The story behind VideoRay LLC begins with – as president and co- founder Scott Bentley puts it – “your standard ‘sky-diving over the North Pole’ story.” It was a fittingly unconventional start for a very unconventional company.
Based in Phoenixville, VideoRay produces “swimming underwater cameras” known as MicroROVs (Remotely Operated Vehicles). Bentley founded VideoRay in 1999 to make this valuable technology more affordable and accessible to people who wanted to explore and capture the aquatic world for security, recreation, and educational purposes. MicroROVs have a multitude of applications, including homeland and port security, search and recovery missions for drowning victims and objects, and infrastructure and tank inspections. In many missions, MicroROVs provide a safe, efficient, and cost-effective alternative method to diver deployment in dangerous environments. Every day, hundreds of ROVs work underwater to protect and inspect harbors, vessels, infrastructure, and water sources all over the world.
Bentley first discovered underwater ROVs while serving as the best man in his friend’s wedding on the North Pole. However, the Arctic venue wasn’t the only unusual aspect of the wedding. “Bob waited until I accepted the job to tell me it involved jumping out of a perfectly good airplane strapped to his chest.”
After the wedding – and a smooth landing for the groomsmen – Bentley visited the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology in 1999. The Moscow research center, famous for their Mir submersible which explored the Titanic, was working on a new ROV small enough to penetrate other areas of shipwrecks inaccessible to larger ROVs.
Fascinated by the idea of the MicroROV – and its potential commercial value – Bentley began investigating the technology. His research led to Inuktun, a Canadian-based company with a design for an 8 pound ROV. Only a few months after his f irst ROV encounter in Russia, Bentley had licensed Inuktun’s technology, and built a makeshift workshop above his garage.
Since the very first system’s debut in 2000, VideoRay has delivered more than 2,500 ROV systems to customers on all seven continents. Bentley originally envisioned a clientele mainly made up of marine biologists, yacht owners, museum curators, and divers. After 9/11, that base spread to law enforcement agencies, militaries, and government agencies, and the original swimming camera now bristles with sonars, positioning systems, and sophisticated sensors. The United States Coast Guard standardized their ROVs to VideoRay systems in 2003 and awarded VideoRay a $2.2 million contract to upgrade their entire fleet in 2011.
Just as its customer base and products have fluctuated over the last twelve years, VideoRay as a company has expanded and shifted to accommodate the implications of being the largest volume seller of MicroROVs and the global leader in MicroROV technology. After the fledgling company outgrew his garage, Bentley moved production to a warehouse at Bentley Systems, the software company he founded in 1986 with his brothers. By 2005, VideoRay was in full swing and Bentley left his position at Bentley Systems to focus on VideoRay full time.
When VideoRay needed yet another place to expand, the up and coming company turned to a barn in Phoenixville, Pa. Built in 1817, the Mennonite barn, owned by Homer Kolb, was most recently used as an aircraft factory. Renovated in 2005, the barn now holds VideoRay’s 35 employees, including research and development, production engineers, technical support, sales and marketing, and administrative departments. Bentley designed the barn to be “reminiscent of the Keebler elves’ treehouse.” There are no cubicles or corner offices; just an open plan that allows constant communication and transparency between departments and employees.
The first floor houses “the warehouse” with production, shipping, and dozens of shelves stocked with ROVs, parts, and accessories, as well as a 3,000 gallon test tank and a workshop for product repairs. Software and electrical engineers sit on the second floor directly across from accounting, human resources, and sales and marketing.
While it may sound like a chaotic setting for a multimillion dollar corporation, VideoRay’s eccentric headquarters offer an easy analogy for the company’s overall unconventional approach. Many employees believe the openness of the company’s office encourages more productivity and employee interaction. Purchasing manager Nancy Steiginga noted that “management puts a great deal of trust in the employees which encourages accountability. When your boss trusts you to get something done right, it inspires you to live up to their expectations. The flexibility and ‘honor code’ at VideoRay has created a much more productive atmosphere than any job where I punched a clock.”
Perhaps the best endorsement for the VideoRay approach is the company’s remarkable success. VideoRay revenues have increased 35 percent on average every year since 2007 despite economic woes from a global recession. Even with this significant business and revenue growth, nearly every aspect of VideoRay still operates out of the barn. Dealers in 33 countries provide a global reach for VideoRay owners across the globe, but every purchase order comes directly to the Phoenixville facility where the ROVs are designed, manufactured, shipped, and repaired.
VideoRay continues to do big things in spite of its small home. Dark Secrets of the Lusitania, a recently aired National Geographic special, features footage from a VideoRay exploration of the RMS Lusitania off the Irish coast. The ROV captured images of interior compartments and recovered artifacts that have not been seen since the ship’s sinking in 1917!
After almost seven years in the barn, VideoRay has again grown too large for its facility. As this article is being written, VideoRay is moving out of the barn and into a newly renovated building in downtown Pottstown.