Ben Kinnaman develops technology (hardware and software) that controls multimillion-dollar underwater robotic vehicles. A former diver and a historical shipwreck enthusiast, Kinnaman owns Greensea Systems, a company whose technology supports cutting-edge research in the deepest parts of the ocean, studying sunken ships, land mines, marine life and other phenomena.
VL: Why are you based in Richmond, Vt.?
BK: We are based in a tiny little town, very deliberately so, because it matches the values that me and my wife have. We decided when were were going to grow the company, it was going to be in our town and our community.
VL: How did you land here?
BK: My wife and I were doing the two-dimensional lifestyle in Baltimore, and I had been developing the concept of Greensea’s core technology. It coincided with my wife and I being in the position to think about starting a family, and we sure as hell didn’t want to do it in Washington, D.C., or Baltimore. We’d been coming to Vermont for years: hiking in the summer, leaf-peeping in the fall, skiing in the winter and everything in between. I decided to pursue this technical concept. When we moved to Vermont we hadn’t started the company, I didn’t have a job. So off we came. It was lifestyle.
VL: How would you put that lifestyle into words?
BK: The values of the community, of preserving the natural world, of being able to live and work and play. My wife and I are pretty healthy people and we value what we do with our bodies and put in our bodies. And it’s just beautiful. It’s hard to describe, it just felt good [here]. When we were visiting we would come to towns like Richmond and at 2:30 in the afternoon when school let out, we saw kids walking down the street, not a grownup in sight. And we saw families and kids out at the parks and families together up on the ski hill. And my wife and I lived a lot of places and we felt like we just didn’t see that anymore.
VL: What do you get out of the Vermont workforce?
BK: You get well-rounded people. The best tech comes from big minds, and minds who engage in all aspects of life. The best technology does not come from sitting on an interstate for two hours a day transitioning from home to business and living a two-dimensional life. If we really want to think about growing creativity and growing technology, it comes from three-dimensional minds and three-dimensional minds are attracted to bigger lifestyles. Like Vermont offers.
VL: What was your perception of Vermont’s tech scene before you moved here?
BK: It was pretty grim. I kind of felt like we were setting up a snow cone shop in the desert.
VL: Was your perception confirmed?
BK: That was 10 years ago. I feel that the state, especially Chittenden County, has really started to foster a tech community. The Vermont Technology Alliance, Tech Jam, Generator and FIRST have done a terrific job of creating fertile soil for tech in Vermont, while financial organizations and local lenders are helping tech entrepreneurs raise capital to grow here. I am excited about the growing technical community and what the future holds for technology in Vermont.
VL: Do you work with other Vermont companies?
BK: We try to keep as much local as feasible. We’ve developed a very strong network of subcontractors, for fabrication, machine shops and sheet metal fabrication. We’ve put a lot of effort into training local suppliers for the unique requirements of our industry. We buy computers from Logic Supply. That’s worked out well.
VL: How do you find new hires?
BK: We’ve been really successful with our internship program. Vermont Technical College has a committed philosophy of valuing co-op experience and they value developing an engineering curriculum based on experience. If I have two resumes in front of me and all things are basically the same, and one of them has experience and one of them doesn’t, it’s a no-brainer. I would even say if I have two resumes in front of me and one is from a big whammer-jammer school somewhere and I have one from VTC with a year of experience as an intern, there’s no question.
VL: How do we grow interest and talent in tech?
BK: It has to be done through application. We use the excitement of shipwrecks to engage children in STEM — we do an ROV summer camp each year at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, and the kids build a robot to see a shipwreck in the lake.
VL: What was it like to see pilot a vehicle to view the Titanic?
BK: It was pretty amazing. I’m a pretty big shipwreck junkie. It’s a spectacular shipwreck.
VL: Do you have a favorite wreck?
BK: The first wreck I ever worked on was Queen Anne’s Revenge. It was Black Beard’s pirate ship. As far as wrecks go it’s not terribly spectacular. But eh … we all have our soft spots for our first time, right?