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Raising All Boats: Blue Economy Initiative Seeks To Lure Growth And Innovation

By Cece Nunn, posted Sep 27, 2021
(Photography by Daria Amato, Megan Deitz, T.J. Drechsel & Madeline Gray)
Nathan King and his partners, Sam and Joe Romano, started crabbing together in Masonboro Sound about 15 years ago, selling their hauls to restaurants around town and in Raleigh and Durham.
 
“We did odd jobs back in high school (in Virginia Beach) – you know, mowed lawns and dumped junk and stuff like that together – so we had a working relationship,” King said.
 
They also graduated from college around the same time, and the Romanos purchased a commercial fishing license.
 
“That sounded perfect for me at the time, not getting behind a desk or rushing into a job or anything,” King said. “And then it was more of the entrepreneurism that drove us, an ability to grow a business together mixed with working on the water.”
 
King and the Romanos own Seaview Crab Co., headquartered at 1515 Marstellar St. in Wilmington, where they sell seafood wholesale and through a retail market and a kitchen and deli. They also have a seafood retail market on Carolina Beach Road. Their team includes more than 60 fishmongers with a supply chain along the North Carolina coast and beyond.
 
Seaview Crab Co. is part of the Blue Economy, a concept that has given rise to a growing local initiative to boost what the World Bank defines as “the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs while preserving the health of the ocean ecosystem.”
 
The organization, The Alliance for a Blue Economy (All Blue), allbluenc.org, has an advisory board of science and business leaders who are focusing on attracting, advising and launching businesses in five Blue Economy sectors: ocean engineering and marine robotics; sustainable aquaculture and fisheries; marine biotechnology; tourism, recreation and hospitality; and coastal conservation and resilience.
 
Born out of the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, All Blue has ambitious goals that include bringing Blue Economy investment capital to Southeastern North Carolina and promoting the region as a Blue Economy innovation hub. The alliance also wants the area to become a global leader in Blue Economy solutions, assist in the creation of a Blue Economy-ready infrastructure, make connections between sectors, support entrepreneurship and champion diversity, equity, inclusion and sustainability, according to the organization’s website.
 
All Blue started forming about two years ago under the guidance of Diane Durance, former director of UNCW’s CIE. She sought the help of industry leaders and other kinds of experts, including Kim Nelson, a Wilmington resident and consultant who works with nonprofits on strategic planning.
 
After Durance asked Nelson for her assistance, Nelson met with the five sector leads initially, “and then we expanded the groups and we reached out into the community and we reached out to other experts that were interested in those five sectors, and we put together a mission, a vision and some priorities for each of the sectors. And then as we looked at the thread that went across through the five sectors, we built the mission and vision for the overarching All Blue initiative,” Nelson said.
 
Nelson is co-chair of All Blue with Jay Schach, mentor with Seagrass Consulting LLC and an adjunct professor in the Cameron School of Business Management Department at UNCW.
 
Part of All Blue’s work is to find answers to far-reaching Blue Economy questions, Nelson said.
 
“Instead of having individual businesses that are just doing their little piece,” she said, “how do we bring those businesses together in a way that allows us to make the Blue Economy stronger, or how do we work with businesses that maybe are on the fringe of what we would define as the Blue Economy, and they’ve got something but they don’t quite know how to really position it in the global economy – how do we help them position that?”
 
She believes the kind of connections All Blue can make will be key to growth.
 
“When you unite people in a way where they can all be working in their sweet spot, their real area of specialty, when you bring those resources together, it can accomplish a lot more than any of them could do as an individual,” Nelson said.
 
Schach gave an example of how resources can be combined to come up with solutions.
 
“When I was with Cleveland Water Alliance, they put together a system of sensors to monitor the algae bloom. So once they got the sensors up, they knew that in the water departments, they could put in a certain chemical that gets rid of the taste of the algae,” he said. “But if it was too early, it was wasted. And if it was too late, it didn’t take the taste out. Working together, they helped all the community water departments with the quality of their water.”
 
All Blue is working with companies already in the area and hopes to lure some new ones by showing that the region can provide the same resources in some cases at a lower cost, Schach said.
 
Nelson said the alliance is working on fostering the creation of new businesses as well as opportunities that can emerge from Blue Economy sectors, such as data collected by marine robotics equipment.
 
The All Blue co-chair said she believes the initiative’s efforts, which also focus on sustainability, differ from that of other local economic development groups.
 
“I would say it complements the work that they do, but it focuses specifically on things that we believe are in that Blue space. And so when you look at a traditional economic development group, they’re looking at economic development from a broad perspective and just given our region, they will, of course, focus on the water,” Nelson said. “It’s a piece of who we are, so it’s not that they don’t address those things, but that’s not their focus. Their focus is on economic development of any type.”
 
All Blue can also help pursue grants that are specific to the Blue Economy, she said.
 
Aiming for grants, potentially large ones, is one of the goals of another Blue Economy organization that grew from the university along with establishing a facility that can foster the creation of successful tech companies.



With a focus on Blue Technology, including robotics and engineering, Cape Fear Ocean Labs spun out of UNCW’s CIE as a 501(c)(3) to work on becoming “the globally recognized lead organization in the Cape Fear Region for Blue Tech economic growth and job creation based on scientific discovery, technology development and commercial deployment,” the organization’s website states.
 
Glenn Anderson, chairman of the board of directors of Cape Fear Ocean Labs, said that like All Blue, his organization has worked to boost awareness of the Blue Economy and how its local growth could benefit the region.
 
“It’s a big deal,” Anderson said. “In North Carolina, there’s not a deep understanding of it, and in Wilmington, when you say, ‘Blue Economy,’ everybody’s first reaction is beer, shrimp and the view.
 
“And our focus is on the commercial side, not really the tourism side of the Blue Economy.”
 
Cape Fear Ocean Labs organizers feel the area has a lot going for it to attract and grow more of that commercial side. Wilmington has unique competitive advantages when it comes to creating a Blue Tech business cluster, Anderson said, along with its proximity to important waterways. Those advantages include UNCW, Cape Fear Community College and the Port of Wilmington.
 
“That combination is actually pretty rare … you have access to a biological preserve, you have open ocean coastal and deep sea and you have the anchor institutions that support Blue Economy activities,” Anderson said.


 
Bill Wilson, board secretary and treasurer for Cape Fear Ocean Labs, added, “And you have the city. There are lots of big stretches of coastline that are kind of basically vacation homes and tourist destinations. But Wilmington has a real economy beyond that coastal tourism-fishing economy, and that gives it a basis to build on that a lot of other places don’t have.”
 
A key initial goal for Cape Fear Ocean Labs is opening a makerspace with room to act as an accelerator and have room for a job recruiting program and workforce training.
 
The group also plans to “provide a depot of marine unmanned surface, subsurface and aerial robotics systems that we will lease at low cost to academic institutions and commercial users,” its website states.
 
In August, the organization was in the midst of searching for a space.
 
“There are several sites that have potential,” whether it be buying property or leasing existing facilities, Anderson said.
 
The Blue Economy, in particular the Blue Tech Economy, is a top funding priority for the federal government, Anderson said.
 
He added that grant money, to the tune of millions of dollars, is available from the U.S. Economic Development Administration. UNCW or New Hanover County could apply for the grant, and Cape Fear Ocean Labs could staff it, he said.
 
In an example of Blue Economy strides made recently, the ocean engineering and marine robotics sector is also collaborating with N.C. A&T State University to bring minority engineering students together with UNCW marine science, coastal engineering and business students for semester-long programs to explore innovations in marine energy and robotics.
 
The joint A&T/UNCW team was selected as one of 17 teams to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Marine Energy Collegiate Competition.



One of the participants in All Blue in the biotech field is SeaTox. Based at UNCW’s CREST Research Park, SeaTox Research Inc. focuses on drug discovery, the development of natural products into bioactives and tests for toxins that can contaminate commercial seafood.
 
SeaTox was founded by Jennifer and Sam McCall in 2013, and Sam McCall has been a member of a CIE Blue Economy workgroup.
 
“I would really like to see the initiative start to draw in and otherwise expand the technological endeavors here in Wilmington and really Southeastern North Carolina,” he said. “There’s kind of a void for big tech whether it be biotech, chemtech. We’ve certainly grown over the years with a couple of big names, but it’s nowhere near as prevalent as say RTP (Research Triangle Park) is, and we’d really like to try and draw some of that down here in Wilmington and use the marine resources we have here.” Sam McCall said such growth is beneficial to his firm and other companies.
 
“We’ve said this a lot, and it bears repeating that a rising tide raises all boats, and so we hope that by bringing in additional or new businesses, industries that are tangential to biotech, that we’ll have new collaborators, we’ll have new projects that we can work on, those kinds of things,” Sam McCall said. “Certainly we hope that SeaTox grows along with the local economy.”
 
Biotech is just one component of the Blue Economy that All Blue wants to foster and connect.
 
For King, of Seaview Crab Co., the sustainable aquaculture and fisheries sector of the Blue Economy is an area that provides a win for all sides.
 
Growing clams and oysters and other shellfish is an economic opportunity that’s “seen extreme growth, and there’s a lot of new people getting into it,” King said.
 
It’s an industry that creates jobs while also helping the environment, he said, and he wants to encourage more young people to consider careers on the water.
 
As another means of promoting the area’s Blue Economy, an All Blue Week is scheduled for Nov. 1-7 that would encourage participation from the community and UNCW in dozens of activities.
 
“The dream,” former CIE director Durance said, “would be that everybody in our community is aware of what the Blue Economy is, and they’re doing their part, whatever that is, even if it’s something as simple as not using plastic straws, or it could be something as sophisticated as founding a marine biotechnology company.”
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