kind of a big deal. And our family and so that that’s you can imagine that even though my parents I think were incredible. They just had certain limitations that I I didn’t really become aware of until you know later on as you get more exposed to things. But. You know, love them dearly. But you know when you when when I got to high school and then realizing that I was not part of the rich kid crowd. Um, you know I think that really candidly I think that’s one some of my serious motivation is is really this just.
Nicolaus Radford: Kind of created this fire that has just stuck with me forever that I cannot shake but you know I’ve got three kids and and although yeah I want them to struggle a little bit. You also want them to have lots of opportunity available for themselves and but. Getting back to the heart of your question though I loved it. I loved Indiana there’s a very special place in my heart for for that area.
Alejandro Cremades: And you also have the ah the competitiveness in you I mean you were doing track and field as well. So how do you think that you you you see to be quite a competitive guy. So do you think that that track and field is just fuel that even more or what.
Nicolaus Radford: Yeah I was fortunate enough to ah to compete as a decathlete at a big 10 school that again was pretty influential on me I did pretty well in high school as well as ah as a track and field athlete. I am extremely competitive I’ve actually had some health problems here recently. I’ve got a bad arthritis I got stricken with arthritis probably fifteen years ago I’ve had tons of surgeries I’ve had my ankle replaced so I have a titanium ankle and. Um, but I’m still pretty damn competitive and I think that comes out in my entrepreneurial take no prisoners kick. Everybody’s ass spirit I’ve got a lot of things I’m trying to accomplish but but I also play a lot of poker. And when I play poker like I don’t want to just beat you like I want to beat you over the head with the best hand right? And it’s like look. It’s not like oh we’re gonna bluff and I’m going to win the hand. It’s like I want to smack you in the face with a pair of ases because I just want you to know that I had the goods on you.
Alejandro Cremades: Nice now. Now let’s talk about engineering How did you got into that and also problem solving and and yeah, what was that calling.
Nicolaus Radford: Ah, you know it’s kind of funny again. My my parents did not go to college in the traditional sense. My mom ended up going to a vocational school after the fact but um, you know I always liked to. I always had this an affinity for things and and and and technology and and like I said growing up in the 80 s when you’re watching the movie fly to the navigator and um, you know you just get so inspired by that that stuff. But. Frankly I sort of just fell into engineering I was thinking of being a doctor and I got into some schools that had really good premed and med programs but a lot of my friends in high school they were majoring in engineering and I was like all right I guess that’s ah I guess that’s what I’m going to do and ended up getting. Ah, ended up getting in at Purdue and and ended up getting on the track team there and and again was fortunate enough to have some support doing that and and but yeah Purdue is just a phenomenal school I mean just just what you learn the critical thinking as you mentioned. Um, it’s a real hands on school. It’s a research oriented school I just credit so much of of just how I became inspired to want to create came from that school and just I can’t say enough about purdue.
Alejandro Cremades: Now you ended up landing at Nasa so really unbelievable. You know as the as the first thing gig right after school but in your case you know, but there was a really interesting story there that happened we seeing the robotic astronaut in the corner.
Nicolaus Radford: Um, yeah.
Alejandro Cremades: So tell us about that.
Nicolaus Radford: Yeah I you know I was I got down to Nasa right? as I graduated my undergrad at Purdue and produce consider the home of the astronaut so there’s a big There’s a there’s a real big connection to Nasa um. There’s there’s a lot of folks down here in Houston that that have connections in the midwest and specifically purdue and so I was a flight controller right? out of school and you know it’s like little headsets apollo 13 you know Houston we have a problem type stuff. Which was fascinating. Don’t get me wrong is extremely fascinating learning about the space shuttle and all the inner workings and and and being in the back room when there’s space missions going up I mean it was it was a really fascinating side. However I was a designer right? I was an engineer I was a designer I wanted to build and design and create. And break stuff and and rebuild it and make it better and you just don’t really get that do that as a flight controller but one day which I didn’t even know this but johnson space center has an incredible robotics department and. Um, even though I got hired in to be a flight controller in the robotics group in the mission control area. It wasn’t like a design position so I was walking through the hall one day and you know during my lunch hour. The the campus is huge. In fact.
Nicolaus Radford: Johnson space center was designed to look a lot like an academic campus and for a long time. Rice university used to own that the the area that johnson space center was so it was built like an extension campus of a university and so during lunch I would like walk around. Um, early on because it’s still It’s just fascinating to to be at Nasa at the johnson space center the largest space center and so when you’re first you know when you get there. Everything is just awe-inspiring and and it’s really cool so you take a lot of walks, especially at launch and 1 time I found my way into this building. And I’m just walking down the hallway and I I turn to my left and I remember this like it was absolutely yesterday there sitting in the corner was this robotic astronaut prototype called robonnaut and I was stunned I mean I look through the window I press my nose up against the glass. And I’m just like what in the effing f is this thing. How did it get there who’s working on it. What is it doing where is it going and I was just from that moment on I was I was obsessed I’m like I’m going to figure out a way. To get into this lab to work here. These have to be some of the brightest minds you know on the planet and I just I was obsessed with this robot and took me about another six months to kind of network my way around which.
Nicolaus Radford: The power of networking we should get into later I mean it is the it’s the it’s the lifeblood of of everything right? It’s being able to network and and capitalize on those opportunities you know opportunity knocks sometimes but you got to open the damn door and and I think some people forget to to open the door and the way you open the door is. Meet people and and you try to figure out and hustle toward toward your toward your your ambitions. But so I ended up getting into that lab and I left Nasa running that lab.
Alejandro Cremades: So then let’s talk about leaving Nasa because also you know like that was the sick way into you getting going you know with your company. So um, so what happened there you know obviously as they say I ideas you know they take time to to incubate and and marinate and then there is like certain events that. Push us over the edge to really get going. So so what happened there for you. What were those say events that you know led you to? Okay, let’s let’s go with this.
Nicolaus Radford: Well I had been at Nasa I mean I was there for 14 years and I would say probably 2 years before I left I started planning an exit and so I started I started. I’d say aligning my activities that I was working on at Nasa to help me be able to identify what I might want to do next with the networks of people either the agencies we were working with the type of work we were working on equipping myself with another set of skills like helping big. Build partnerships between public and private entities and so I knew I wanted to start my own company and I said okay well Nasa has it’s a very fertile ground for a lot of different things not just technology development but business development and and and meeting people and leering to work with other agencies and other groups. Other companies. And so I inserted myself directly in the middle of that and it was ah it was a heck of a crash course and not only was I leading this robotics group but I was also trying to help Nasa bring in public investment. And which became a pretty useful skill learning how to drive investment into an entity and and there was a ton of different agencies that that Nasa was working with so I just got I got exposure to so many different elements especially in the Dod world.
Nicolaus Radford: Which I’m still working with part of them today and so there was that side the other side was the market. You know so that was the skill of okay I need to have these. Let’s say you work in a government lab you you have a certain set of skills up to. Sort of this limit and then you have to really start broadening yourself personally because you know the government would love to just keep you pigeonholed in this being a designer for the rest of your life but you really have to kind of motivate and actually I sort of woke up one day and I was like I just prefer to realize there’s nobody telling me what to do that I’m I can I can just go off and write my own story within the confines of this sort of government entrepreneurship. Yes I had a boss I had a supervisor but no one was really dictating what I did every day I was just there to sort of make up. However I felt like I could. Have a partner come into Nas and we could co-develop this and that could be applied towards that and so I started just leaning into all these concepts and and Houston being the energy capital of the world. You get a lot of of exposure to energy companies and especially some of them in the maritime domain. And what I realized was a lot of the technologies we had developed at Nasa coupled to my ability to really form partnerships and garner investment ah might make an incredible fertile ground for a new company adapting spaceflight technology in the marine world.
Nicolaus Radford: With my newfound fortune 500 energy company friends and let’s see what happens and that’s what I started contemplating for probably eighteen months before I actually left the government because I wanted to leave with enough inertia that I wouldn’t just face plan on day. 1 Um. It. It wasn’t that it was easy. It was still a struggle you know I I formed the company with a couple partners. You know they actually kept their day jobs while I left the government and um I didn’t get paid for nine straight months you know so I was newly divorced so I had child support. Had a mortgage and I’m not collecting a paycheck I don’t know if if you’ve if you’ve ever been divorced but sometimes you sort of divide up assets and you know a lot of your cash might head into a different direction and so here I am starting a company. Trying and having all these obligations not pulling in any money spending my own money flying around the world. You know trying to get a company off the ground I end up cashing out my 4 1 k end up borrowing money from my dad just to maintain the the essence of keeping this thing going. And ah, you know I was waking up every morning looking in the mirror going I’m financially ruining myself what the hell am I doing um this might become unrecoverable and and sometimes I would think back about my cush government job with government pension and government everything and now I’m i’m.
Nicolaus Radford: Um, naked in the breeze ah needing a warm blanket and and and what you realize is there’s nobody there that’s going to help you and nobody actually Cares. So here’s here’s the thing about being an entrepreneur nobody gives a fuck about you. Nobody. You have to be your own Motivation. You have to be.. In fact, it’s worse than that people are actually cheering for you to Fail. They would be most people that you come in contact with would rather see you fail at what you’re trying to do than see you succeed and and you have to be aware of that and it’s just a reality. I’m not saying that’s about everybody and there are some genuine sincere people out there that that actually want to see change occur in an industry and they want to see you do well for yourself, but the majority of people do not and.
Alejandro Cremades: So what would you say was the what’s the turning point then.
Nicolaus Radford: Oh for sure, it’s easy. Um I I capitalized on one of my relationships that I had developed at Nasa with slumberge and they became very interested in some of the ideas that I were promoting that I was promoting and they thought that some transformational. Ideas with some transformational technology that we had been developing at Nasa might be worth investing in and so we took a series a round for $3000000 on a $10000000 pre-money valuation I like to tell everybody that I had a $10000000 education at nasa. And it seemed to be just about the right number since since we had a company that had a handful of people a handful of people with we had one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in receivables and we got a $10000000 valuation and a $3000000 series a round and. My life changed forever right? after that.
Alejandro Cremades: Now before you know going farther on the financing side because I’d like to ask you about that you know, just so the so that the people that are listening really get it. What ended up being the business model of the company of now takes robotics How now it goes robotics. How do you guys make money.
Nicolaus Radford: So I’ve been in the Robotics world a long time and when I was fortunate enough to be in a government Lab. You got to watch a lot of other robotics companies. Try their hand at the Market. And we had relationships with a bunch of them and I can tell you right now. The quickest way to go out of business as a robotics company is to sell robots Nobody cares about the robot. They don’t want to own it. They just want what it does. In fact, they just want the activity done. They don’t care what you use. If you use a robot great. But if use a person. Great. They just want it done as efficiently as cheaply and as safely as possible. So um, realizing that the business model of naticus is to own and operate our own robotic devices in the Marine economy.
Nicolaus Radford: So We don’t sell these machines we build them for our own purposes and we use them to perform a service so just like you have software as a service and everything as a service. There’s robotics as a service where your in-client does not take ownership of the robot. But they contract to the robot for what the Robot does.
Alejandro Cremades: So what will be some of the examples where you know a naticers comes in and and gets the job done.
Nicolaus Radford: So working underwater is fascinating and right now it’s done in a fairly archaic way that hasn’t changed for the last sixty years if I want to do anything underwater where I interact with the seabed or the or the water column. I’ve got to take out a big boat drop a a large machine I won’t call it a robot but I call it a machine. It’s kind of like a backhoe or a crane and it lowers down into the water on the world’s largest extension cable and this whole operation costs upwards of $100,000 a day to do very simple and rudimentary tasks underwater like take a tool insert it and turn it take a probe insert it and measurement now. There’s a lot of other sophisticated things that happen underwater and that’s cool, but there’s a lot of boring tasks where you use circles squares cylinders. And something that I realized might be fairly um, geometrically conditioned for autonomous algorithms to handle and if that were the case then I could remove the necessity for an umbilical and if I don’t need an umbilical then I don’t necessarily need that big boat. Because I don’t need all the support infrastructure and I don’t need all the people controlling it I can have somebody control it on shore with a mouse and and and maybe we can charge this at $40,000 a day a set of $100,000 a day and turns out the market’s like yeah exactly.
Nicolaus Radford: That’s a great idea and so we’ve been we are building our fleet this robotic navy of ah of an autonomous surface vessel that drops off an autonomous underwater robot without an umbilical and um I think if we get this right. Ah, this might be 1 of the most compelling offerings and in this economy in quite some time.
Alejandro Cremades: I Love it now going back to the fundraising conversation. You know you were talking about your series A obviously now you guys are a public company So before going public. What was the total amount of money raised.
Nicolaus Radford: Well, we had a series a round for 3,000,000 a series b round for 20,000,000. We had some bridge financing in there for probably another 15,000,000 and then we end up raising right? At. I don’t know about another 85,000,000 through the process of of going public. But then we ought ah we had a lot of other government grant structures in there. We worked with government entities where. Would sponsor and subsidize a lot of our r and d development and we probably had another 20000000 in that so you know not an not a ton of money but not an insignificant amount either and um.
Nicolaus Radford: I did I have learned some things I have learned how little $20000000 is it can go kind of quick and um, but.
Alejandro Cremades: And what and what was that experience like of going public to because you know obviously you know ah going from private to public is quite a transition. So so how was that transition like.
Nicolaus Radford: I Don’t feel.
Nicolaus Radford: It was hell um I mean it that you should ask my wife nearly killed me the emotional toll. It takes on you is cannot be overstated. My health was in the shitter. Um. You know you’re working 18 hours a day nonstop on a plane every other week to New York to meet with investors where you’re trying to get the whole thing to close I mean I think you’re completely aware and a lot of your you know listeners are but 2022 wasn’t a really good year for the equities market. And I had friends and colleagues of mine calling me when we closed our deal and announced it in September that we actually transitioned and we listed on the Nasdaq. They were like how the hell did you get a deal done like this is this is was the worst start to the sandpfivehundredandfiftyyears interest rates are skyrocketing. The the capital the equities in capital capital market side are frozen up how in the hell did you guys get a deal done and I’m like it was just a miracle right? I mean a lot of people want to see a company like this succeed. We were fortunate enough to have fortune 500 investors as as large strategic shareholders that also wanted to see the company succeed believe in the product and the technology that we’re bringing to market and you know lot of luck a lot of luck.
Alejandro Cremades: And kidding well lucky. It’s preparation meets opportunity. So so good stuff now now in your guys’ case you know imagine if you were to go to sleep tonight and you wake up in a world where the vision.
Nicolaus Radford: Lot of hard work but a lot of luck.
Alejandro Cremades: Of now tickers is fully realized what does that world look like.
Nicolaus Radford: Wow, that’s amazing. What that world looks like is this blanket network of autonomous machines roaming the ocean that you call up like an uber to do a variety of work all over the industry. It also in my. And my long-term vision I think naicus will also have a consumer facing side to it. Not just a business to business. You know my personal mission is to increase the access of the ocean to everyone and you know I was from rural Indiana about as far away from a coastline as you can get. And I would love to have had a device that maybe I could step into an experience swimming in the ocean being able to um, have that and also I think longer term listen I get space flight. I know why we’re doing it I just kind of get pissed off about how much investment goes in space over the ocean and you know hey I’m going to build I’m going to build a a a satellite servicing robot in you know and the government goes here’s a billion dollars that sounds like a hard problem. And I’m like okay well I’m going to build an autonomous robotic navy to service the the you know the $10000000000000 estimated value of the infrastructure in the ocean and they’re like oh wow um, okay, here’s here’s a little bit of money you know here’s here’s here’s five million bucks let me know when you’re done I’m like.
Nicolaus Radford: Do you realize that this problem is 10 times harder than any problem we’ve ever worked on in space like I’m sorry but it is and and there’s just there’s just no appreciation and I don’t understand why so that’s another particular mission of my is to really highlight this sort of like. The ocean is a big damn deal. It’s a hugely complicated industry. It’s a $3,000,000,000,000 industry. It’s been un innovated in for like the last fifty years and it’s vital to everything we do on planet earth the food you eat the telecommunications. The clothes you’re wearing I guarantee you were shipped. Across the ocean it is it intersects every daily aspect of your life yet nobody thinks about it. Nobody cares about it and going back to my point. Yeah climate change is sort of a big deal. The ocean levels are rising and we should really think about that we should think about how to handle that. Probably the answer is not to ship everybody to Mars the I’m just spitballing. But maybe that’s not the answer. Maybe it’s let’s figure out a way to deal with the sea level rise. Maybe we should form a partnership with Hilton and put it put a hotel in the middle you know on the coastline that goes into the ocean. Maybe it’s not to fly the humanity to Mars. And um, as you can tell I get kind of passionate about this because because it’s just ah, you know it’s vital and nobody really thinks about it.
Alejandro Cremades: I Hear you.
Alejandro Cremades: Well hey you know it’s all a matter of um, you know, bringing awareness and getting that consciousness you know to ah to really activate now now in your case you know like you’ve also worked on ah on a few things. Ah, obviously you know yakovy motors and then also Rad capital.
Nicolaus Radford: Um, yeah, and.
Alejandro Cremades: So very quickly can you just say you you founded these two things. So can you just really quick quickly tell the audience. You know what you are doing or what you guys were doing with those 2 companies.
Nicolaus Radford: Um, you.
Nicolaus Radford: Yeah, well I mean they’re obviously entities that are still vibrant and and going today. But um, yeah, so Jacoby Motor so in my graduate work I I researched and developed out concepts related to variable flux which is how are we going to build electric motors. That do not have the strong reliance on rare earth material and so I was developing out this machine in grad school I got darp at a fund quite a bit of it. The Nasa funded a little bit of it and then um and my first company. I decided to sort of spin it out as its own entity and then raised a bunch of money with ah another fortune 500 company here in Houston that was backing it and and now it’s signing contracts with german car companies and and and I think it’s it’s it’s going to be something quite special. But but electric motors is another passion of mine. My my graduate work was in electric machine optimization and so I get kind of fired up about that and then I don’t know a few years ago I came across this opportunity to form and and formalize investments. Around trading electricity and I sort of had this sneaking suspicion that maybe our electrical grids are going to have a little fight between wind power and the traditional grid and solar and the disruptions that creates in the grid and that creates. Ah.
Nicolaus Radford: In and of itself some some interesting price action that might be profitable and so I organized an effort around that and and have been doing that as Well. So I like being busy I like having a bunch of things going on and and to me the world is just it’s abound with. Crazy opportunity and it’s hard to just sit still and and you know ignore some of them so I kind of go after a lot of stuff.
Alejandro Cremades: So after you know all these different you know initiatives that you’ve been pushing. You know if if I was to give you the chance of getting into a time machine and going back in time. And being able to have a chat with that younger Nicholas that is still in Nasa you know, maybe that younger nichollaas that is now planning that eighteen month you know exit plan you know, kind of thing. You know if you were able to have a sit down with your younger son. Be able to give that younger self one piece of advice before launching a company. What would that be and why given what you don’t know.
Nicolaus Radford: Trust your intuition I would go back in time and I would beat myself over the head and I would say trust your gut that more times than I can count I could kind of see the future knew I was making a mistake. I was pressured from other entities into making the mistake and I knew in my heart. It was wrong and this happened at every level whether it was technology whether it was Strategy. You know it’s not saying be arrogant and and and you know too strong willed. But sometimes when you’re talking to somebody and you’re making a decision and you just know it in the fiber of your being that it’s wrong, but yet you’re quiet about it always fight for what you know to be the right answer and don’t be embarrassed or or don’t feel bad. To push it and trust your gut because it is it was it was when I look back on all the bad decisions that I made I knew they were bad when I was making them I I knew in my I knew in my absolute deepest heart of hearts that that I should have. Done it differently and when I look back and I grade myself and I was right? trust your gut every time.
Alejandro Cremades: I love it Nicholas for the people that are listening. What is the best way for them to reach out and say hi. Thanks.
Nicolaus Radford: Um, oh wow ah, ah on Linkedin.
Alejandro Cremades: Amazing! Well hey nichollas thank you so much for being on the deal maker show. It has been an honor to have you with us today.
Nicolaus Radford: Thank you Alejandro it was awesome.
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