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Marine tech accelerator plans receive federal support

Mark Parker

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Sailboats dock behind the College of Marine Science at the USF St. Petersburg campus. Tampa Bay Wave has partnered with the university and the St. Petersburg Innovation District to launch a marine tech startup accelerator. Photos by Mark Parker.

Entrepreneurial, scientific and innovation leaders are collaborating to create a marine-focused business accelerator in St. Petersburg; after receiving planning funding, they will now compete for millions of federal dollars.

The U.S. Department of Commerce and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) announced Feb. 20 that it awarded $3.9 million through a new Ocean-based Climate Resilience Accelerators program. A local proposal was one of 16 nationwide that received funding.

Tampa Bay Wave, the St. Petersburg Innovation District and USF St. Petersburg could now receive between $5 million and $15 million to establish the BlueTech | X Accelerator. It will foster startups and entrepreneurs who provide pioneering environmental resiliency solutions through new technologies, products and services.

“I think it hit the sweet spot of what NOOA was looking for … broadening the perspective of what it means to have a business in the blue economy,” said Alison Barlow, executive director of the Innovation District. “So, taking the goodness you get from the traditional folks that work in that space – academics, government, nonprofits and some private industry – but then marrying it with innovative technology.”

The Innovation District’s vast resources include research vessels like the Western Flyer. Its “moon pool” allows researchers to deploy remotely operated vehicles.

Barlow told the Catalyst that Tampa Bay Wave (TBW) has a proven history with federal projects. The nonprofit accelerator has supported over 500 startups and helped create more than 5,000 jobs.

TBW’s “Catching the Blue Wave: Accelerating America’s Ocean Economy” proposal garnered $250,000, the highest amount awarded through the program’s first phase. The organization has recently partnered with USFSP, an Innovation District anchor institution, to create the HealthTech | X Accelerator and FinTech | X Accelerator.

Linda Olson, CEO of TBW, expressed a deep commitment as a “lifelong resident” to preserving the region’s coastlines. She said the BlueTech | X Accelerator is “not just a step towards safeguarding our natural resources, but also a move to bolster Tampa Bay’s Innovation ecosystem,” in a prepared statement.

Innovation District and College of Marine Science officials applied for a $160 million National Science Foundation grant in November 2022. The money was also to foster a blue economy ecosystem.

While they did not make it past the semifinals, Barlow said the experience helped refine ideas for the latest proposal. She said it also allowed stakeholders to “bring new players to the table.”

As a low-lying peninsula, St. Petersburg is uniquely susceptible to climate challenges now affecting communities nationwide. Barlow noted the city also has a wealth of talent emerging from local schools and relocating to the area.

The Innovation District is home to myriad public and private institutions that can help propel marine-focused entrepreneurs. Those include a NOAA regional fisheries office, the Florida Institute of Oceanography, the ARK Innovation Center, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Center for Ocean Mapping and Innovative Technologies (COMIT) at the College of Marine Science.

“USF is poised to make a substantial contribution to the BlueTech | X Accelerator, leveraging our Gulf Coast research facilities, faculty expertise in oceanography and environmental and marine sciences and strong ties with Tampa Bay’s entrepreneurial community,” said Sylvia Thomas, vice president for research and innovation, in a prepared statement.

Another research vessel and a Saildrone sit outside the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub.

Barlow oversees the Maritime and Defense Technology Hub, which is also part of the roughly one-square-mile district. The facility houses about 20 organizations, including the Florida Flood Hub.

Barlow expects the accelerator’s cohorts to split time between the Hub, university and “wherever the mentors are, and they can get the most out of the experience.” She said the program’s leadership would conduct a thoughtful recruitment and screening process to select participants.

“If the accelerator is not the right place, we have a marvelous ecosystem,” Barlow added. “We have so many partners – maybe there’s another spot we can refer them to. So, keeping them in the family.”

The partners will launch the program’s planning phase March 1. A final proposal is due by the end of July, and NOAA will award up to $55 million to five proposed accelerators.

Barlow said it would likely take a year for the agency to announce recipients. When asked if the accelerator would move forward without the additional federal funding, she said, “I think we’re headed in that direction.”

A longstanding relationship with NOAA could increase the odds of winning. Dr. Rick Spinrad, agency administrator, was quoted in the agency’s announcement.

He also attended the Hub’s grand opening in March 2022. “The connective tissue, the cohesiveness and the potential for extraordinary impact are like nothing I have ever seen before,” Spinrad said at the time. “I can’t say that strongly enough.”

 

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