Virtual Marine’s deep dives lead to international growth
Posted on October 12, 2021 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments
Capt. Anthony (Tony) Patterson’s speeches tend to invoke images of the ocean on its fiercest days, even if he doesn’t intend it. It might be the nautical phrases. Passionate about marine safety, he is board chair of Virtual Marine Technology (Virtual Marine) and managing director of its growing business arm: Virtual Marine Training.
Virtual Marine Training was only officially established in February, being a natural step-out for the marine simulator technology company, managing increasing demand for training programming. Patterson is in the process of steering this piece of the business through a rapid expansion in the company’s global training reach. The expansion includes sales representation agreements and a planned addition of training centres internationally. That’s in addition to an existing, four bases of operation for Virtual Marine: Doha, Aberdeen, St. John’s and Louisiana.
Training centres draw clients but can also be jumping off points to reach trainees even further afield, given Virtual Marine’s compact QuestTM modular virtual reality desktop simulator and training options. The company describes the physical units as having the ability to switch from lifeboat to fast rescue boat to fast rescue craft training.
Interest has been spiking. However, as Patterson shared at the recent Noia conference in St. John’s, Virtual Marine’s journey in the international marketplace has not been one of only fair winds and following seas. And he had some advice for other technology companies looking to grow internationally with hardware behind them.
Focusing on the company’s lifeboat training simulator development, he said Virtual Marine saw a problem it might help address, given the number of injuries over time in some traditional live training exercises in offshore lifeboat deployment. The company zoned in on lifeboats for offshore oil facilities. Could staff competency be tested virtually, using dedicated simulation, as well as in live exercises?
Virtual Marine’s early simulator was a product no one could really use when it was first built, Patterson said. Its functions needed to be tailored to a specific environment, to vessel specifications. It needed to be tested by potential client companies. It needed regulatory approval from multiple regulators. Eventually, a milestone was reached.
“The very first users of a lifeboat simulator to train coxswains anywhere in the world was here on the Hibernia platform,” he said. An earlier SurvivalQuest-model simulator from Virtual Marine was installed right on the platform in 2013. From there, interest in the virtual training option grew.
The next step was taking what was tailored to the local jurisdiction and talking about it with potential customers elsewhere, establishing what would meet their own needs. Again, it’s all in the detail. Patterson said, for example, a simulation specific to Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore will not translate directly to the North Sea or the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a mistake for any business not to ace their homework on the specifics of each market’s sales landscape, regulatory demands and operational needs. Basically, make sure it works for people where they are.
“These subtle differences (in operations) will enable you to proceed or not,” he said, explaining how related research efforts have been essential for Virtual Marine in proving to different regulators and customers what the company is offering. Regulators have to review their standards, to determine whether or not to allow virtual training. They then consider Virtual Marine’s specific product. At the same time, the potential client companies need to consider their needs and budgets.
Virtual Marine has tackled a “deep dive” with prospective clients, each looking at new international expansion. It isn’t just conferences or joining industry associations as you get a foot in. It’s getting down to the working groups, to the industry’s specifics. Apart from a safety component, Patterson found notable consistency and value-for-money concerns when people talked about safety training.
“Normally you don’t talk about safety and money in the same breath,” said the master mariner, former officer with the Canadian Coast Guard and former senior officer in maritime search and rescue operations. “But it’s important to note the companies are investing a lot of money into safety and they want to use that money wisely.”
He said his team found the status-quo training in some cases sees most of the safety budget getting spent on hotels and airlines instead of tuition. And live training courses often had people spending a large portion of time just waiting for their turn at the controls. In the pandemic, flying staff to and from a select few international training centres for live training offered an additional hurdle given travel restrictions. It’s all added up to a clear value proposition for the company, Patterson said, and wave of current interest.
The work isn’t over, with each new frontier demanding close examination and building from the ground up and requiring new business relationships. “(But) I would say to anyone else who is following this path, you have to pretty well follow that journey. You have to deeply understand exactly what it is your target market for this brand new, disruptive technology you’ve created really wants and what value you’re really going to get,” he said.
The Virtual Marine of today has been years in the making. Patterson joined as president and CEO in 2007, coming from a former position as director of Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador’s Fisheries and Marine Institute Centre for Marine Simulation. He’s worked since to prove Virtual Marine’s technology for regulators and professional bodies, including with the International Maritime Organization. With the launch of Virtual Marine Training in February, Virtual Marine co-founder and chief technology officer Randy Billard has taken on the mantle of Virtual Marine president and CEO, allowing Patterson to dedicate himself to managing the growth in the training business.
This week, Virtual Marine announced a new market representation agreement with SAFER Training (Scotland) Ltd. The agreement will see SAFER become a representative for Virtual Marine products in the United Kingdom, Qatar and several other countries where SAFER is already active.
“Our past relationship with Virtual Marine has focused primarily on joint provision of OPITO-approved lifeboat coxswain training services. Extending our commercial relationship to include frontline sales is a natural progression and builds on SAFER’s deep understanding of the pedagogical applications of Virtual Marine’s technology and forms a solid foundation of successful projects together with Virtual Marine,” said SAFER managing director Ian McMillin, in a statement. SAFER’s head office is in Liverpool and the company has a dedicated coxswain lifeboat training facility in Aberdeen.
With a nod to SAFER’s reputation, Virtual Marine’s vice president of sales, Clayton Burry, called the partnership an “important step forward” in Virtual Marine’s desire to expand its global sales network.
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