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In the Accelerator over the Sea

In our oceans the scale of disasters is measured in millions, billions, and trillions, while solutions amount to single digits: individuals or institutions working to impact a chosen issue with approaches often both brilliant and quixotic.

Putting such individuals in close contact with both whales and billionaires is the strange alchemy being attempted by the Sustainable Ocean Alliance’s Accelerator at Sea.

I and a few other reporters were invited to observe said program, a five-day excursion in Alaska that put recent college graduates, aspiring entrepreneurs, legends of the sea, and soft-spoken financial titans on the same footing: spotting whales from Zodiacs in the morning, learning from one another in the afternoon, and drinking whiskey good and bad under the Northern lights in the pre-dawn dark.

In that time I got to know the dozen or so companies in the accelerator, the second batch from the SOA but the first to experience this oddly effective enterprise.

(By way of disclosure, I should say that I was among four press offered a spot on the chartered boat; Those invited, from penniless students to deep-pocketed investors, could join provided they got themselves to Juneau for embarkation.)

Of course, there’s no “solution” to the million of tons of plastic and oil in the oceans poisoning fish and creating enormous dead zones.

But there are mitigations, choices we can make and technologies we can opt for where a small change can propagate meaningfully and, if not undo the damage we’ve done, reduce it going forward and make people aware of the difference they can make.

The trip came right at the beginning of the accelerator, a choice that meant they were only getting started in the program and in fact had never met one another.

Some accelerators are so big and so general-purpose that it was refreshing to have a manageable number of companies all clustered around interlinked issues and united by a common concern.

The problems may be multifarious, but I managed to group the startups under two general umbrellas: waste reduction and aquatic intelligence.

Gator is using a special method to grow corals at 50 times normal rates and hopefully resuscitate reefs around the world, which is awesome, but I wanted to put Coral Vita first because of a horribly apropos coincidence: Hurricane Dorian, the latest in a historically long unbroken line of storms, struck his home and lab in the Bahamas while we were at sea.

Humans produce a lot of waste, and a lot of that waste ends up in the ocean, either as whole plastic bags scooping up fish, microplastics poisoning them, or heavier trash cluttering the sea floor.

Finless Foods hopes to indirectly reduce the huge amount of cost and waste created by fishing (“sustainable” really isn’t) by creating lab-grown tuna tissue that’s indistinguishable from the real thing.

The technology used in the maritime and fishing industries tends toward the “sturdy legacy” type rather than “cutting edge.” That’s changing as costs drop and the benefits of things like autonomous vehicles and IoT become evident.

For larger-scale inspection, autonomous boats like Saildrone are an increasingly valuable tool — but they cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and have their own limitations.

I met SOA founder Daniela Fernandez at a TechCrunch event a few years ago when all this was just one of many twinkles in her twinkly eyes, and it’s been rewarding to watch her grow a community around these issues, which have passionate supporters around the globe if you’re willing to look for them and validate their purpose.

The organization was built with the idea of putting young, motivated people together with older, more experienced ones, and that’s just what was happening.

In a way it was what you might expect out of an accelerator program: Connecting startups with industry veterans and investors (of which there were several present) and getting them the advice and exposure they need.

“For the first time ever, we brought together a community of ocean entrepreneurs from all around the world and allowed them to become fully immersed in the environment that they have been working so hard to protect,” said Craig Dudenhoffer, who runs the accelerator program.

In a normal startup accelerator, and in fact for the remainder of this one, aspiring entrepreneurs are living on their own somewhere, coming into a shared office space, attending office hours, meeting VCs in their offices or at demo days.

That’s just fine, and indeed what many a startup needs — a peer group, a focal point in space and time, goals and advice.

Part of that was the gravity of the issues the startups were facing, and which we were reminded of repeatedly by the impending hurricane, the hatchery warning of salmon apocalypse, the visibly collapsing ecosystems, and perhaps most poignantly by the changes seen personally by Don and Sven, who were been on the seas professionally long before I was even born.

“We have a fund that generates a couple million dollars a year, and we find different people that we believe in — that have an idea, a passion, intelligence.

They need support in a variety of ways — advice, finance, mentorship, all these things are part of the puzzle,” he said.

But we can provide some support, and it’s like with salmon eggs – maybe instead of one in a million surviving, maybe two, or five survive, you know?”

We need solutions, actions, ideas, as fast as we can, to accelerate the change in behavior as fast as we can.”

The Accelerator at Sea program was a fascinating experience and I’m glad to have taken part.

The combination of good times in nature, stimulating experts and talks, and a group of highly motivated young entrepreneurs was a powerful mixture, and unfortunately one that is difficult to describe even in 3,000 words.

But I’m glad it exists and I look forward to following the progress of these companies and the people behind them.

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