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Creating communities around Blue Tech to navigate murky funding streams

Blue tech – changemaking technologies for oceans – is entering a golden age of innovation and opportunity. As startups tackle more complex challenges, investors and the government are noticing the rising tide of potential. The challenge for blue tech startups isn’t a lack of opportunity or problems to solve, but knowing how to get the right solutions to the right people, and at a fast enough pace to sustain business viability. The solution, according to panelists at H4XLabs’ second Blue Tech Innovation Day, held in San Diego Apri 27l, lies in building a robust network and aligned community.

Blue Tech Innovation Day set out to address endemic hardships among industry leaders spanning all entities in the blue economy, from founder to funder, governmental to commercial. Participants focused locally, nationally and globally on building meaningful networks among trusted partners to break down traditional barriers in order to advance technologies that will preserve and protect our oceans.

San Diego has been at the forefront of the burgeoning blue tech industry since its inception, and is continuing to foster an atmosphere of growth and ingenuity that reaches far beyond southern California. The blue economy, we know, is global, and today we are taking steps to build a network across the world, while also creating local communities to accelerate blue tech innovation.

Our panels looked at how a blue tech innovation ecosystem is taking shape and what emerging technologies are getting notice in the space.

There’s power in building an ecosystem

To drive innovation in the blue economy, a collaborative community must exist that engages often and connects disparate sectors in the industry. Participants in the first panel included members of the Department of Defense, industry, and local government offering perspectives on building those crucial networks to spark growth. They were Matt Classen with TMA Bluetech, Dr. Rich Carlin, Naval Accelerator with the Office of Naval Research, Paula Sylvia and Phil LeBlanc representing the Port of San Diego, and Johannes Schonberg, head of the NavalX Northwest Tech Bridge.

Classen explained he has a mission to bring together academia, industry, and policy makers to advance the San Diego blue economy industry toward one common vision.

“(San Diego) is so powerfully compelling for the blue tech ecosystem, and there is already momentum growing. We need to have a way to build this economy through a more focused vision among different players. We plan to partner with people up and down the Pacific Coast, where we have so many cultural ties. We are a frontier; we are pioneers; it’s in our DNA to work together to do amazing things and to be cutting edge. We have so many economies of scale here that we can leverage to have real impact on the rest of the world, too,” Classen said.

Carlin described opportunities for startups to access the Navy as it seeks to modernize. It’s important that the Navy has options, and increasingly these options come from the commercial sector. The rising tide of the blue economy will create more options for the Navy. He said that startups can use a pilot program to demonstrate value to the Navy and the commercial sector. Doing this will help programs build exposure and gain Congressional support. “Most of these projects are done within communities like accelerators and tech bridges to guide startups along. Just work together and move quickly. Don’t overthink it,” he said.

Sylvia and LeBlanc said the Port of San Diego aims to increase partnerships and sustainability with the blue tech innovation community. Their priorities are in coastal resiliency, environmental remediation, environmental monitoring and improving water quality. LeBlanc explained that the Port of San Diego is uniquely positioned to support the blue economy as a test bed for new innovation to help advance and grow that space, and is doing that through incubator programs and pilot project facilitation. These systems help create communities to share common expertise.

Schonberg plays a vital role in building and connecting veins of collaboration between tech innovators and end users, especially within the military. He explained: “Our work is a collaboration space to help us engage with industry and academia with reduced barriers. It’s a big challenge to gain easy access or a single point of entry, and to create an opportunity for people to have conversations together without the bureaucracy.” His team builds networks among industry, small business, venture capital, angel investors, universities and emerging technology, and advises if the DoD or the Navy is a customer to pursue.

Funding Blue Tech

The future of blue tech is exciting: from LED-based sensors, sustainable flood management and sea floor mapping, investors in the day’s second panel shared what excites them most as they look ahead, and offered insight on how to land funding for these technologies.

Representing founders at the table was Mike Flanigan, CEO and co-founder of Sea Sats, which makes autonomous surface vehicles. Like founders of most young startups, he is familiar with the challenges inherent in the arena. “In blue tech, the customers are patient and the industry is slow, which can be great for disruption but hard to get the rapid wins startups need,” he explained. Accelerators, he believes, are a crucial way to help founders prioritize and ask questions while building a business.

Erika Montague, Chief Technologist at Schmidt Marine Technology Partners agreed, explaining that the issue with the government is the slow phases that don’t align with the startup cadence of needing investment. “You really need mentors outside of your comfort areas, so perhaps finance or IP, who you trust to give you the bad news but also introduce you to the right people. Because that is what is going to move you forward,” she advised.

Gayatri Sartar works from a place of passion surrounding clean technology and amplifying female and minority innovators and investors through her company She-VC. When she started looking at innovators, she discovered that the companies are strong in understanding their own space but need guidance in understanding business and operations. She added that many startups in this space need government funding because there are not many traditional venture capitalists investing in blue tech.

Adam de Sola Pool, with SeaAhead, a venture firm for oceans, called for an ocean-specific effort within the government similar to ARPA-e. Pool explained that geography matters in the blue tech space, saying a solution that may not work well in San Diego might take off in Norway. Despite this there is global opportunity, especially from a regulations perspective. “I’m investing in this space because I see so much scalability,” he said. “There is a huge potential for financial and social return.”

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