The CEO of underwater comms company Subnero on the future of navigating the world's deepest oceans

I am Generation T is a series of quick-fire Q&As with some of the extraordinary individuals on the Gen.T List.

Manu Ignatius is CEO of Subnero, a Singapore-based company that provides high-performance, wireless underwater communication, navigation, monitoring and sensing solutions to environmental, defence and oil and gas companies.

Growing up in Kerala, a coastal state of India, Ignatius had the ocean on his doorstep. He went on to complete an undergraduate degree in electronics and communication engineering, and now combines those subjects with his passion for the ocean. He talks to Gen.T about disruption, ambition and the book that changed his life. 

See also: I Am Generation T: Mica F Tan

Your area of work is particularly niche. What sparked your interest?
Growing up I was often around rivers and the ocean as a kid, and I enjoyed spending time in the rivers and on the beaches. Then eventually I moved to Singapore to do my Masters, and around that area there’s lots of really nice diving spots, so naturally that piqued my interest and immediately I got my diving certification. The underwater world is very, very different to what we see in our day-to-day life; it’s just so colourful and it’s fascinating. I also take a lot of photos; I’ve been taking photos for the last 15 to 20 years, and I’ve gotten into underwater photography too.

I did my Master’s in computer engineering with a focus on wireless networks, and then I eventually combined that with my love for the ocean and marine science to work as a research engineer at the Acoustic Research Laboratory.

What are your current priorities as CEO of Subnero?
I was there at the start of Subnero’s journey and all the way through as we’ve grown. Our vision at Subnero is to be the de facto standard for underwater communication and networks⁠—essentially, we want to provide all solutions for communication and networking.

I currently manage Subnero’s business activities across diverse sectors including defence, subsea engineering, water utilities and academia. I am responsible for organisational development including recruiting and building a world-class team, and leading the firm’s scalability initiatives.

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Above A Subnero underwater modem

Your products have been used by environmental, defence, and oil and gas companies. That’s a diverse range of industries: how does that impact how your products are used?
At the core of it, our technology enables its users to communicate and navigate efficiently, no matter what the application is––the fundamental use doesn't change much from domain to domain. That being said, if we don’t cater to different industries, it will negatively impact the customer experience. To address this, we have different editions and configurations of our products⁠—the same technology packaged into different forms to address different sectors and use cases.

Currently, your products allow humans to better navigate the underwater world. In the future, what else do you hope to achieve through Subnero?
We tend to take communication infrastructure or things like mobile phones and the internet for granted these days, and we don’t think about it day to day, but that’s really different in the marine world. Say, for example, an oil or gas company wants to come and study the health of a coral reef, they can’t just go and deploy some sensors to get that information; instead they have to start from scratch by laying out some infrastructure there for that one specific purpose. Naturally, this drives up the cost of the whole thing to prohibitive levels, meaning many people can’t do the things they’d like to do. That’s where we come in: we want to provide infrastructure that people can take advantage of, some of which will be operated by operators, and then there will be users who will just pay a subscription fee.

Essentially, at the moment we see underwater communications as similar to old analogue telephone lines, where the communication links are from point A to point B. But in the future we hope to have a true internet of underwater things, where any devices—mostly it will be things rather than humans—will be able to connect to the internet as we do on land today without setting up customised networks.

We tend to take communication infrastructure or things like mobile phones and the internet for granted these days, and we don’t think about it day to day, but that’s really different in the marine world

- Manu Ignatius -

The theme of the Gen.T Asia Summit is breaking barriers. As you’ve become more experienced since starting Subnero, how has your ability to overcome obstacles evolved?
One thing that I learned from overcoming obstacles in my past is that there are a lot of rules and guidelines, and I used to just follow them, never considering them fully or questioning them––which can considerably impede your ability to solve obstacles. So, while the guidelines or rules might have been put there because somebody thought it best at the time, they might not be correct any more at your current point in time.

What do you see as the next disruptor in your industry?
Something I think will be a disruptor is big data and data mining—though I might be totally off because I am trying to predict the future here. In the past, the marine and subsea industry has always been very traditional and slow to change. However, the fast-moving technology world is disrupting industry after industry these days and I believe the marine and offshore industry is also going to be disrupted—and I believe that what we are doing at Subnero is also part of that disruption.

Data sharing between organisations has started to become more common, and the more we have access to this data, the more we can learn from others’ past mistakes, and soon people will begin to leverage that data to build applications and solutions much faster than before.

What advice would you give a younger you?
Take more risks. If I had taken a few more risks I might have been able to find this particular domain earlier, and in turn, I might have been able to achieve slightly more in the same duration of time.

Where do you want to be in 10 years?
I would like to make Subnero a world-class brand where anyone related to the ocean industry will know us—similar to how Google or Microsoft is a household name.

What was your greatest failure and what did it teach you?
I don’t think there was any one failure that shaped me, more a multitude of smaller failures that shaped who I am now—one of which is what I mentioned earlier: not taking enough risks.

What’s a book that changed your life?
So I don't know yet whether it has changed my life, but one book that has really helped me is How Google Works by Eric Schmidt. Google has grown from a startup to what it is now, where it influences all of our lives in ways that we can’t even imagine or comprehend. Some of the principles that helped make that transformation happen are explained in the book, and it provides lots of good points for you to reflect on as you move forward in your company.

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Above A Subnero 'robot swan' sensor to monitor water quality in Singapore

What productivity hacks do you swear by?
My own version of the GTD, which is a popular time management method called Getting Things Done. Essentially, I refined it further by using a combination of to-do lists and my calendar, where I have specific time slots explaining what I have to do at each time. So whenever there is a task—let's say I get an email which I have to do something about—I will add that to a calendar if it’s a big task, but if it’s a small task that takes less than five minutes then I will immediately respond, so in my inbox at the end of the day, I have a guideline that I must have five or less emails. It’s simple but effective.

Do you have a mentor?
Dr Mandar Chitre, head of ARL and associate professor in the Electrical Engineering Department of National University of Singapore is my teacher, mentor and guide. Without him, I wouldn't have been what I am today. He started by teaching me technical insights in the domain—I took his class back in 2009 while doing my masters—and he continues to mentor me in my role as a tech CEO, and is always there for me.

Where do you seek inspiration?
Inspiration for me comes in all different ways. Going out at sea, whether it is for a diving trip or a sea trial for field testing, definitely gives me a sense of purpose in what I am doing. Also when I’m travelling, I get to meet a lot of people from different walks of life, and talking to them is another source of inspiration. Sometimes, pop culture or some fictional characters—for example Hermione Granger or Anakin Skywalker—motivate me too.

See other honourees from the Engineering, Manufacturing and Energy category of the Gen.T List 2019.

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