June 6, 2023

Working to Turn the Tide: BlueSwell Ocean Technology Innovation

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The overall awareness of the new blue economy – defined as “a sustainable and equitable ocean and coastal economy that optimizes advances in science and technology” – has been slowly spilling into the mainstream and is predicted to be a major driver of economic growth over the next 10 years.

To further propel the growth of these ocean-dependent sectors across the northeast corridor and beyond, the New England Aquarium and SeaAhead Inc., a Boston-based Public Benefit Corporation, launched the BlueSwell Program in 2020. The multi-tiered program is made up of a series of workshops, network programming, mentor matching and expert advising, which is designed to help startups tackling some of the most pressing ocean-related issues.

The New England Aquarium is a non-profit conservation organization that has protected and cared for the ocean and marine animals for more than 50 years, with scientists who conduct applied marine research that informs ocean management, industry practices and a blue economy that puts ocean health first. SeaAhead, a social enterprise that specializes in supporting innovation in the ocean technology sector, brings a wealth of knowledge and experience through its expansive network of ocean industry mentors, partners and experts. This unique partnership allows BlueSwell to offer customized programming, technical assistance and resources to each of its companies, and supports the growth of startups that take a whole-ocean view in fighting climate change and advancing the blue economy.

When it comes to the blue economy, the scale of the economic opportunities – and the environmental challenges – is enormous. Finding the right starting place is critical, according to SeaAhead Co-founder and Executive Director, Alissa Peterson.

“It’s really difficult for a small start-up to pull together the resources they need in order to scale,” Peterson says. “We started it with the mission to support companies with novel approaches to innovate not only for ocean health but for sustainable industries as well. These are some immense challenges being faced. BlueSwell is about finding that leverage point where you can, even with a small amount of force, make big changes.”

New Ideas, New Solutions: A Start-up Story

Old habits die hard. For Alison Rogers Cove, Founder and CEO of USEFULL, old habits can also derail good intentions.

“I always tried to be environmentally conscious. I recycled, and used paper products, to do what I can to make a difference,” Cove recalls. “And still, at the end of another busy week, I would find myself surrounded by take-out containers, plastic-lined trash and other waste. Something had to change.”

For many Americans, it takes significant effort to maintain an environmentally conscious lifestyle, and even then, it is hard to know what impact those efforts have. From “wish cycling” to “greenwashing,” the journey of supposedly “environmentally friendly” products from creation to consumer to a recycling center is often unclear.

Annually, in the U.S. alone, billions of single-use plastic and paper-based containers are created and used by consumers. Most of these items end up as trash both in landfills and as marine debris and pollution in the open ocean. Recycling is woefully inefficient for these items, as food waste often contaminates the containers making them unrecyclable. Less than ten percent of all plastics ever created have been recycled, despite decades-long efforts to reduce one-time product use and increase public awareness of the problem.

To foster new consumer habits, Cove launched USEFULL. Described as a “zero-waste, tech-based, plastic-free, returnable, reusable, recyclable cups and containers system,” USEFULL is designed to eliminate single-use food/beverage waste. Based in Cambridge, MA, USEFULL’s circular economy product line is now being used on college and corporate campuses throughout the US, replacing millions of single-use containers with returnable, reusable products.

For any start-up company, growth is never guaranteed. The challenges are even greater when you focus on innovations related to climate and technology. Having an idea is one thing; bringing that idea to consumers is another entirely. For Cove and more than two dozen “bluetech” companies, BlueSwell was the key to success.

Innovators and the Incubator

Now starting its fourth cohort, BlueSwell acts as an early-stage incubator. Start-ups are chosen via a rigorous application process and run through a six-month accelerated program. SeaAhead supports the start-ups through mentorship and training across all aspects of business development, while the New England Aquarium provides significant resources via access to data, scientific experts and peer-reviewed validation of a start-up’s environmental impact. In addition to USEFULL, more than two dozen start-ups will have gone through the program by the end of 2023. The success of these companies can mean a greater impact on the environment and greater drivers of job creation and economic growth. Below are some examples of cohort projects:

A Rising Tide of Donor Impact

For Dr. John Mandelman, Vice President and Chief Scientist for the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, the BlueSwell Incubator feels like a natural evolution in climate strategy.

“There’s a surprise element that comes with a public aquarium doing work to both found and run an ocean technology incubator,” Mandelman says. “Traditionally when aquariums have gotten involved in ocean conservation initiatives, it has mostly been through educational programs. We’re also a leader in the conservation science and advising side, however. Helping corporations consider environmental impact is a part of that work, and working with start-ups is a natural extension of that mission.”

Experts project that ocean-dependent sectors, already boasting a $1.5 trillion global economic impact, could double that impact in less than ten years with the integration of innovative technologies and new capital investments. For the New England Aquarium, projects like BlueSwell would be impossible without philanthropic support from donor-advised funds (DAFs).

“Some of our biggest signature programs at the New England Aquarium, including BlueSwell, have been supported by DAFs,” Mandelman notes. “They play a critical role in supporting our mission beyond the walls of the aquarium. We’re doing work all around the globe aimed at making the ocean healthier, and donor-advised funds have been critical to making it happen.”

Though there is a long way to go toward a balance between economic engines and environmental stewardship, collaborative projects like BlueSwell stand out as beacons of positive change for both the environment and for creators. “From developing the business side to really digging into the ecological impact data, BlueSwell was the most focused and individualized attention I’ve ever received,“ Cove explains. “There are a lot of amazing innovators who are trying to change the world for the better. Donor support for these projects really gives me hope for what our world could look like in the future.”

Photo credit: BlueSwell Cohort III along with representatives from the New England Aquarium and SeaAhead pictured in front of the Aquarium. CREDIT: Vanessa Kahn/New England Aquarium

About the Author

Tom Miller is a writer, line producer, project manager and creative content professional with more than 20 years’ experience in the nonprofit sector. Prior to joining NPT, Tom worked with a series of large-scale universities and performing arts institutions in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. From video production and live events to audio storytelling and the written word, he enjoys discovering the core emotional value of any subject.