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Innovation Ecosystem

The new blue tech, “blue collar” cluster

Mark Huang, co-founder and managing director of SeaAhead, maps out a new strategy for investing in blue tech, to build out a new kind of blue-collar economy, embracing ocean sustainability

Image courtesy of SeaAhead's website

The landing page for SeaAhead's website, promoting its vision of a blue tech innovation hub.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 4/15/19
A new blue tech innovation hub, focused on ocean sustainability, is taking shape in Boston, taking a regional approach to a collaborative economic platform of investment.
How can Rhode Island create its own innovation hub or innovation campus focused in blue tech, in collaboration with SeaAhead? Where does such an approach to blue tech innovation and ocean sustainability fit into the current goals of the Wexford Innovation Complex? How can environmental research and advocacy groups in Rhode Island create opportunities for collaboration with SeaAhead? How will Rhode Island begin to address clean water insecurity as part of its resilience efforts in the face of climate change threats?
On April 27, the first Ocean Inno Tech Fest will be held in Providence, at the WaterFire Arts Center, with the goal of showcasing Rhode Island’s technological advances. But, judging from the news release about the event, it will not include any blue tech innovation technology companies as part of the event. Rhode Island is known as the Ocean State, and Inno is the abbreviated term to discuss innovation, but the apparent oversight not to include any blue tech industries as part of the showcase demonstrates the way that silos can sometimes become barriers to collisions and intersections in what is often referred to as an innovation ecosystem.
At some point, the innovation community, the tech community and the venture community in Rhode Island will find common ground around ocean sustainability as a critical economic force when it comes to thinking about the state’s future prosperity. Maybe next year in Newport?

BOSTON – In January, SeaAhead and the Cambridge Innovation Center announced a new partnership to open the first dedicated “blue tech innovation hub” in Boston on Milk Street, to enable ocean entrepreneurs, growing businesses, investors and researchers to have a central co-working and convening location.

In defining blue tech, SeaAhead, a benefit corporation, calls it “technology-based innovation tied to ocean sustainability” in industry sectors such as ports, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture and offshore renewable energy.

In choosing Boston, SeaAhead believes that the city offers an ideal location for bringing together the Northeast’s broad ocean capabilities, capitalizing on the region’s vibrant tech and venture ecosystems.

“Through the Hub, we will look to catalyze new solutions by connecting disparate stakeholders, including venture investors and corporations that are seeking to better engage with urban innovation districts, explained Mark Huang, co-founder and managing director of SeaAhead, in a news release announcing the new blue tech innovation hub.

A significant part of SeaAhead’s mission is to increase the number of startups forming to solve ocean sustainability issues, to create a blue tech sustainability investment vehicle.

ConvergenceRI recently caught up with Huang for an interview to discuss his new venture, which seems to have great resonance and opportunities not just for Boston but also Rhode Island and the entire New England region. [Most recently, Huang had served as the economic development director for the city of Providence.]

There are a number of issues that SeaAhead’s new blue tech innovation hub is confronting in defining the opportunity, according to Huang.

The first is to gain acceptance of the concept of a regional approach, breaking down the silos between states and municipalities, asking the public sector to recognize the power of regional collaboration.

“We have a potential for a true blue tech cluster in New England,” Huang said, “one where the left hand knows what is going on with the right hand. In order to do that, you have to take a regional approach: one plus one equals more than two.”

The second big challenge, Huang said, is gaining the attention of the venture capital community of investors.

“I would say that the whole idea of blue tech is so new that it is not yet on the radar screen of many venture investors,” Huang said.

Huang explained that he had been working on alternative energy and transportation since the late 1990s, when he got out of graduate school. “It wasn’t called clean tech then. But, when somebody started to use the term clean tech, it became a unifying theme.”

The same was true for ag tech, 10 years later, Huang continued. “When we say blue tech, we want people to stop and say, starting with the venture community, ‘What the heck is that?’”

Then, Huang said, SeaAhead wants to make the argument about what makes blue tech different from either clean tech and ag tech.

The response so far from the VC community, Huang continued, is that they are willing to listen, but they are skeptical, because that’s their job. Make the business case, they say, according to Huang.

Which, Huang said, SeaAhead has started to do, working with a first group of venture capitalists. Unlike clean tech or ag tech, he continued, “There are no dedicated groups of blue tech VCs out there.”

The third challenge is to translate the increasing urgent threats from climate change into a platform for blue tech innovation, targeted at increasing ocean sustainability. “The fundamental reason for our existence, it is in our mission statement as a benefit corporation, is to catalyze more venture innovation that is tied to ocean sustainability,” Huang said.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Mark Huang, managing director and co-founder of SeaAhead, which is creating a blue tech innovation focus in Boston with a regional focus.

ConvergenceRI: How did you get into the field of blue tech innovation?
HUANG:
My background is engineering, naval architecture. I spent 20 years after graduate school in clean tech, then getting a second masters that focused on economic development.

Hence my role with the city of Providence, working on new economy sectors that fit for us, like urban food [such as Gotham Greens].

I’m not the economic director anymore, so I don’t have to give pep talks.

I remain convinced that New England has the densest concentration, broadly defined, of blue economy, blue tech assets, second to none. But we need to prove the case that this can work in New England.

ConvergenceRI: In connecting what you call blue tech assets, how difficult is it to overcome the assumption that the world ends when an area code changes, that you will not fall off a cliff?
HUANG:
Very well said. We take a regional approach to blue tech. When we say regional, it includes multiple states: Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine, all the way down to New York.

It also includes different municipalities; but it’s hard for the public sector to [embrace] that, because they obviously have distinct boundaries. If you are an economic officer for whatever [city or state], that’s your boundary. It makes it difficult for regional collaboration [to occur].

That, in a way, is an advantage that California has. Because California is one state but it has 40 million [inhabitants].

If you go from south of New York all the way up to north of Boston, and 80 miles inland, we have roughly the same population as California, in a much more dense footprint. The challenge is that you are crossing state boundaries.

[The concept of blue tech] allows people like us, as an independent party, to tell a regional story, one that is sometimes very hard for the public sector to do.

ConvergenceRI: What is the best way to make your competing narrative heard?
HUANG:
What do you mean by competing? Are we competing with another blue tech incubator?

ConvergenceRI: No. I am talking about competing narratives in the way that innovation is the story about the way that different ecosystems interact and collide – at the local level, at the community level, at the regional level, but sometimes there is a difficulty in getting people to hear a competing narrative to their own story, because they are so locked into their own view of the universe.

It’s like in The New Yorker cartoon by Saul Steinberg, where New York City is portrayed as the center of the universe, and everything else is just a small, insignificant part.
HUANG:
Now I understand your question.

If we look at the region in a very tight [circle], drawing the epicenter from Boston, because Boston is Boston, if you shoot a 100-mile radius from Boston, including Portland, Maine, all the way down to southeastern Connecticut, you have wild fisheries, you have shellfish aquaculture, you have shipping, you have the navy ecosystem including the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, you have the Navy War College, you have the defense contractors, you have the U.S. Coast Guard R&D center, you have offshore wind, and then this region is interesting.

You also have Boston, which ranks number two or three in the world of startup ecosystems, measured many ways: one of them is IP generated, another is venture capital deployed.

Obviously, Silicon Valley gets the lion’s share of that, but Boston, followed by New York, or New York, followed by Boston, is number two or three.

If you tell that story, [encompassing] that 100-mile radius, that 200-mile diameter, it becomes an extremely powerful story, in our minds.

ConvergenceRI: How are you defining your cluster within that regional concept?
HUANG:
The definition of an economic cluster that we use is that a cluster is accreted: one plus one is more than two.

What does that mean? There is a robotics cluster in Boston; there is a life sciences cluster. Silicon Valley has a tech cluster. We have a potential to create a true blue tech cluster in New England.

I know that this group is working on marine acoustics; this group is working on data science for shipping; this group is working on defense. A cluster is not a trade association; not even close.

ConvergenceRI: Developing a blue tech cluster focused on ocean sustainability, it would seem, would need to address the urgent threats from climate change and developing innovative responses to those threats. Can you talk about how blue tech in a time of climate change threats can change the narrative?
HUANG:
That’s a good question. It’s a question that we just spent three hours in the morning in Boston talking about.

A couple of things to consider: the ocean produces most of the world’s oxygen. The ocean is also a source of primary protein for some 1 billion people in the world. The whole food ecosystem is under pressure [from climate change]. There is the changing pH of the ocean, acidification, ocean sea level rise…

ConvergenceRI: How will blue tech become part of the compelling story around coming up with an action plan to help mitigate and reduce the threats from climate change?
HUANG:
Our fundamental reason for existence as a benefit corporation is to catalyze more venture innovation that is tied to ocean sustainability, and that includes climate change.

The ocean is so big, and it is over the horizon, and not very well understood when we think about climate change, from the ocean’s perspective. We are taking an ocean-centric view of climate change.

It is a very, very visionary outline of innovation that is starting to emerge. How do we get more phytoplankton? There is a group down in Australia that is looking at that.

Others have argued about the benefits of seaweed and certain kinds of aquaculture, to bring back the biodiversity and strength of what the ocean already has.

What we want to do is be part of the dialogue, from the venture perspective, looking at the ocean perspective.

There is another startup on our website that actually harvests the larvae from coral; they help nurture it and then they reseed it. That’s awesome.

ConvergenceRI: How has the venture community responded to SeaAhead and the concept of a blue tech innovation hub? Are they listening?
HUANG:
I would say that the whole idea of blue tech is so new that it is not on their radar screen yet.

But what we are seeing through VCs in other sectors is that they are taking an interest in the ocean, in the food and ag tech space, for instance, there is interest in aquaculture, for instance.

Then there is clean teach, and looking at how to apply it to the maritime [industry sector], but they don’t call themselves blue tech.

The third sector is digital logistics, which is really hot right now, looking at some big deals in digitizing freight forwarding. It is inevitable that you end up at a port.

We’re starting to see some venture money touch the maritime and seafood space, but you don’t yet have a dedicated blue tech group, like a clean tech venture group or a food venture group.

The food venture groups have already been around for about seven or eight years, and now you have some 20 VC funds that invest in food.

My point is that we believe that blue tech today is where clean tech was 20 years ago, when solar was $14 a watt, and now it’s 60-70 cents a watt.

We don’t know what will happen; that’s speculative, but that is the chance we are taking.

ConvergenceRI: How does this translate into dinner table conversation, if someone asks you: what do you do? How do you respond?
HUANG:
I can’t give you a succinct answer; we are working on how we answer that question to get an aha!

We feel like we have to create a physical hub in the urban innovation district [in Boston]. We purposely formed a blue tech innovation center in the middle of all this other tech ventures, robotics and all that, to catalyze the hub, to try and get different people meeting – seafood people meeting with techies, and maritime people meeting with robotics [folks].

We want to create an ideation grant program, working with a very famous nonprofit that focuses on the ocean. You can apply for a grant, and if you get it, you will get mentored at the hub.

We have a physical space, we need corporate sponsors and other types of sponsors to believe in [what we are doing].

ConvergenceRI: If you had one message that you wanted to people to hear, what would it be?
HUANG:
It’s the idea that with startups and ocean sustainability, timing is everything. The opportunity is now; the global need has never been more acute.

We have all the right assets and capabilities to do this. We can have startups that work on the ocean, to improve the conservation and sustainability of the ocean. These companies will create jobs, and they are not all STEM jobs, some are blue-collar jobs as well.

New England is a great place to kick off this idea of a blue tech cluster.

ConvergenceRI: Could you call it a new kind of blue-collar economy?
HUANG:
That’s clever. I like it.

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