Meet the innovator making waves in the green marine sector

Ecomar Propulsion is about to sell its first electric outboard motors for boats to a client in the Maldives, and recently participated in Connected Places Catapult’s Maritime Accelerator.

Racing past a harbour master’s office at four times the permitted speed is one way to make an impression in your new electric boat, but for entrepreneur Eugene Bari it was worth the telling off.

“He wasn’t very pleased that we broke the rules of the river, and wanted to know what we were doing,” Eugene recalls. “But after a chat, he asked if he could have a go – just not quite as fast!”

The boat in question was a battery-electric, zero emission ‘throttle to prop’ powered craft, which a small, dedicated team from his engineering firm Ecomar Propulsion designed and built in Hampshire. “That first day on the water was amazing, although I was nervous; wondering if it would ever work,” he adds.

For the last eight years, the self-confessed “maritime obsessive” has been focused on creating environmentally sustainable, electric and hybrid hydrogen propulsion systems for boats.

Eugene began by creating fuel-cell batteries “out of cast-offs lying around in sheds” and reconditioning old engines and propellers; putting them all together, armed with a soldering iron in one hand and “a lot of bruised fingers” on the other.

Now the company is designing inboard and outboard motors for boats ranging from eight metres in length up to 46m long commercial craft; to be fitted by German, British and Danish boat builders from next year.

Eugene’s first client is based in the Maldives, and will shortly take delivery of a shipment of outboard motors to install on boats carrying tourists between the mainland and remote islands. Use of zero emission boats is apposite for the low-lying archipelago, given the threat of rising sea levels due to the climate crisis.

Ecomar Propulsion was part of a maritime decarbonisation group welcomed on to the Transport Research and Innovation Grants programme in 2021, and was invited to join Connected Places Catapult’s Maritime Accelerator last year.

“In one sense we were quite mature as a company, but we needed help to make connections. The Catapult also provided useful third party oversight of what we do.”

Eugene adds that the Catapult helped “to open doors” and make introductions to senior decision makers in Government. “We took part in a conference in Newcastle in March which helped to give us more credibility and raise our profile.”

Time for a new approach

Maritime is a sector ripe for developing green technologies, he explains. “People have been building boats since before Noah, and diesel motors have been around for the best part of 100 years. But the transition to zero emission propulsion is important ­– and it is happening now.”

The process of building electric and hybrid hydrogen boats is, however, anything but straightforward. “You are looking at something that’s really complicated; but working it all out is exciting.”

Providing sufficient performance from a battery to power a boat is more difficult than with road vehicles, he adds. “There is a constant resistance from the sea and there are tides to contend with. Once you have disconnected from shore, you are entirely on your own.

“I’ve spent the majority of my life surrounded by petrolheads, and some people were looking at what we were doing and saying it will never happen.” Switching from fossil fuelled boats to sustainable craft represents, he adds, “a big shift in mindset”.

But progress is being made. “The transformation in the last eight years has been extraordinary. When my idea first came to me, people thought it was madness. We looked to see what technologies were available and at that point, I could make a three horsepower motor propel a dingy across a lake for 10 minutes.”

As the transformation towards sustainable propulsion in the automotive sector started, people began to accept that it could work for the maritime sector too.

Eugene’s commitment to developing zero emission propulsion systems for boats was spurred on by his daughter, who told her father “either to do it, or stop moaning about it”.

“It’s no good sitting on the sidelines and saying how things should be,” he reflects. “But when you’re the person who decides to try something new, you open yourself up to a world of ridicule and disparaging comments. So you have two choices: either hide, or build a skin like a rhino.”

Early days

Eugene’s passion for sailing started at the age of nine when his father bought him a second-hand boat and they took it on to Lake Windermere. “It was one of the very first four stroke motors; most people were using two stroke at that time.”

A few years later Eugene had a stepfather who had been an electrician in the Danish Navy. The two of them worked to repair electrical systems on fishing boats, yachts and even ferries during the school holidays.

But he could not see a future for himself in maritime, so changed direction; studying at Leeds University before specialising in financial valuation and law at City University Business School. He made a living on construction and engineering projects in London and moved to Australia for six years around the turn of the Millennium.

He got “fed up with buildings”, so joined a powerboat racing company as a commercial director. “I brought my finance, engineering and structural skills together to help build the biggest race series in the world; I was really proud of what we were doing.”

Eugene naturally found himself taking to the water, but “discovered very quickly that I’m not a racer; I’m much more of an innovator.” He decided it was time to leave the world of racing behind and set up Ecomar Propulsion to build boats himself.

Cleaner, greener technology

“Our core principle is that our systems produce no emissions whatsoever. We also look at how the products are made and can be recycled. Everything that goes into a boat should be able to be taken out at the end of its life, and be made into something else. If you are going to transition to a clean machine, it has to be green from cradle to grave.”

Regulation and legislation are coming to the fore, with the International Maritime Organisation discussing how best to decarbonise. “Everybody has to get on board, but until about three years ago there was resistance.

“People didn’t want to listen because – unlike automotive vehicles – boats will be on the water for 30, 40 or 50 years, so a change represents such a massive investment. But now we are seeing that change.”

He adds that while vast sums of money go into developing power systems in the automotive and aviation sectors, maritime vessels are controlled by relatively few companies, with specialists involved in developing propulsion being very few in number.

Looking to the future

Eugene’s priorities for the medium term include selling more products to customers and closing a multi-million pound round of fundraising. He is also about to begin teaching a module in engineering for students at Exeter University, and has just been appointed Honorary Associate Professor of Decarbonisation in the University’s faculty of environment, science and economy.

He says that working for himself “is fantastic, but incredibly stressful; there is no fall back position. But if you win, the feeling stays with you for the rest of your life and spurs you on to do more.

“For me, the primary rule of entrepreneurs is to be the best at what you do, and everything else will fall into place.”

Connected Places Catapult is hosting a Maritime Growth Summit on 30 November and the latest cohort to join our Maritime Accelerator programme was announced last week.