A milestone for open innovation: Nabtesco acquires DeepSea

Helping our corporate limited partners achieve their innovation aims via collaboration with startups is Emerald’s bread and butter. The recent acquisition of DeepSea, a Greek maker of artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled maritime routing and performance systems, to Nabtesco, a Japan-based world leader in motion control technologies, is a shining proof point. Nabtesco is one of Emerald’s corporate venture capital-as-a-service (CVCaaS) clients, meaning that Emerald curates the entire deal flow of Nabtesco’s CVC arm.

To commemorate this milestone, we sat down with Hiroshi Nerima, Head of CVC at Nabtesco, to discuss the deal and the broader implications for Nabtesco’s transformation efforts.

Hiroshi Nerima, Head of CVC, Nabtesco

Can you talk about the process of shepherding this deal from a minority investment to a full-blown acquisition? What were the key learnings?

This was never simply a passive investment; the intent was always to foster collaboration and value co-creation between DeepSea and the Nabtesco marine division. There was some acclimation while the Nabtesco team gained confidence in the complementarity of DeepSea’s offering. But eventually the synergies bubbled to the surface: between software and hardware, between geographies, between different levels of market access.

The next step was institutionalizing the collaboration—shifting from a kind of procurement mindset between two separate entities to a cooperative spirit that felt organic and effortless. A lot of this entailed making sure both sides were communicating clearly and effectively—not always an easy thing to do across language and cultural divides. Once Nabtesco accepted that DeepSea was a good strategic fit, an acquisition was the next natural step.

What specifically about DeepSea’s offering proved so compelling to Nabtesco’s technology team?

Nabtesco makes hardware for motion-control systems—the electrical and mechanical “guts” of ships. DeepSea’s AI-enabled software serves, conversely, as the “brain”. Putting them together gives you a full-stack solution. It’s like autopilot for an airplane—the pilot needs to intervene only during safety-critical situations. The Nabtesco-DeepSea hardware-software stack is something similar for marine systems.

What specifically does Nabtesco get out of an acquisition that it can’t get as a minority shareholder?

As a minority investor we can acquire technology, but a company like DeepSea is more than just a technology vendor. It offers immense competitive value as a provider of knowledge, insights and intellectual property, providing a pathway to transform abstract AI breakthroughs into commercial applications that solve a customer’s pain point. The biggest benefit is the know-how of 80-odd employees whose collective output is far more than the sum of their parts.

How did Nabtesco’s mindset toward open innovation change during the evolution from investment to acquisition?

Big trends in automation and electrification are reshaping our industry and we spend a lot of energy at our investor conferences talking about innovation and transformation. The time had come to put our money where our mouth is. Nabtesco has a history of focusing on organic growth and internal R&D, largely in the hardware space—a space where we’re already quite strong. Becoming an integrated services and solutions provider means stepping outside of our comfort zone, and an acquisition was the best way to do that without needing to build something from scratch.

From a sustainability perspective, how does the DeepSea acquisition contribute to Nabtesco’s net-zero target?

Nabtesco has declared its intention to be carbon-free by 2050. There are several routes by which we are chipping away at this goal; one is by offering a solution that helps our customers reduce their emissions, which of course comprise our own scope three emissions. DeepSea has documented that its AI routing solution can cut emissions by hundreds of tonnes compared to a baseline. Add this up and you could see a potentially significant impact on greenhouse gas emissions and the broader climate battle.

Looking ahead, how does Nabtesco intend to build off the success of the DeepSea investment and acquisition? What does the future look like for its CVC efforts?

We are already looking at how we could integrate DeepSea’s offerings into other parts of the company, beyond just the marine division. Thinking holistically, we are looking at how to create an even more comprehensive stack of technologies for motion control and navigation. For instance, DeepSea uses data from Inmarsat satellites in its machine learning navigation applications. What if we were to become a satellite provider of our own? We could cut out the middleman and own the entire solution set. Again, this will likely take us out of our comfort zone, but true value creation—rather than simply selling products—requires pushing boundaries like this.