Yale Student Invents Drone to Solve $2.5 Trillion Corrosion Problem

June 28, 2017

You probably have not heard of them yet, but Arix, a hot new Yale-founded startup, is poised to change the industrial inspection industry and save lives doing so. The fledgling tech company was founded by Yale School of Management (SOM) student Dianna Liu. Liu, a former employee of ExxonMobil, has first-hand experience with the dangerous consequences of corrosion – including fire, explosions, and stress failures. The inefficient and labor-intensive way in which it is currently detected – with humans dangling from scaffolding – is about to change.

Arix won the $25,000 Miller Prize this Spring, which is supported by venture capitalist Brian Miller, Chief Investment Officer of North Sound Partners. The prize is awarded to the best Yale student-led tech venture. As Miller explains of his pick, “Arix Technologies will attempt to improve the practices currently used to detect and manage corrosion. Estimates of the annual global cost of corrosion approach $2.5 trillion – over 3% of global GDP! Existing corrosion management techniques are still using antiquated methods to measure corrosion damage. With its novel technology, Arix has a strong probability of success in this extremely large opportunity.”

Liu and her team are participating the Yale Entrepreneurial Institute’s summer fellowship program. I caught up with her to learn more about the technology and the future of corrosion inspections.

Kate Harrison: What is wrong with current corrosion maintenance based on your experience?

Dianna Liu: Existing corrosion inspection methods are labor intensive and expensive. And yet, despite the industry’s best efforts, it is still difficult to reliably prevent leaks with current inspection technologies. This is not for lack of trying, however, as the oil and gas industry highly prioritize the safety of their employees and the reliability of their assets. For instance, ExxonMobil has some of the best engineers in the world, but even with an army of dedicated engineers and managers focused on preventing incidents, and a culture that highly values safety and reliability, the lack of effective inspection tools was an ongoing obstacle to their goals.

The potential consequences are too big to ignore. In a setting such as an oil refinery, the chemicals flowing through their pipes can be highly flammable or highly toxic. In a worst-case scenario, a leak can cause fires or explosions. Even in a best-case scenario, the company faces unplanned downtime that can cost millions of dollars in profitability. Currently, the U.S. petroleum refining industry spends $3.7 billion annually on corrosion-related direct costs. This is the industry we’re targeting first, but the problem is far bigger. The National Association of Corrosion Engineers (NACE) predicts the direct cost of corrosion to be $276 billion in the United States each year, or nearly 3% of GDP.

Harrison: You came to SOM with a plan for starting a company that would tackle the issue of corrosion. Some people just start their companies when they have a new idea. What prompted you to go back to school to launch yours?

Liu: When I was exploring business schools as a potential location to start Arix, I realized that Yale’s School of Management had exactly what I needed. I had a solution in mind, but knew I couldn’t succeed in developing a company on my own without excellent role models and solid mentoring. Luckily, Yale has an incredible network of mentors, advisors, alumni, and entrepreneurial organizations – all of whom were eager to assist me in this venture. On the engineering side, Yale SOM is, in my opinion, the business school most closely integrated with its parent university. For me, this had huge implications. I needed a team of high-level engineers, so having this integrated university environment accessible throughout my planning was crucial. I spent my first weeks at Yale networking around campus and talking to engineering students. After many discussions, I met Petter Wehlin and Bryan Duerfeldt, two extremely talented graduating mechanical engineering seniors at Yale College. They’ve been working with me all year, and happily for me, they plan to transition to full-time following graduation. As a team, we’ve been fortunate enough to make use of not only Yale’s mentorships, connections, and competitions, but also the creative workspaces at Yale’s Center for Engineering Innovation & Design, and the Yale SOM Entrepreneurship program.

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