With the ocean being simultaneously the oldest and newest market on the planet, opportunities in blue tech are more broad and abundant than ever before – but only if the right people come together around a problem and solution.
That was the takeaway from discussion at H4XLabs’ Pacific Northwest Blue Tech Innovation Day, held in Seattle Feb. 24. The day consisted of two panels focused on growth for blue tech in the northwest followed by a quick-fire networking round for entrepreneurs and investors.
The goal, H4XLabs’ director Ellen Chang explained, was to connect startups, investors, government actors and commercial leaders. Blue tech includes but is not limited to ocean data collection, water purity and ocean cleanup, electrification of ports and shipping, aquaculture, marine renewables, coastal protection, off shore wind and wave energy and more.
Speakers and panelists participated in the event because of a shared belief that building relationships between innovators and potential customers, especially in the government, will be the driving force for growth of the blue economy and a catalyst for improvement in our oceans. The Pacific Northwest Innovation Day was an early step in starting that dialogue and gave innovators at all stages guidance for growing and maintaining customer engagement.
State of the Blue Economy
The February event’s first panel presented key experts leading the way for Seattle’s marine future. The conversation centered around balancing growth with environmental responsibility throughout the Pacific Northwest, and emphasized the abundance of opportunities in blue tech while acknowledging common barriers of entry for entrepreneurs.
Fred Felleman, Commissioner of Seattle’s ports, explained the diverse challenges facing the city’s coastline: “Maritime is a part of the fabric and culture of this area.” He expressed the obligation to both preserve Seattle’s ecosystem while building good-paying jobs and maintain a diverse range of educational needs, always with an eye on the future.
Derek Parks, Deputy Director of NOAA offered a glimpse into his organization’s priorities. “We are focused on building data and making data more available on such areas as offshore renewable energy, marine transportation and coastal economies,” he said. He also stressed the traditional NOAA mission of protecting, conserving and restoring marine life and coastal ecosystems.
For innovators eager to support the Department of Defense, Johannes Schoenberg of the Navy’s Northwest Tech Bridge understands the frustration of trying to navigate complicated governmental processes. It’s critical, he said, to get the right mix of people in the same room to share ideas and neutralize the barriers. “We help you walk through the process and identify the right people. We’ve learned that it's not a matter of an entrepreneur not having the right motivation, but that it's literally too confusing. So going forward, we are placing more emphasis on growing the capacity for connecting people,” he said.
Access to Capital in the Blue Economy
Funding for blue tech ventures was the focus of the day’s second panel, which brought together investors to share advice and perspectives with entrepreneurs in this space.
One key point that came out of the discussion is how funding opportunities for blue-tech ventures are growing – along with a desire to think and act sustainably.
“The Blue Economy is not new, but more people are starting to pay attention to innovation in the this space because of an increasing number of promising market/startup opportunities. In the past 18 months the VC firms focused on blue economy related issues have quadrupled. The blue economy is really anything that touches the water, or is ancillary to it. So there's a lot to unpack when you're talking about the blue economy.” explained Josh Carter with Maritime Blue.
Increasingly, getting funded means having a technology that not only solves relevant problems, but one that also does so in a clean and sustainable way. “I don't think we can get away from a conversation around how clean and green your capability might be, or what impact you’re making. Every company now has to focus on that. We've reached that chasm, that cliff, where if we're not thinking about that, then you're not really a viable or relevant company,” said Jim Cooper, the co-founder and CTO of Braid Theory.
Fatimah Bello with Climate Impact Capital stressed that for her company and many others, priorities go beyond the financial. “When we talk about metrics, we also want to see measurements on how much carbon you can offset,” she said.
Phoebe Wang with Shell Ventures explained that from the energy side of the technology field, renewable power is a critical sector growth and a big booster for local economies. “We recently invested in a company creating a hydrogen fuel cell for aviation. They are putting their R&D center in Seattle, improving the economy and making more opportunities for jobs locally.”
H4XLabs’ Blue Tech Ecosystem Series will take place in a number of coastal cities around the U.S in the coming months. to encourage technological innovation and startup success through relationship building and information sharing. The next event is planned in San Diego on April 27. Visit https://www.h4xlabs.com/bluetech-sd to learn more.