Brunswick’s Loop Lab in downtown Chicago has an entirely different feel than the company’s new headquarters in Mettawa, Ill. Brunswick HQ is a modern design with free-flowing open spaces, glass offices and banks of windows overlooking a park. Architectural details representing Brunswick’s history are designed into the walls, and stadium-style bleachers are integrated into the extra-wide stairway connecting the two floors, so company meetings can be held in a somewhat informal atmosphere.
The Loop Lab, by contrast, is small, Spartan and unassuming. It’s a startup office where the seven employees of Brunswick’s newest venture, Nautic-On, spend long days tweaking a product they launched in May. There are images of prototypes taped to white walls, beside phrases designed to elicit discussions about the first product and how to tweak the new brand.
The team talks about the necessity of eliminating “pain points” in boating to make it more enjoyable and about developing an entirely new connectivity category called “Smart Boating.” It also refers to Nautic-On as a “living” brand.
“We view our company being somewhat different from other companies with five-year plans for their product lines,” Shelley Nelson, Nautic-On’s director of marketing, told Trade Only Today during a recent visit. “That isn’t our approach. We plan to be quick with adaptations to our products. That philosophy runs through our whole organization.”
Nautic-On, which in May launched a new app and product line for monitoring on-board functions, doesn’t have Brunswick anywhere in its name. It is a different kind of venture for the industry’s largest company. Brunswick has long been pushing innovation, gaining more than 100 patents each year, but Nautic-On is more like a startup than just another Brunswick division. The separate downtown office, small staff of mostly young, tech-savvy workers and no-frills approach to business seem more like a Silicon Valley startup than a corporate addition.
“Brunswick has been thinking about telematics for nearly 15 years,” said Adam Schanfield, Nautic-On’s general manager and a longtime Brunswick employee. “We have a binder for a telematics plan from 2003, but the technology at that point wasn’t good enough at that point to be cost-effective enough to impact the boating experience.”
The rush to develop the “Internet of things” forced Brunswick to revisit on-board connectivity several years ago. Schanfield and Mike Edwards, his co-leader with the business, spent nearly a year conducting research to confirm there was a need for a simple-to-use system to monitor and track a boat. “We learned that boaters want a better experience and that connectivity has the power and potential to deliver that experience,” he said.
After eight months of product development, Nautic-On launched the app-based system in May, with initial sales coming through its website. Nautic-On sells four options, which monitor a boat’s battery, bilge pumps, engines and position. The system has sensors that connect to the equipment and send data to a central hub that in turn relays that information to an owner’s smartphone, iPad or helm console. It is designed to work with Mercury’s SmartCraft, but it also has NMEA 2000 digital connectivity for other systems.
Schanfield realized early on that Nautic-On’s appeal would extend beyond Brunswick. “We decided to pursue this as a standalone brand that isn’t tied to Mercury or any of the Brunswick boatbuilders,” he said. “Like any other Brunswick company, we’re part of a portfolio of brands and expected to perform as a business.”
The product is aimed at boaters who keep their boats at marinas, away from home, so they can monitor systems that are most likely to cause trouble. “We realized that the most common complaint was the engine not starting, so we started the system with a battery monitor,” Schanfield said. “Then we decided to monitor the bilge pumps, since that is most likely to drain the battery.”
Nautic-On’s mantra has been “Smart Boating Made Easy,” and that has guided the development of the product. “We’ve designed it to improve the boating experience,” Schanfield said. “We’re modeling our system on consumer expectations of technology, similar to what you’d see in smart homes, smartphones or cars. We want that same level of technology on boats.”
The system is built with a waterproof housing and patented connectors. It passed through the same tests that other marine electronics or components go through to make sure they can stand up to in marine environment. “We were constantly weighing the desire to get it to market as quickly as possible with the need to stand behind the product as a Brunswick brand,” Schanfield said. “We took a few extra months to make sure we had the quality we needed to bring it to market.”
The long-term plan is to bring marine mechanics and other service providers into the Nautic-On umbrella so that the unit can also be used for servicing. “That’s fundamentally why it’s not just for Mercury or our boat brands,” Schanfield said. “We can’t be specific to any one engine or boat brand because the service providers work for other ones, too.”
Beyond service providers, the product will be targeted at operators of rental fleets because of the product’s geo-fencing capabilities to track boat movements.
Nautic-On plans to sell its products via the aftermarket and to boatbuilders. “Our goal is to build value for different parts of the boating industry,” Nelson said. “Our research will point us in the best direction to move forward with new features.”
Schanfield would not reveal future developments but said Nautic-On will be a different company a year from now. “It won’t be the same product line,” he said. “Whether it’s new software, app developments or hardware, we will have moved forward. We’re not like some startup that will disappear in six months. We plan to be around for the long haul.”
Will the latest Brunswick venture be successful? That remains to be seen. It’s only two months old and is still finding its way. It is also entering a new field Schanfield calls the “wild west.”
“The competitive landscape is muddy,” Schanfield said. “A lot of people are coming at the space from different directions. There are components suppliers from outside the industry, and marine electronics manufacturers and boatbuilders are also looking at it. It remains to be seen how it shakes out.”
Schanfield likens the current market to the old VHS/Betamax divide. “The approach that will be the most beneficial to boaters will eventually win,” he said. “We think we have the best architecture and components for the marine space. We believe we have the VCR.”