The Futurenauts: Martin Kits van Heyningen

The Futurenauts

As part of our mission to chart shipping and maritime’s technology-enabled future, we’re profiling some of the people shaping that future.

Kits van Heyningen Martin

Founder, President, Chairman & CEO of KVH Industries, Martin Kits van Heyningen

Founded in the family basement in 1982 by Arent, Robert, and Martin Kits van Heyningen, KVH Industries has grown into a maritime satellite communications heavyweight. From its origins developing the world’s first digital compass for use in racing yachts, KVH’s position today is as a leading manufacturer of global high-speed Internet, television, and voice solutions via satellite to mobile users; market share leader in global maritime VSAT, and the maritime industry’s leading provider of rights-approved news, sport, music and movies.

As Founder, President, Chairman and Chief Executive of the company Martin Kits van Heyningen has steered it from it’s comparatively humble roots to a concern employing more than 500 people around the world. KVH’s success has been built upon innovation, a willingness to confront engineering challenges and a liking for disruptive ideas. In future it includes contributing to the potential of unmanned systems for improving human lives amongst its goals.

As one of the industry’s serial innovators we were interested to get Martin’s views on disruption, technology and shipping 3.0. As you might expect, they are well worth reading. We’re grateful to him for spending time with us and becoming our final Futurenaut of 2014. Here’s what he had to say:

Futurenautics: You started out as Sailcomp in 1982, but soon changed your name to KVH Industries, because it was a name that would cover any future development. Is that an insight into the way you approached the business back then—an acknowledgment that change was inevitable perhaps?—and does that approach still hold true today?

Martin KVH: We founded Sailcomp Industries, which later became KVH, in my family’s basement. At the time we were focused on the sailboat market, our first production product was the digital compass used in sailboat racing. The compass was actually developed as part of a larger effort around the first racing computer for sailing— in a project for France 3 in the 1980 America’s Cup—so we were thinking the Sailcomp name was broad enough to cover our future ambitions—compass and computer.

It wasn’t very long after we started that our sailing customers began calling up asking us about versions of our compass for other applications. The obvious application was powerboats, but we soon started getting involved in military projects.In the 1980s our compasses were selected by the U.S. Marine Corps for their AAV7 Amphibious Vehicles and the US Navy for their landing craft and to replace the binnacle compasses on their ships. When we realized the large number of diverse requirement for an electronic way to determine direction, we changed the name to the broader KVH Industries in 1986. We didn’t know what was coming, but we had a pretty good idea that we wouldn’t be doing the same thing 30 years later.

Futurenautics: The KVH mini-VSAT broadband network now has the largest market share in maritime, but at launch it represented a very ambitious concept. It’s been a huge success for KVH and changed the maritime satcoms market, but how much of its success do you think was down to timing, and how much down to disruptive innovation?

Martin KVH: When we entered the maritime satcoms market there was one dominant MSS L-band player, Inmarsat, and literally 78 companies that sold maritime VSAT services. We surveyed the market and found that 90% of customers said they were unsatisfied or extremely unsatisfied with either the speeds or the prices, or both. We had just finished an ambitious project designing a flat panel phased array antenna for satellite TV for the automotive market. The product was a hit, but not a homerun for us. When I analyzed why, I realized that it was because we didn’t control the network. The size of our antenna was determined by the satellite provider, the modulation schemes and the earth station equipment. Nothing we could do on the receive side antenna would change that.

That actually prompted us to take a clean sheet approach to the marine market, designing antennas, modems, hubs and network all to work together. That enabled us to build small shipboard antennas that delivered super-fast data speeds. When we entered the market, we were number 79 out of 79 players. The other 78 guys were all making the same mistake we did in the automotive market, building big expensive antennas to work with a network that was designed for stationary land use.

So you are right, it was risky. We had to build out our own global network while all our competitors could simply use what was already there. In the end, I think we have proved that our approach was superior. But when we launched our network before we had even a single customer…it was pretty frightening!

If you fear failure too much, the organization becomes conservative and innovation is stifled. Better testing leads to risk taking by the creative and engineering teams–because failure is caught early and not punished.

Futurenautics: KVH operates in a very high-tech environment where innovation is key. Alongside your successes there must have been failures along the way. What is your attitude to experimentation and failure and how important do you think that’s been?

KVH's IP MobileCast platform

KVH’s IP MobileCast platform

Martin KVH: There are lots of smart people who believe that successful people and successful companies fail more often than unsuccessful ones. Which means that you have to be able to take risks. Is it a failure if 10 prototypes don’t work before the 11th one does? I don’t think so. We’ve always taken big risks as a company. Perhaps the riskiest thing we do is to create a product for a market that doesn’t yet exist. Then you are stuck with trying to invent a product and convince people that they need it even though they don’t think they do. We become pioneers, and we all know what happens to the pioneers, they are the ones with the arrows in their backs!

My attitude towards failure is that you must think of it as the opportunity to succeed. When we launch a risky new technology in an unproven market, we do so knowing that by proceeding, we have the opportunity to become successful. If we do nothing, we don’t have that opportunity. Over time, our products improve dramatically. We have a closed loop quality system where feedback and failure analysis drive product design changes.

If you fear failure too much, the organization becomes conservative and innovation is stifled. How do you get the engineers and design teams to be willing to take more risk? You automate the test systems. If you try something quickly and run it through an automated testing process, you can immediately see if your idea works or if it creates problems elsewhere in the system.  This is an area we are working on right now. Better testing leads to risk taking by the creative and engineering teams—because failure is caught early and not punished.

Futurenautics: Shipping 1.0 was sail, Shipping 2.0 was steam, Shipping 3.0 is digital, and connectivity is at the heart of that digital transformation. As next‐gen HTS services come online what are the key challenges that connectivity suppliers need to be tackling to help ship operators make that digital transformation?

Martin KVH: We very much believe that the shipping industry will be transformed by access to affordable ways to transmit data and content to and from vessels. The problem is shipping companies have spent the last 30 years focusing on IT strategies designed to NOT use connectivity due to the ridiculously high costs of the legacy satellite services. The economies and efficiency of access to the Internet and cloud-based applications are too well documented on land to deny. The need for access to current data to meet new regulatory requirements, to improve crew living conditions, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save bunker through improved voyage planning, deliver charts electronically, and meet new training requirements will drive adoption.

New satellite services using HTS technology will offer the next major enhancement to maritime satellite services. We’re looking forward to enhancing our mini-VSAT network using this technology in areas where we have concentrations of customers in one region. KVH works with leading satellite providers like Viasat, Intelsat, Eutelsat, SES, and Skyperfect JSAT, so we feel we’re in a great position to leverage new technology and enhance the value of the airtime packages we offer our customer.

Futurenautics: SMAC—social, mobile, analytics and cloud—is a buzz acronym at the moment. Does it apply for KVH, and how should it apply for other maritime companies?

Martin KVH: We really see the desire to access social media, mobile connectivity, data analytics, and cloud-based services as the megatrends of our world that are creating opportunities in every business area imaginable. KVH is absolutely focused on ways that we can eliminate the barriers that have slowed adoption of these various technologies by the maritime industry.

Crewtoo , the largest seafarers social network is part of the KVH group

Crewtoo , the largest seafarers social network with over 100,000 members, is part of the KVH group

We’re doing this by introducing new connectivity options, like our mini-VSAT Broadband service; by introducing new ways of moving huge amounts of data from shore to ship, like our IP-MobileCast Content Delivery service; through our Crewtoo social media site for seafarers, and by working with leading application providers like Transas, Jeppesen, and AWT to deliver their content and allow them to efficiently collect feedback from their customers. We have over 100,000 seafarers on our Crewtoo social network. It’s a great way for us to gauge to pulse of the industry and to stay in touch with the end users.

We’ve spoken to many of the application providers in the maritime industry over the past two years, and most of them have a lot of innovative ideas to expand their services by leveraging new connectivity conduits to the vessel. Our vision is to be the enabling technology for a lot of these applications, so there are a many exciting announcements to come.

Futurenautics: You’ve acquired a variety of businesses, most recently Videotel, and the CrewToo social network is part of the group. You started out a family company, how important is it both operationally and culturally to integrate people within the organisation? How do you deploy technology to facilitate that? And how do you move from owning a company to leading it successfully?

Martin KVH: In my experience, great companies are built by great people, so making our new colleagues from companies we’ve acquired feel like integral members of the KVH team is a huge priority for us.
We formed an integration team that met weekly to enable our existing employees to communicate with their new colleagues and facilitate a smooth transition. We added new colleagues to appropriate cross-functional teams for new product developments, as the technology from our acquisitions is often something we see as an important enhancement to our current products or services.

We insist on eliminating “us and them” orientation in favour of “we”, deeply integrating people in common projects, to the point that distinctions between different companies quickly begin to fade away.
From a technology point of view, we definitely leverage tools like video conferencing in all of our conference rooms around the world, phone systems with video screens and local dialing numbers for international connections within the company, and cloud-based networks for storing data that can be accessed almost anywhere in the world.

We also employ a social networking tool called Chatter. This enables our folks from all over the world to post what they are working on, ask questions, show pictures of products in use or our booth at a trade show. It’s just another way to keep people engaged and interested. Half the battle in business is to get everyone on the same page and focused. As the company grows, it’s important for everyone to know what the plan is. Prior to our strategy meeting, I ask our new team members for input. They also participate in the corporate SWOT analysis. If we didn’t see the new company being key to our future success, we wouldn’t have made the acquisition.

Futurenautics: You operate in commercial maritime, but you’re also very active with significant technology projects and companies outside the maritime sphere. How important is that broader view when it comes to serving the maritime industry as it moves into Shipping 3.0?

Martin KVH: When we look at innovative new ideas for the maritime market, we’re almost always inspired by the “best of breed” innovations we see in other markets. For example, we looked at internet delivered entertainment in the home viewable on iPads and ask, “why can’t we do the same thing onboard ships?” Then we think about problems specific to ships at sea, and work through those one by one until we come up with a viable solution, which again is usually leveraging a technology designed for much larger land-based applications. For example, in the case of our IP-MobileCast service, we’re using maritime VSAT multicasting technology to send content, transmission technology invented to transmit feature films to movie theatres to assure files arrive on the ship in the identical form they are transmitted, digital rights management technology invented for home viewing of copyrighted content, and playout viewing technology invented for home multi-channel TV services.

Futurenautics: We’ve identified collaboration as one key area of Shipping 3.0. We reported last issue about your partnership with Jeppesen and you’re also working with Transas to deliver services over the MobileCast system. Do partnerships like these represent a clear strategy? What’s the end‐game?

Martin KVH: When we look at connectivity to the vessels from the point of view of our customers, we need two main elements. The first is two-way voice and data communications that is unique to each vessel. This is the focus of the traditional satellite communications industry. The second involves delivering large files like charts, weather forecasts, movies, and training courses, that are common to all vessels. This is where collaboration and partnerships become important.

All companies that offer services delivered to ships in large data files have a delivery problem. It is a pain in the neck for both the service creator and the shipping company to get a DVD containing a chart or movie, for example, from the place it is made to ships travelling the world. Delivery companies aren’t always reliable. DVD’s can be held up in customs or misplaced at the dock. Port times are getting shorter and shorter so the margin for error continues to get smaller. Once onboard the ship there is the need to assure the DVD is actually loaded into the targeted device.

Working with companies like Transas, Jeppesen and AWT, as well as delivering the content from our own KVH Media Group and Videotel services, is a core part of the end-to-end solution. We’re delivering terabytes of data to every vessel, on a global basis, at little or no cost. There’s no other service in the maritime industry that matches this.

Web_iPadThe end-game of this strategy is we deliver the content that our customers really need to operate their vessels or entertain their crews, while also reducing the traffic on our network that will be caused by individual crew members trying to individually download all of these files themselves. This allows KVH to offer a really high quality connectivity service for the unique data and voice communications that ships need, at a reasonable price that is significantly lower than anything offered by competing services—made possible by moving large content files over our network using a more efficient technology.

We’re inspired by the “best of breed”innovations we see in other markets. We looked at internet delivered entertainment in the home viewable on iPads and asked, “why can’t we do the same thing onboard ships?

Futurenautics: In maritime big data and connectivity are inextricably linked, but KVH doesn’t have a data analytics business as part of the offering. Is it just a question of time?

Martin KVH: You are right. It’s just a matter of time. We want to be in the solutions business. We are always interested in our customer’s problems, and are having great discussions with our application service partners about the future services that will be enabled by enhanced, affordable connectivity. Short term you will see enhanced versions of our application partners’ services and our own eLearning and distance learning courses. In the case of data analytics, moving and collecting data for easy access is clearly part of our end-to-end solution.

Running ships to a cost target takes as input variables, fuel, crew costs, day rates, port fees, late charges, commodity costs—safety parameters like parametric roll is a very interesting area for future development. The primary control parameters are simply speed and heading. Using all those variables, you end up with a true “least cost routing” solution!

Futurenautics: DNV GL have identified that connectivity is the prerequisite for shipping’s digital future and predicted we’ll see unmanned or autonomous ships entering the market by 2025. Some argue we don’t have the connectivity necessary to deliver that, and there’s a big difference between Google’s self‐driving car and a supertanker. What’s your view?

Martin KVH: I disagree. The concept of a self-driving car is for it to be autonomous. That means it has to be able to use local sensors to measure and interpret a large number of variables to safely and successful navigate city streets and busy highways. It doesn’t communicate at all. It makes decisions on getting from point “A” to point “B” safely. If a harbour pilot steers a vessel out of the port of San Francisco, could an autopilot safely make the decisions to steer the vessel to a point where it could be picked up by a pilot offshore of Singapore? Would that really be more difficult than operating a vehicle in traffic, avoiding pedestrians and unforeseen hazards? Self driving cars can already recognize a bicyclist who puts his hand out to indicate that he is going to move out to avoid an obstacle. It’s actually a much more difficult problem than an unmanned vessel.

In order for these roboships to be truly safe, they have to be able to make decisions on their own in the absence of connectivity. A failure in the data link cannot result in ships being out of control or dangerous. Before we get full autonomy, you can have remote control. This would of course be dependent on connectivity. An example is demonstrated in a video produced by Boeing of an F16 fighter plane being flown remotely, including taking off, manoeuvring at high speeds, and landing (click here to watch the video). In this case, the aircraft had pilots, they were just remotely located on the ground. It makes you wonder, is operating a large ship remotely more difficult than flying one of the world’s most advanced military aircraft?

A Boeing QF-16 completing its first pilotless flight over the New Mexico desert;

A Boeing QF-16 completing its first pilotless flight over the New Mexico desert;

There are also an abundance of duties that were once performed onboard the ship that are now performed onshore and transmitted to the ship. Today, that has moved administrative tasks onshore, and made advanced services like telemedicine, computer repair, and equipment monitoring and repair available onboard the ship without physical human visits. In both cases, the need for people onboard the vessel to perform specific necessary duties has been reduced.
The next major area of outside control on a vessel will probably involve voyage planning. With the new greenhouse gas emission regulations and more expensive fuels that are involved, route planning and vessel compliance with instructions relating to course and speed will become more of a vessel management priority. Courses may be remotely transmitted to the vessel and available for entry into the navigation system, but some sort of human confirmation will undoubtedly be required. Deviations from planned courses, navigation errors, and Captains’ decisions to ignore voyage planning recommendations will be reduced, ultimately resulting in safer voyages, and greater profitability through reduced fuel costs and accidents.

Futurenautics: We’re almost a year on from Typhoon Haiyan when KVH was first to offer free satellite telephone calls and local‐language newspapers to Filipino seafarers. What prompted that decision and what does it tell us about KVH and the other maritime companies who followed its lead in donating services, support and money?

Martin KVH: During Typhoon Haiyan we were deeply disturbed by the news stories coming out of the Philippines. So many of our customers’ seafarers are from the Philippines that we wanted to do something. Captain Kuba Szymanski, the Secretary General of InterManager, sent me an email asking if we could offer a discount to help Filipino seafarers contact their families back home to see if they were all right.  I thought free would be even better.  From my point of view, this was just a very obvious need that we were happy to be able to help fulfil. The response was phenomenal.  We gave away over 600,000 minutes of voice calls.  It really made us realize how important it was for us to become the “voice of the seafarer”.  We see our role and our mission to be able to improve connectivity and to improve the quality of life for the crew at sea.  It’s a big driver for me personally with our IP-MobileCast entertainment and crew welfare solution.

Futurenautics: Which do you think are the most potentially disruptive digital businesses in maritime at the moment?

Martin KVH: We’re very interested in maritime applications that parallel land-based cloud-based services which will be enabled by new affordable connectivity and content delivery. On land, internet-delivered news, sports, tv, and movie content, along with the proliferation of tablets, smartphones, and other personal devices, are changing the way people are entertained. We’ve been looking for ways to deliver this kind of content to vessels in the middle of the ocean for the past 15 years, and finally have the mechanism to affordably deliver these huge multimedia files with our IP-MobileCast service.

As far as disruptive digital businesses in the maritime market, we see how distance learning is changing the whole education market on land, and we believe it will have a huge impact at sea as well. A new generation of seafarers, raised with internet access, game systems, and abundant multimedia need to be trained with high quality, entertaining multimedia content. New STCW, MLC, and SOLAS regulations are going to create significant new requirements for training courses, and automated systems to monitor individual seafarer’s training and test their capabilities. Equipment is becoming more complex, requiring training to operate.

Our vision is a consistent, high quality, distance learning service that enables seafarers onboard vessels to take courses and demonstrate their competency with centralized, shore-based instructors and collaborate with other students working on the same class work. The efficiency of distance learning is well documented on shore, and will deliver a much higher quality result at a lower cost to shipping companies. The ability to record and plan individual seafarer’s training and create reports on demand will be necessary to demonstrate compliance with new regulations. The seafarers themselves will be happier when they know they have a way to improve their skills and qualify for advancement and higher paying positions.

Futurenautics: What advice would you give to someone with a killer technology idea for the maritime market?

Martin KVH: I would advise them to begin by asking three questions: “What important problem am I solving for my customer?”, “How does my customer currently solve this problem?”, and “Does my new idea offer my customer a simpler and less expensive solution or another advantage that will be so important to them that they will select my new idea over their current solution?” New technology ideas seem to come and go with the tide in the maritime industry. The industry itself is understandably conservative in adopting new technology, due to the risk of potentially taking a ship out of service if the technology fails. New technology that is relevant, solves important customer problems, and/or saves a lot of money is interesting, but it must be proven and endorsed by respected customers before it will really be successful. And finally, even if the new technology idea is terrific, you have to be sure that it can be a new product or company as opposed to a nice new feature in someone else’s product.

Futurenautics: What will be the next major technology disruption in shipping? Who will it most affect?

Martin KVH: Perhaps it will be something not in the maritime space at all.  Airships?  People are working on designing heavy lift vehicles that are somewhere between cargo ships and airplanes.  Extremely large blimps that are motorized, can carry tons of cargo but travel much slower than aircraft, but still a lot faster than ships.  Imagine something that could deliver containerized freight much closer to the point of consumption—delivery to and from inland factories, not just to coastal ports.  Airfreighting steel is absurd, but delivery by airship could be a game changer.

Futurenautics: If, as seems likely, shipping changes radically, what will you miss least, and what will you miss most?

Martin KVH: Hopefully ships don’t become fully autonomous so that nobody needs our onboard entertainment solutions anymore!

Futurenautics: What was the last piece of technology—consumer, industrial or professional—which made you say “Wow!”?

Martin KVH: I’m an early adopter. It’s a horrible affliction because it means that I have to buy the first of everything. I’m naturally curious and love technology. I say “wow” a lot. Things like the Nest thermostat, the FLIR thermal imaging solution in my car that recognizes and draws a yellow box around pedestrians, stabilized platforms that let crew safely walk onto a stationary rig or windmill even in 10 meter seas.

Martin Kits van Heyningen is the Founder & CEO of KVH Industries.
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Images courtesy KVH Industries/Getty Images/Boeing

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