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Pasadena’s Seatrec Moving to Vista

Seatrec, a Pasadena firm involved in Ocean research, is moving to Vista.

The company has signed a 2 ½-year lease on 4,000 square-feet of an industrial building in Vista’s industrial park with prospects to expand.

“The blue economy has a huge potential,” said Yi Chao, president and CEO of Seatrec. “San Diego will play a major role.”

While Vista as an inland city might seem like an unlikely choice for an ocean research company, Chao said the company does most of its work in an indoor lab and Vista is close enough for the company to get to the water if it needs to.

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“Most of our ocean testing is in Hawaii. The California coast is difficult to work with because it’s a very rough sea. Most of the time, you need a bigger ship to go offshore. Also, the current is very strong, so if we deploy something, it will probably end up south in Mexico,” Chao said.

The cost of leasing property in Vista also was considerably less than in coastal communities such as La Jolla and Oceanside, Chao said.

“We were not able to find the right facility at the right place in the La Jolla area,” Chao said.

He declined to say how much Seatrec was paying in Vista.

Sweet Spot

“We’re still in the early stage of a start-up company, Chao said, so price was an important factor in choosing a site.

“North County was kind of the sweet spot,” Chao said. With eight employees, “We’re still pretty small.”

North County and Vista in particular has become a popular location for blue tech companies such as Seatrec, said Kevin Ham, Vista economic development director.

“It’s an example of one company finding San Diego and Vista being a great place to live, work and play outside of the region they were once in,” Ham said. “They realize there are similar companies here, this is a great location for talent.”

Ham said blue tech companies such as Seatrec are “part of the cluster of industries that we’ll be working with.”

The catch is that with industrial space in high demand, there isn’t as much space available even compared to a year ago.

“Industrial is the hottest property in the market right now,” Ham said.

Fitting In

Aside from price considerations, Chao said most of the space that the company considered in San Diego County aside from Vista had ceilings that were too low.

The company needed room for a crane to hoist devices it was testing into a large tank filled with water.

The company makes devices that use temperature variations in sea water to generate electricity needed to power robotic underwater sensors.

“We are partnering with robotic companies, integrating our system into their robots,” Chao said. “We buy the robots, then partner with a robotic company, then we design our systems to the customer’s specifications, then we resell the entire system.”

The robots are used to monitor climate change, among other things.

“We essentially provide an infinite amount of energy to power these sensors,” Chao said. “You don’t need to change batteries at sea, which is a very expensive operation.”

The core technology is fairly new, developed by researchers at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“We are very unique, being renewable energy,” Chao said.

Seatrec commercialized the technology developed by the university, which holds the patent.

“It’s a classic textbook transfer of academic research into a commercial product,” Chao said.

“We anticipate we will expand our market more into commercial applications in the coming years, from offshore farming – growing seaweed – to maritime shipping underwater communication,” Chao said. “Blue tech is rapidly growing. This is the right decade, not only in the U.S. but also the United Nations has designated this the decade of the ocean. There’s a huge momentum to understand our oceans, to manage our resources, to provide biofuel and also to remove CO2 (carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere.”

Chao said San Diego County in general was attractive for a firm such as Seatec because the county is home to a growing cluster of blue-tech companies working on ocean research and the home of Scripps Institution of Technology in La Jolla.

“It’s not a bad place to live, that’s another pull,” Chao said.

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