“ We have been so conditioned into thinking that things have to be done in a certain way…, and that’s so untrue, there is a myriad of possibilities.”
Co-Founder & CEO | Azura Marine & Azura Marine Earth
On staying focused, practical innovation, and why Indonesia is perfect for renewable energy.
Today’s mainstream media is brimming with stories of innovators and high-tech start ups, fueling our insatiable desire to continually break boundaries and reinvent the wheel. Despite the obvious allure in glorifying the latest and greatest, we often fail to see the beauty to be found in the practical and accessible end of the spectrum of innovation.
Take one example, of a man living his childhood dream of roaming through blue oceans on a Jukung (a centuries-old traditional Indonesian fishing boat), powered only by sunlight.
Using primarily locally sourced tools and technology, Julien Mélot and his vessel, crowned, “Surya Namaskar”, have gone more than 2000 kilometers around Bali and to Flores – all without a single technical issue. Behind this amazing feat is Azura Marine, a company co-founded by Julien, built on a holistic combination of spirituality and his profession as a naval architect and an electromechanical engineer. Its social division, Azura Marine Earth, provides apprenticeships in the field of renewable energies and technology in addition to offering workshops on environmental issues.
The success of Julien’s journey is nothing short of incredible, yet a merit hard-earned. Beneath his warm and easy-going nature lies a pragmatic foundation of grit honed from years of work in the shipyards of Singapore. Throughout our conversation, Julien shares his story of persistence in building and travelling with Surya Namaskar, dealing with doubt, fatigue and the risk of dengue. He also shares unique perspectives on why Indonesia is the perfect place for sustainable energy, and how to break the stigma of its use.
Julien, you are an electro-mechanical engineer and a naval architect by profession, what’s the story behind your love for the ocean?
It started when I was a little kid; I was fascinated by pirates, and what would a pirate be without a boat? When I was five or six, I would be making drawings of pirate ships all the time. When I was seven, I would spend summers on lakes, and I started sailing when I was around eight. I was sailing every summer and I built my first sailboat hull when I was 14.
There was no naval architecture university in Belgium, and I had a lot of interest in mechanics so I studied electro-mechanical engineering and took a masters in naval architecture in Lisbon a few years later. But my love of the ocean has always been there since I was a kid. When you love the ocean, you obviously want to protect it – you want to protect what you love.
What’s the story behind Azura Marine? How did it come about?
I’ve always had an interest in combining renewable energy and boats. Azura Marine came about when I was working in Singapore, and I set up that company thinking that one day I could fully dedicate myself to that. I needed to create a company in Singapore because I was consulting there, and I knew that my goal would be to design and build an ecological boat.
The idea initially popped up nearly ten years ago. I had a strong interest in hydrogen technology back then – Its really amazing. You just need sun or wind, and some water or sea water, and you can have a great source of energy. The most ideal application for that is shipping because there’s an infinite amount of water, wind and sun out in the ocean. You can basically power a whole shipping fleet out of hydrogen.
I also did my Masters thesis on this and 8 years ago I built a scale model of a catamaran that was powered by solar panels and a hydrogen fuel cell. So the idea was already there long ago, but as you know, sometimes ideas take time to mature and become right.
“Sometimes ideas take time to mature and become right.”
Why do you think that a company like Azura Marine and Azura Marine Earth is important in today’s world?
First of all, we are disrupting a lot of the current technology – that’s pretty clear. Looking at the boating market sector, it’s an extremely conservative one. Things don’t evolve there much because of the culture.
Sailors, or seamen – they don’t want to take risks on something that hasn’t been proven over and over again over the centuries. So we’re looking at a very backwards-thinking industry, and I think we at Azura have a very bold approach.
We do things very differently; a lot cheaper and more eco friendly. It’s important to bring new solutions and think outside of the box.
We also have strong social consciousness. That’s something important because its lacking a lot in most corporations. It all started with that idea in mind. I’m not a millionaire philanthropist – at some point I have to be realistic and I have to make money, but you can make money making products that are good for the planet – like ecological boats.
If something like that is making a profit, that’s great, because we all need to live, and if there is additional profit then that can be invested to directly help communities through Azura Marine Earth.
“We also have strong social consciousness. That’s something important because its lacking a lot in most corporations.”
Why did you choose the Jukung boat as a base design, as opposed to building an entirely new design from scratch?
I simply thought that we should be able to turn any boat into a solar electric one. Part of the decision was down to opportunity as well. I put the word out there, and a friend of mine found a jukung for sale. We didn’t put much thought into it because we saw that it was a very common boat which was well built. It’s something that many people in Indonesia can relate to as it’s kind of the most universal boat here in Indonesia. It’s built in Java but you see them in Sumatra, Bali – everywhere! It was perfect and I didn’t think twice.
“There was lack of understanding for the bigger picture and doubt, but curiosity mostly.”
What were reactions like from the local communities that you’ve either worked with or come in contact with in the process of building
and travelling with Surya Namaskar?
Building and travelling brought out very different reactions. When we were building, I don’t think they really understood what we were doing. There was certainly a lot of curiosity, and there were always people coming around the boat but they were also probably doubtful and wondering why I would spend so much money on it. So I would say there was lack of understanding for the bigger picture and doubt, but curiosity mostly.
When we were travelling, the reactions were different. People were definitely curious and they were asking how this thing works – they saw it as some kind of UFO. Everywhere we went, as soon as we dropped the anchor, tons of local people would come on board and ask questions. We exchanged a lot of contacts because some of them were really interested. So, a lot of curiosity and interest for sure.
What were the biggest professional and personal challenges you had when building Surya Namaskar, and how did you overcome them?
Finding the right person to work with in the first place wasn’t easy. I made a big mistake in partnering with a contractor and trusting some people I shouldn’t have trusted. I got completely ripped off, and I lost a lot of money and material at that time.
As a foreigner, finding someone you can trust wasn’t easy and that was definitely a big challenge. But I learned from that, and afterwards I found the perfect person. The second would be logistics and importing the materials. That was a tiresome process.
It was physically very tiring. At that time I was staying in Ubud, and the boat was in Benoa. So every single day I was on the scooter for more than two hours, leaving very early in Ubud and coming back at eight; going around Denpasar and buying stuff in between. It was really crazy. When I think back, I don’t think I would do it again.
I drove 7000 kilometers with my little scooter in two months, on Balinese roads, which are definitely not the safest. Of course there were tense moments, especially in my personal life, because it took a lot of time.
“Although It looks hard from the outside, I was really enjoying it.”
We had a tight timeline as well, because you have to wait for very high tide to launch the boats and there was only one every month or two months, so there was a rush to catch the tide, that’s why we had to push hard to make it happen on time.
Working in the mangrove and getting bitten by dozens of tiger mosquitoes also was a challenge. I got lucky I didn’t catch dengue, although statistically, I should have! Although It looks hard from the outside, I was really enjoying it; times like eating Padang food and coming in with mud all over my legs – I looked like a construction worker!
Based on the experiences of your trips with Surya Namaskar, how do you feel you can improve on the boats, or the design and construction process for the future?
If there was one lesson drawn from the big trip, it was that the boat would have been better if it was one or two meters longer, considering the size of the roof and the power we had. When you design a boat like that for the first time its really hard to know what the end weight will be. A 10-meter boat will be better than an eight and a half meter one. She’s a little bit on the heavy side at the moment.
For the rest, the construction process was really good. We did all this in two months. Process-wise I wouldn’t change much. Of course if we have more orders for boats like Surya Namaskar, we would probably make it in a better place.
In the end we did more than 2000 kilometers. When we went around Bali and to Labuan Bajo, we didn’t have a single technical issue. This technology really works – it’s fabulous.
What are the specific habits or rituals you’ve developed that have helped you grow over the years?
Meditation has helped for sure, but I don’t really have a routine. I spent many years working in a shipyard. It’s a very high speed, no bullshit environment. There’s no time for politics, there’s no time for wasting time basically. So I think that was an extremely good “school” for me. It’s straight to the point and you also embrace the fact that building a boat is the sum of small details. You have to be specific, and you have to solve one issue after the other, and although they may sometimes look insignificant, they are.
As I was a project manager at the shipyard, I was able to look at the bigger picture – I would make a timeline and organize the project properly. It was just a very rational way of working that I learned the hard way – to focus on what matters and leave the bullshit outside.
When I started building Surya Namaskar, I thought ‘If I won’t be able to make this thing in 2 months, there’s no way I can do this.’ In the shipyard we would build something really crazy in twelve months using thousands of tons of steel. I thought a small boat like this, I must be able to do it in 2 months. Focus is important nowadays. I reckon in this era of social media, you have so many distractions and its very difficult to focus.
Were there any self-limiting beliefs that you had to overcome to become the person you are today?
Sure. One that’s been sticking with me is not being able to finish everything; you start, and you tend to give up at 80 or 90%. I was like that and I knew I had to push hard to complete the project. If not, I knew I would always drop out before the end.
Of course, there’s always fear; not being in the corporate world and having no safety net. But I wouldn’t say that was self-limiting, it was almost exciting to get off the safety net. But there are times when you question yourself. So there has been doubt, for sure.
What are the specific qualities that you look for in a team? Especially for a team behind a company like Azura Marine?
I want to make sure that people can work independently and are smart; that they can understand things without me watching over them all the time. The most important thing is that they can fly with their own wings and that I can trust them.
Honesty is really important for me. The whole concept of the company is to not only make money but to give back, and if I understand that anyone in the team is not abiding to those rules and is being selfish or greedy, that’s a no go. They have to be reliable people, to get things done and to be trusted.
They need to be sort of a perfectionist, because I am, and I sort of expect the same from other people. But that’s really hard, and it’s something I’m definitely working on for myself. But my expectations of people cannot be too low as well.
“Honesty is really important for me. The whole concept of the company is to not only make money but to give back”
When you hear the word “Successful”, who’s the first person that comes to mind and why?
At the moment I would definitely say Elon Musk. He’s a model for me and I’ve been watching him for more than 10 years – before he became mainstream. He is the embodiment for success because of his vision and how he goes for it relentlessly.
He’s got a lot of common sense and that’s something I can relate to from my professional background. If you tell him that something is not going to work, he’s just going to go back to the principles of physics and tell you ‘Yes it is going to work! Prove to me that this doesn’t work and maybe I can believe you.’
There are people who are jealous when you do new things, there are people who want you to doubt it. There’s a lot of negativity that surrounds you when you try to disrupt and go for a breakthrough development.
You need to keep your calm, go back to the fundamentals of what you’re doing and ask yourself ‘Why would it not work?’ I think he’s a very good example of that, especially in cutting corners as well.
There’s so much bullshit happening in the corporate world. So much time and money is wasted, and I think that’s very unnecessary, and in the case of Azura Marine, that was one of the main realizations during my Vipassana (silent meditation course) – ‘Why do we need to make things so complicated?’
Can we not just embrace what nature is giving? Things that are available here and there. Something that people can make great things out of? But we have been so conditioned into thinking that things have to be done in a certain way, and that’s so untrue. If we go back to the laws of physics, you see that there are tons of ways to do things, and some are definitely better for the environment than others.
Where do you usually go for new ideas? What places, sights, and sounds can stimulate your creativity?
Being by the sea and looking at nature in general inspires me. Looking at beautiful pieces of architecture and beautiful human creations as well – be it houses or boats, I find it very stimulating. Sometimes I look at Antoni Gaudi’s buildings, and think ‘Wow this is perfect! There’s so much to learn from this’. Sacred geometry sometimes also brings ideas to mind.
“God knows what will happen, as this technology evolves really fast.”
The idea of using alternative energy sources as part of everyday life here in Indonesia still seems hard to grasp, due it’s perceived high costs, risk and other “unknowns”, yet the potential is massive. How can we break the stigma and encourage its wider use?
To me, the barrier to embracing these renewable energy sources is money. The problem in Indonesia is that most people seem to live day by day, so they are rarely able to make a long term investment. That’s the reality.
I think the way to bring it forth is to have an incentive, either private or ideally public. But the government isn’t going that way at the moment because of PLN’s (Perusahaan Listrik Negara – Indonesia’s government-owned electricity corporation) interests.
We should be able to offer micro credit options, just like when people buy their motorbikes. They just pay monthly and in this case it would be perfect, because they pay a certain amount per month to pay off their micro credit, and after five years, they would have free electricity for 20 years.
At the moment, the current design of solar panels has a lifespan of 25 years, and God knows what will happen, as this technology evolves really fast.
Imagine not being tied to a monopoly that raises the price. You pay 200,000 Rupiah per month for five years to a Solar company like Azura Marine Earth for example – meaning that we are basically freezing the cost. So for five years you know that there won’t be any increase in price, which will of course happen with PLN – they increase almost twice a year!
It’s a no-brainer in terms of how good and safe it is for an investment. It would be fantastic to find financial institutions that are ready to go for it because it’s been proven in other countries.
People need electricity anyways and so at the end of the month, that’s part of the usual household budget. It’s really the way to go if we were to upscale the renewable energies in Indonesia.
Indonesia is the perfect place to embrace micro-credit for renewable energies because its de-centralized geographically, and politically in terms of how the government doesn’t intervene too much on daily life. So it makes full sense but it requires involving a financial institution or body to be honest.
Maybe there’s a political obstacle to overcome doing that as well, I don’t know. But you have to do this from bottom up, starting small scale in remote areas where nobody is currently supplying people with electricity.
“You have to do this from bottom up, starting small scale in remote areas where nobody is currently supplying people with electricity.”
How do you plan to scale the technology used in Azura Marine?
At the moment we are working on a catamaran of 12 x 7.5 meters, whose electrical architecture is an upscale of Surya Namaskar’s. We plan to start building that boat in Indonesia and Singapore this year.
It’s going to be interesting – it’s a modular concept and its bare deck can be customized as a dive boat, a tour boat, a ferry or a yacht. There’s a huge deck area that’s nearly 100 square meters so you can do a lot with an area like that.
This will be a boat with a proven electrical system – as it is an upscale of Surya Namaskar – on board so that it is able to sail 24/7 non-stop for 20+ years at least, with zero cost and free of any noise, smell, vibration, and pollution. At the same time, I would like to propose replicas of Surya Namaskar for dive centers, eco-resorts and local communities.
We plan to downscale Surya as well! I would like to see how small and how cheap we can replicate Surya Namaskar. I’m thinking around IDR 15-20 million for a four or five-meter fishing boat which you’d be able to sail for 20 years pretty much for free.
There would be an engine on the boat, and solar panels and batteries. In terms of converting existing conventional boats to solar electric, it’s interesting to have the two ends of the spectrum. From the biggest jukung you can make to the smallest and anything in between.
What is one thing that innovators do wrong?
I would say, from my humble experience, it’s trying to go too high-tech and getting the best of the best, but ending up with very inaccessible products. I’ve seen a couple of companies that are proposing something similar to my catamaran but either the price tag is absolutely unrealistic, or they went for a hybrid – not going fully solar.
I have no interest in working on a hybrid – you either go fully sustainable or you don’t. I feel that in this field, sometimes innovators either don’t believe in what they’re doing and go half way, or they go all the way but have a complete disconnect with the market in terms of what people are able to afford.
A higher level of complexity means it’s less reliable too. You have to be pragmatic – the concept has to be innovative, but the technology has to be proven. You can innovate using available technology; you don’t need to make everything new and re-invent the wheel. That’s very dangerous.
“You can innovate using available technology; you don’t need to make everything new and re-invent the wheel.”
What’s the one book you’ve recommended most to people?
Recently I liked Et tu trouveras le tresor qui dort en toi by Laurent Gounelle and recommended it to a few dear ones. I often recommend Paulo Coelho and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle.
One piece of advice to your 18 year old self?
No matter what, go after your dreams. Don’t give up on them. Believe in yourself and trust in your capabilities to turn your vision into reality.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?
I don’t know the exact timeline, this could be 5, 6 or 8 years! But I guess I see myself having accomplished a bit with Azura Marine while having evolved spiritually too.
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