The idea first occurred to Daniel Watson while studying product design engineering at Glasgow university. He was living near a fishing port in Scotland when he read an article about Scottish fishers who were arrested in Norwegian waters for throwing fish back into the sea. This was in 2008, at a time when European Union (EU) regulations made it illegal to discard fish. Even so, the EU estimated that in 2007 between 40% and 60% of all fish caught by trawlers in the North Sea were thrown back overboard. This practice was a result of the EU quota system, preventing fishers from landing catch that were the wrong species or size. “It seemed interesting to me that there was all this political and consumer interest around this topic, but where was the technical innovation?” says Watson. “Why are we still fishing with gear that we used hundreds of years ago – is this the root of the problem?”

Globally, as much as 9 million tonnes of bycatch are caught each year, incurring financial penalties for the fishers and causing harm to the marine ecosystem. While the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has since undergone a major reform, many fish populations are still severely threatened because of the ever-increasing demands on resources and changes to the marine environment. With seafood projected to play an increasing role in addressing food and nutritional security for 10 billion people by 2050, technologies that enable systemic shifts towards more sustainable and effective capture and farmed fishing techniques are sorely needed.

Feeling inspired, Watson worked with scientists in a marine laboratory in Aberdeen and local fishers in hopes of finding a technical solution. “Some testing had been done in the 1970’s to show that fish responded differently to different types of lights. And that’s how we came up with the idea for the Pisces product,” says the now London-based CEO and co-founder of SafetyNet Technologies.

Over the next few years, Watson developed different prototypes to test various theories about light and fish behaviour, eventually designing a kit of 10 LED lights that can attach to fishing gear to improve fishing precision and reduce unwanted bycatch. Several competition wins later, Pisces began attracting seed funding from the likes of Young’s Seafood, Dyson and Sir Richard Branson, enabling Watson to form of a small team to continue his work.

His next challenge was finding a way to bring Pisces to the market. “We had this funding so we could build more prototypes and grow the team. But how do we go about commercialising the product so we can sustain the work going forward?” he says. “Income-generation is important, no matter your motivation, because if we can’t continue the business, we can’t provide these solutions to the fishers and the ecosystem. In that scenario, no one wins.”

Then in 2020, Watson discovered Creative Destruction Lab (CDL) – a non-profit organisation that delivers an objectives-based mentoring program for massively scalable, seed-stage companies to enhance the commercialisation of science for the betterment of humankind. “When we were accepted onto CDL’s Oceans Stream, I was introduced to a whole host of mentors and investors who really understood what it takes to become a successful business in the ocean domain – it was unapparelled to any other accelerator program we’ve experienced so far.”

Innovating the Ocean for a Sustainable Economy

Almost 8 billion people on Earth rely on the ocean for climate and weather regulation, 3 billion people depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, and over 200 million jobs are dedicated to fisheries alone. The ocean market is not a niche sector. Anyone that shops, eats, or breaths depends on the ocean.

As if the challenges of developing a sizable sustainable fisheries and aquaculture sector to help feed the planet aren’t enough, the health of the ocean (and the ecosystem services it offers) is threatened by a vast number of environmental issues – marine pollution, warming temperatures and changing ocean chemistry, to name a few – and the growing bustle of human activity which is having an untold number of impacts on marine biodiversity and habitats.

Because of these challenges, the United Nations has proclaimed this to be our Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030). Climate- and sustainable-focused global development are now at the top of the international policy agenda, creating massive risks and (possibly even bigger) rewards for those in the commercial sector willing to invest.

The ocean is still considered a relatively untapped resource, with the so-called blue economy forecast to double to USD $3 trillion by 2030. Now, we are seeing a rapid focus on accelerating the pace of innovation and commercialisation of ocean technologies, with an aim to both develop sustainable ocean industries and drive attractive financial returns for investors.

These innovative businesses will be the primary catalyst and solution to the world’s largest ocean sustainability problems – with pioneering ideas often locked in the minds of creative individuals who are part of a wave of start-ups working to solve the many challenges facing the planet today.

A New Approach to Accelerating Ocean Innovation

CDL has designed a new approach to enterprising research and innovation by nurturing an entrepreneurial mindset through expert opinion, funding opportunities, research analysis, and business development support. The Oceans Stream at CDL-Atlantic is housed at the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University, located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada – the forefront of Canada’s ocean industry. This Stream brings together experienced entrepreneurs, investors, and leading scientists from around the world who are active in the ocean industry.

Chris Huskilson, a Founding Partner of CDL-Atlantic and former CEO and President of Emera Inc, believes that CDL’s unique approach to helping innovation offers a tremendous opportunity for both the environment and economies around the world.

Not every company is lucky enough to be accepted onto this influential programme, and there is no guarantee they will graduate. After a rigorous application and screening process, CDL’s panel selects 20 companies that show potential to be both massively scalable and globally impactful. CDL mentoring sessions, taking place every eight weeks over the course of a year, are typically held virtually – a symptom of the COVID-19 pandemic that has enabled the programme to greatly benefit by being able to recruit and include a diverse, global cohort of start-ups, world-class mentors and active investors.

During these virtual sessions, each company is set three specific objectives which they must accomplish over the next eight weeks if they are to continue onto the next round. As you might expect, some start-ups don’t make the cut. Of the 20 companies who enter, only about 10-12 graduate in each cohort. But for those who do, they emerge at the other end with the highly sought-after investor support, a strategic plan for commercialisation, and a giant leap closer to realising their entrepreneurial vision – sometimes slightly focused or redirected under the scrutiny of global experts.

The Rising Trend of Ocean Impact Investment

To fast-track the release of much-needed solutions to improve ocean health and sustainable development, the CDL Oceans Stream has helped the cohort of start-ups create more than $200 million in equity value in their first year alone. They’ve done this with the help of salty, passionate billionaires from fishing fortunes to young, enthusiastic billionaires from Silicon Valley who are on the hunt to find, mentor, invest, and scale start-ups that will make a positive impact on the ocean, humanity, and the economy. They include big names like Builders Vision S2G Ventures, SWEN Blue Ocean, Boost VC, Aiim Partners, Oceankind, and Cuna del Mar.

These days, investors can be grouped into three types – equity, government and philanthropy. Huskilson explains, “The equity investors are interested in seeing if something can be done that will be massive, or scalable. So, with the ocean being such an untapped area, the opportunity is great from that perspective. Governments are willing to support this activity because it’s a new kind of opportunity for economies around the world. And then you have philanthropic organisations interested in the ocean, again, because it’s so unknown and untapped that they want to make sure any development is environmentally sustainable.”

“At CDL, you have those three different types of investors all sitting around the table, all with different points of view, and all bringing something valuable to the equation,” he adds.

Having access to all three types of investors ensures a higher chance of success for CDL graduates. If you are a start-up that may not be commercially profitable for several years, you can still attract funding from governments and philanthropic groups. But those who show potential in 3-5 years will generate more interest in equity investors. This mix of investment is helping with the momentum of ocean innovation and upscaling solutions to the planet’s sustainability challenges.

An Ocean of Opportunity, with Less Risk

When it comes to investment, the ocean is perceived as high risk and a challenging place to do business. CDL focuses on reducing the risk of start-ups to make them more attractive to investors and enable more opportunities for commercial development and growth. They do this by connecting start-up’s with highly experienced mentors who help to sharpen objectives, prioritise time and resources, raise capital, and engage with experts working on the frontiers of research.

Of course, this works both ways. While it creates a stronger investment opportunity, it also benefits start-ups who have limited time and resources to look for funding.

Outside of CDL, fundraising is time-consuming. Last year, Watson made 150 pitches out of a shortlist of 400 potential investors they put together, ending with four joining their investment round. “CDL vets the investors and mentors but they also vet us as a start-up. This meant people were willing to talk with us because we already accepted onto the programme. It saves everyone huge amounts of time,” says Watson. “There were also CEOs of companies who were potential customers on this program willing to give us time out of their day when they are running a multimillion-dollar company. It feels very personable, equitable and very confidence inspiring for a young company. I’m almost certain I wouldn’t have had access to that person otherwise.”

Building Something Massive, but Globally Significant

The diversity and energy in the CDL Oceans start-ups are impressive and contagious. Companies in the present CDL Oceans cohort (graduating this June) are tackling global ocean problems, including ocean-based carbon capture, illegal and unregulated fishing, AI technology to improve drinking water and aquaculture safety, and algae development to make aquaculture and pharmaceutical production more sustainable. The early-stage companies are earning massive investments and global awards, such as the first stage of the $100M XPRIZE for Carbon Removal.

One such company is carbon sequestration specialist Planetary Technologies, who are developing an accelerated carbon transition platform with the aim to take one gigaton of carbon out of the atmosphere every year starting from 2035. After winning various awards and funding, this group of passionate entrepreneurs, scientists, and engineers are now closer to making this dream a reality.

“If we stopped all emissions today, then in 100,000 years, the carbon would rebalance based on this natural process. But, of course, we don’t have that long, so we need to speed things up,” said Planetary’s CEO Mike Kelland.

Another CDL Oceans graduate that stands out is ECOncrete, co-founded by the late Dr. Shimrit Perkol-Finkel, a brilliant marine biologist and a visionary innovator, who tragically lost her life in a car accident in March 2021. Alongside, world-leading expert in ecological engineering, Dr. Ido Sella, they developed a concrete alternative that enhances biodiversity and enables large coastal developments to be more environmentally friendly and last longer, providing ecological and financial returns. Sella and the late Perkol-Finkel have recently been nominated by the European Patent Office (EPO) for the European Inventor Award 2022 – one of Europe’s most prestigious innovation prizes.

Today, Watson and his team of 21 people at SafetyNet Technologies now offer two more products alongside his original Pisces prototype: a net-mounted underwater sensor called Enki that lets fishers collect their own ocean data, and a robust underwater camera called Catchcam that gives fishers insights into how fish behave in nets and if bycatch mitigation methods are working. As a result, fishers can adapt to regulations, avoid fines and fish more sustainably.

CDL mentor, Peter Bryant, is a senior program officer focused on strategy development, environmental grant-making, and impact investment opportunities for Builder Vision, the impact platform for Lukas Walton, grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton. The goal of Builders Vision is to create a humane and healthy planet by shifting minds and markets for good. “We’re in the UN Decade of the Oceans, so now is a great time for investors to get interested in this space,” says Bryant. “It’s been underinvested in, and until recently, it’s been harder for the investment community to understand and wrap their arms around the opportunities available. It can also be a riskier space, and I think that has left some investors gun-shy. But this is now changing. As the sector is developing, we are starting to see more funds come online, more accelerator programs focused on the ocean and, as a result, we are starting to see a real upswell in business innovations and solutions.”

“The other side of that is that ocean habitats represent 71% of the planet. If we are going to solve the climate crisis, then we need to think about the role the ocean can play in doing that,” he adds.

To meet rising demands without continuing to harm our ocean, we must focus on sustainable growth. With an accelerating global population, growing demand for ocean resources, and heightened sustainability imperatives, now is the time to make a positive impact on the ocean, humanity and global economies. And with the right guidance, it is possible to save the planet and make a profit by investing in innovative and scalable ocean start-up ventures.

About the author

Eric Siegel is the Chief Innovation Officer for Canada’s Ocean Frontier Institute and the Executive in Residence at CDL-Oceans. Eric has worked at the intersection of ocean science, technical innovation, and international business for more than twenty years. He has held director and founder positions in global ocean technology companies leading teams in sales, marketing, business development, product development, and advanced manufacturing. He was appointed to the UN Ocean Decade Technology & Innovation Informal Working Group and sits on the board of directors at Sustainable Oceans Applied Research and Sail Nova Scotia. Eric is trained in physical oceanography, naval architecture and marine engineering, and earned an MBA with a focus on leadership, innovation, and global business.