Ask experts in the area and they’ll tell you: the blue economy is the future of Alaska’s economic stability.
Long an exporter of raw goods and natural resources, Alaska must transition from that exportation to the development of sustainable ocean businesses — enterprises that guarantee their own longevity by shifting the focus away from finite resources — if the state has any hope for future economic growth.
Even at a glance, a focus on the oceans makes sense for Alaska. With approximately 6,640 miles of coastline, some of it bordering the Arctic Ocean, Alaska has more coastline than all of the rest of the states’ coastlines combined—and that’s not including the coastlines of the many islands that make up Alaskan communities, which bring the total up to over 47,000 miles.
Our access to the oceans is unparalleled in the United States and is similar to that of Norway, home to one of the world’s leading global ocean industries.
Beyond even just access, Alaska already has an economy largely built around oceans. Alaskan fishermen provide nearly two-thirds of the nation’s annual seafood harvest.
If Alaska’s ocean industry were proportional to the size of its available ocean, it would be worth nearly $100 billion — more than twice the state’s current overall economic worth. Industries like coastal tourism and energy are already in place, and the potential for developing marine biotechnology, mariculture, and other ocean industries is tremendous.
There is no doubt that the blue economy is the best fit and strongest hope for Alaska’s economic future. The transition from simple resource extraction and exportation to sustainable development of the oceans is a logical step and can and must happen quickly to aid Alaska’s unstable economic future.
It is easy to talk about this transition, however, and much harder to conceptualize how to set it in motion — especially as individuals, not large corporations or government entities.
What exactly does this blue economy look like for the average Alaskan, and how do we start these movements towards its development?
At the Alaska Ocean Cluster, we feel that the best way to grow the state’s blue economy is to focus on the individual. Alaskans are themselves one of the state’s biggest resources: independent, driven, and strongly self-motivated, our residents are perfectly poised to develop startups or small businesses.
The missing link is not drive or entrepreneurial spirit — it’s merely a lack of knowledge about the resources available in our state.
Our Alaska Ocean Cluster programming focuses thus on developing connections between Alaskans and the resources and mentors they can use to develop their own ideas, driving growth in ocean industries by maintaining relationships within the triple helix: private, public, and academic sectors.
By connecting industry experts and university professors with Alaskans with big ideas for a future ocean-related business, we are aiding the growth of our blue economy while developing further networks for continued mentorship and development.
Our Ocean Technology Innovation Sprint, or OTIS, Program is a perfect example. The program brings together twenty Alaskans from across the state with varying experiences and expertise to form teams to identify challenges in ocean industries, brainstorm solutions to these challenges, and develop and prototype a product that addresses that challenge.
OTIS participants identify challenges to Alaska’s ocean industries. (Photo/Alaska Ocean Cluster)
Along the way, industry experts offered up descriptions of problems in their industry, mentors from around the state offered feedback on team ideas, previous OTIS alumni provided guidance and support, and tech and design experts helped with the prototyping and design portions of creating a marketable product. Teams presented their final products at Demo Night 2018, Nov. 14 at the Loussac Library, where the community will be invited in to view the prototypes, listen to pitches, and vote on their “fan favorite” team to award prizes.
The beauty of this program is its ability to connect Alaskans with the kinds of resources they need to develop high-value, high-quality business ventures and proposals.
By networking people successfully and meaningfully, OTIS simultaneously helps to encourage blue innovation while adding to the network of people and resources willing to help this innovation.
Last year, the winning OTIS team produced a seaweed energy bar that addressed the problem of lack of viability for seaweed products in the seafood industries, while another team developed into a full startup for an app, Wheelhouse, which connects Alaskans with jobs in the blue sector.
Wheelhouse presented at the Nov. 13 Startup Week Special Edition Ocean Tuesday, a weekly 10 a.m. webinar where speakers present on ocean-related startups and industries. The goal of this is to further spark ideas and connections over blue innovation.
By connecting two of Alaska’s biggest resources, its people and its oceans, the Alaska Ocean Cluster is creating small, manageable steps to transition Alaska from its current economic method to that of sustainable blue development.
As the network of interested, quality stakeholders continues to grow, we can encourage the development of blue startups and small businesses while providing them with the resources and expertise they need to be successful. In doing so, we can help to develop Alaska’s economy as a stable, sustainable leader in global ocean production.
Meg Pritchard is the Marketing & Communications Manager for the Alaska Ocean Cluster Initiative, a program with the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association. The Alaska Ocean Cluster Initiative intends to transform Alaska’s economy by capturing more value from our vast ocean resources.