Recaps from SeaAhead's Inaugural Global Bluetech Summit

Earlier this month, SeaAhead convened an extraordinary collection of ocean-related entrepreneurs, VCs and other stakeholders for our inaugural Global Bluetech Summit in New York. The event, which took place at various locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan, showcased some of the most innovative companies working to create scalable solutions to the biggest issues facing ocean sustainability.

Below are our first few recaps of the sessions at the event, written by our associate editors, Hannah Armstrong and Luke Sawitsky. More will follow in a future post. Click here to see photos from the event.


Opening Keynote: Victor Vescovo, Founder, “The Five Deeps Expedition”

The event kicked off with an opening keynote presentation by undersea explorer Victor Vescovo, who recently became the first human to dive to the deepest point of all five oceans on the planet.

Vescovo, a private equity investor and a retired naval officer, explained that when he learned that only two manned missions had ever descended to the Challenger Deep (the deepest point in our oceans) he was determined to push the envelope of undersea exploration. Vescovo self-financed the “Five Deeps Expedition,” which he described as “a VC startup whose product was to dive to the bottom of all five oceans” to achieve his goals. He discussed how the expedition faced many challenges as it sought to conquer the deepest depths of our planet.

When one dares to accomplish something with a goal as bold as the “Five Deeps Expedition,” you often have to blaze a new path for yourself, Vescovo explained. He said he and his team faced myriad challenges at all phases of their mission, including designing a Deep Submergence Vehicle (DSV) from the pressure vessel up to be within 0.1% tolerance of specifications, developing over 90 different iterations of their dive plan, hitting narrow 4-6 week weather windows in the Arctic and Southern Oceans, and refitting a former submarine-chaser to be the trip’s mothership (since a near-silent vessel was needed to enable communications with the DSV). He also related how difficult it was simply to get permission to launch the DSV from local governments.

As Vescovo and his team overcame each of these challenges, they also pushed the frontier of human knowledge forward, finding a new lowest point of the Indian Ocean, encountering many previously unknown species, and discovering over 30 different oceanic features like canyons and seamounts (which Vescovo will get to name, a perk of exploration). The expedition also mapped over 300,000 square kilometers of the sea floor for the first time.

Vescovo said that his team was making all of their data publicly available, including detailed sea floor maps as well as details on the entirety of the water column in all five oceans, which he anticipates will help refine and enhance climate models in the future. His next goals: send the first woman to the bottom of the Challenger Deep and upgrade the DSV to withstand the corrosive environment around hydrothermal vents on the sea floor.

Vescovo said he was bullish on the prospects for the future of manned undersea exploration, but he warned all current and potential explorers in the audience “Don’t over-rely on technology… people want to punch through and go to the frontier of technology but the ocean is a harsh, harsh mistress.” Instead, he suggested that innovators not be overoptimistic about the technology they will use, but rather “start [with] small steps and build from there.”


Afternoon Keynote: Ayana Johnson, Founder, Ocean Collectiv

You never know where stubbornness will take you in life. For Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, being stubborn meant saying she wanted to become a marine biologist after traveling to Key West at the age of five, and actually sticking to that plan. Fast forward to 2019 and Dr. Johnson is still on her journey dedicated to securing a healthier, sustainable future for our oceans. Johnson is the founder of Ocean Collectiv, an organization that designs, builds, and implements creative and practical solutions for a healthy ocean.

Johnson recently took the stage at SeaAhead's inaugural Global Bluetech Summit in her own backyard of Brooklyn. Parts of her presentation focused on the drastic facts and figures from the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

When describing one graph from the report on past and future changes in the ocean and cryosphere she explained, “the blue line is what happens if we get our act together. The red line is what happens if we don’t,” indicating the dire consequences of inaction. Amidst all of the environmental issues we are facing, Dr. Johnson emphasized that “we need to be planning for a completely dynamic environment.” At present, she said, we are not at all prepared for the sea level rise and the storms associated with a changing climate.

With approximately 40% of Americans living in coastal counties, and 33% in coastal cities, Johnson said that it’s critical to begin re-envisioning coastal cities. Johnson, alongside collaborators Chad Nelsen and Bren Smith, identified four areas where the ocean can be part of the solution: restoring and protecting coastal ecosystems; investing in renewable offshore energy; bolstering the blue economy; and expanding regenerative ocean farming.

In addition to her continued efforts with Ocean Collectiv, Johnson has also created the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities whose primary focus is on building community around solutions.

“Climate change is coming for all of us, just in a different outfit, in a different form,” she reiterated. “The time to act is now.”


Panel — Forging Urban Waterfronts that are Smart and Resilient

A morning panel was moderated by Stewart Sarkozy-Banoczy (Founder, Precovery Labs), and included Mike Doenges (Global Business Development, Cisco), Elizabeth Yee (MD Climate/Resilience, Rockefeller Foundation), and Venetia Lannon (VP, Matrix New World Engineering). The speakers discussed how cities can help become part of the solution for ocean sustainability, starting with the urban waterfront nexus.

It’s no secret that city populations continue to experience rapid growth, and many of those highly populated cities are on or near the coast. In fact, Yee noted that nearly 50% of the world’s population is living in cities. “It’s a critical issue to think how we can continue to survive and thrive amidst issues we are facing,” Yee said. 

But what are the ways in which we are going to change where we are with our cities and our waterfronts?

Lannon had a few ideas on this front, saying: “If I had a magic wand, the first thing I would do is get city, state, and federal government [stakeholders] in the same room. … I would also focus on highways. Why aren’t we engaging our highways in these efforts? Let’s not give up on the partnerships of that scale, that vision.” Highways, she later explained, provide an outlet for continued innovation with electric cars, for example.

Doenges felt that we need to make urban waterfronts smart and connected. “The first thing we need to do is start collecting data,” he said. “There are a lot of known needs, but we’re missing a lot of the data.” In addition to exploiting data and other assets that local, state, and federal stakeholders might already have, it will then be important to collect new data to continue forging urban waterfronts that are smart and resilient, he said.

Sarkozy-Banoczy added that “there are changes we can make from the ocean up to the city, but also from the city and how the city affects our oceans.”

While every city is unique, the panelists recommended adopting inclusive, integrated, flexible strategies to prepare for changing coastal cities. From there, cities can collaborate to understand what works and what doesn’t — and how we achieve that desired resiliency for years to come.


Panel — The Future of Food from the Ocean

Another panel discussion at the event was moderated by Rajiv Singh (Founder, Foodshot Global), and included Mark Schrope (Director, Schmidt Marine Technology), Richard Stavis (Chief Sustainability Officer, Stavis Seafood), and Kelly Lucas (Director, USM Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center). The panel, which looked at the future of food from the ocean, wasted no time diving in to discuss new approaches that are needed to meet rising demand for seafood — and at the same time conserve our living ocean.

Lucas, based out of the University of Southern Mississippi, devotes her time to implementing cutting-edge technology and research to raise fish in an environmentally responsible way. She believes there is a lot of opportunity in “aquatech”, and her goal is to continue promoting sustainable marine aquaculture. Lucas and others working in aquaculture are not aiming to push out commercial fishing, but she feels strongly that “we all need to work together to achieve sustainability” and fill the protein supply gap we may soon face.

Adding to that, Stavis agreed that “there are fisheries you can catch responsibly and sustainably, but aquaculture is the future of how we are going to get protein.” Stavis said that he devotes his time to not only ensuring he can source seafood in innovative and sustainable ways, but also to educating consumers. “We need to figure out how to simplify the message to consumers,” he said, noting that consumer tastes ultimately dictate how new ideas are brought to market.

Schrope agreed: “We want to do what we can—people don’t know what they’re eating, or they only eat what they know.” He said that given the significant percentage of people that depend on seafood as their primary source of protein, it’s critical to shift the knowledge, given the potential to use other species [and technology] to meet the demand of a growing population.


Panel — Infrastructure for Ocean Innovation: Accelerators, Regional Clusters, and Seed Capital

Speaking about the ocean industries as a “community” — and locating them in the tech sector — is still a fairly new occurance. But when innovative ideas and talent are combined with venture capital, and with so much of the world’s population relying on our oceans to support their livelihood, bluetech is increasingly in focus.

At a panel at SeaAhead’s Global Bluetech Summit this fall, Moderator Erik Giercksky (Head of Sustainable Ocean Business Platform, UN Global Compact) spoke with Kenda MacDonald (CEO, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster), Boris Perlovsky (Director, Cambridge Innovation Center), and Ronny Waage (Founder, Heron Advisory) about how nascent ocean cluster organizations and accelerators can support new ventures in the blue economy.

When it comes to infrastructure for ocean innovation, panelists agreed that development tends to be quite siloed. There are both differences and similarities in regional approaches, but the panelists agreed that it’s increasingly critical to tackle our ocean’s problems with a cross-sectoral approach. Perlovsky explained that CIC looks to “partner with organizations to collaborate, whether it’s in the private or public sector.”

When asked what the driving force was behind starting the Canada Ocean Supercluster, MacDonald, said she wondered: “How do we change in terms of innovation and sustainability?” Given Canada’s extensive coastline, her team decided it was time to work together to change the culture of doing business in the ocean. She said that being proactive, instead of reactive, is important when breaking down walls to foster continued conversations, innovation, and sustainability.

When it comes to certain industries, like shipping and aquaculture, according to the panelists, siloed thinking is very evident. But they said that startups have the potential to be a catalyst for innovation, collaboration, and growth amongst bigger corporations. The key element that is bringing everyone together? Data sharing.

“There’s more value to the data in sharing it — that’s a hard shift in thinking,” said MacDonald. Startups need access to data. She said it’s critical to change the mindset that data is more valuable as a shared asset than a comparative advantage.


Panel — Transforming the Shipping Industry

A morning panel of industry leaders and startup innovators discussed the transformation of the shipping industry at Sea Ahead’s Bluetech Summit.  The sessions was moderated by John Konrad (CEO of gCaptain), and included Matt Morgan (founder and CEO of FreightFlows), Matt Heider (CEO of Nautilus Labs), Vesa Koivumaa (Business Development Director at Wärtsilä), and Tero Hottinen (Director of Emerging Business at Cargotec).  This mix of industry incumbents and innovative disruptors shared their views on the future of the shipping industry and where they see the biggest challenges and opportunities.

One key factor identified by the panelists was that there was a real need to bring more VC and other early stage investors into an industry they don’t understand well.  This lack of knowledge and connections within the maritime industry is adversely impacting the flow of capital into disruptive plays in shipping. The panelists agreed that there needs to be simpler explanations about the opportunities in shipping so that people outside of the industry can understand. 

Outside talent is another big need. Heider said that shipping is an industry which offers a big opportunity to positively impact the environment while also having solid prospects for advancement — which can be helpful in attracting smart graduates. But he said there are still many unmet needs, particularly around data collection and analysis, where data scientists are needed to analyze the petabytes of data being generated by shipping vessels every time they make port.

Another theme of the panel was the need to more effectively utilize the massive amounts of data being generated both at sea as well as on either side of the supply chain on the docks. The consensus of the panel was that there is a lot of low hanging fruit in the logistics and data space.  Additionally, the data that is being collected and analyzed is often being closely held and viewed as a key competitive advantage.  The panelists suggested that this approach limited the effectiveness of data analysis, and that data could be more valuable as a shared asset.  Similarly, collaboration between different maritime sectors such as the military, tanker, cargo, and scientific research communities was highlighted as another overlooked opportunity to realize significant benefits from cooperation. 

Koivumaa noted that companies like Wärtsilä are active across many different industries and are always looking for solutions regardless of the segment they originated from. Such solutions will be needed to achieve ambitious 2030 and 2050 decarbonization goals set by the IMO. And while Koivumaa believes that the industry is on track to hit the 2030 goals, the 2050 goals will require additional innovation, with enterprise solutions and ecosystem collaboration identified as two key areas where additional efficiencies could be achieved.

Heider said:  “The opportunity is massive, and it affects all of us…[but] if we don’t accept accountability for the oceans, we will be in a very tough space.” 


Fireside Chat — Offshore Wind in the U.S.

Offshore wind power generation is one of the fastest-growing energy categories in the U.S., particularly on the Eastern Seaboard, and the sector is garnering increasing attention in Bluetech circles. Ross Tyler (EVP at the Business Network for Offshore Wind), and Ruth Perry (Marine Science and Regulatory Policy Specialist at Mayflower Wind) talked about these issues in a fireside chat session at SeaAhead’s Global Bluetech Summit, sharing their experiences in the industry and bringing attendees up to speed on the state of the industry.

While many people may think of offshore wind only in terms of turbines in the ocean, both Tyler and Perry explained that their activity was not limited to just putting towers in the water, but rather a full supply chain operation with extensive impacts onshore. This includes building out infrastructure on land to support wind farms, building new support vessels, constructing infrastructure to connect the power generated offshore to the grid, and the economic activity generated from construction and materials production. Tyler also noted that these types of projects are also politically attractive, as they address key points of both conservative and liberal platforms by greening our energy production while supporting high-value jobs.

Collaboration with European companies has been a theme for many of the projects currently under construction on the East Coast.  Mayflower, which employs Perry, is a joint venture with partners Royal Dutch Shell and EDP Renewables, as are other East Coast wind energy producers like Bay State Wind (Ørsted and Eversource) and Vineyard Wind (Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and Avangrid Rewnewables).  Many of these organizations have pioneered offshore wind development in Europe and that experience lends strength to their operations in the United States. But there are some elements of operating in American waters that are drastically different from Europe.  For example, the American power grid needs additional infrastructure development to tie offshore wind generation into the existing systems, while European projects tend to be more “plug and play.”  Additionally, there are far more activity in American waters, particularly fishing fleets. The Northeast has been a traditional fisheries powerhouse, and the deployment of commercial-scale wind turbines off the coast has created a need to collaborate with these stakeholders. To that end, organizations like the Offshore Science Initiative are working to connect all relevant communities like recreational and commercial fishing, offshore wind developers, government agencies, and NGOs to ensure that new renewables projects can be developed without negatively impacting other groups who are also utilizing that marine space.

Tyler and Perry also discussed the potential for future innovation in the industry. Perry expanded on how there is a huge opportunity to broaden the scientific body of knowledge by instrumenting offshore wind installations. This could provide farm operators deeper understanding of the ecology of wind farms and how the structures impact the surrounding ecosystem. Better data might also better inform models for climate change, atmospheric dynamics, electric grid efficiency, and for tracking and predicting the location of seabird species or the critically endangered North Atlantic Right Whale. Generating such large data sets presents a challenge for analysis, and Perry explained that creating effective automated data analysis programs would pay dividends not only for offshore wind sites, but also for the massive amount of data that Shell and other oil companies generate from their existing offshore oil rig and exploration operations.

Tyler also explained that innovation could be applied within the financial realm as well.  He estimated that there are between $75-85 billion worth of projects in the pipeline in the coming decade that will need to be financed, which is enough capacity to provide many gigawatts of generation by 2030, with much of it located from the Virginia coast to Maine. However, he noted that these projects are too expensive for many companies to finance with their balance sheets.  Project finance is needed, and while PF firms are hesitant to finance entire projects, they could back certain parts of bigger projects in which they have a specific expertise. The remaining financing is a key question, and this gap could be filled by instruments like Green Bonds, which could be issued to fund future renewables projects offshore and are gaining popularity in Europe.

Hannah Armstrong