StartBlue: Second group of ocean tech entrepreneurs showcase start-ups in UCSD accelerator program

Babak Bahari, founder of Aras Photonics, presents his company's idea to use lasers to monitor ocean conditions.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Teams participate in weekly workshops for seven months, receive mentoring from ‘blue economy’ experts and get opportunities to meet with potential partners, investors and customers.


An accelerator program making waves at UC San Diego has wrapped up for its second group of ocean-focused entrepreneurs with presentations from the teams on the progress of their innovations.

The teams are part of startBlue, a joint endeavor of UCSD’s Rady School of Management and Scripps Institution of Oceanography to “accelerate early-stage start-ups that are addressing ocean challenges,” said startBlue program director Vanessa Scott.

The start-ups are based in “deep tech,” using engineering and advanced science to focus on research, industry or investment in government networks, Scott said.

Accelerating such start-ups advances the “blue economy,” the integration of ocean science and technology that in San Diego encompasses more than 1,400 companies, 46,000 jobs and $14 billion in direct sales, according to estimates by TMA BlueTech.

Teams in the free startBlue program — funded by grants and corporate sponsors — participate in weekly workshops, receive one-on-one mentoring from industry experts and are provided opportunities to meet with potential partners, investors and customers.

During Demo Day at the Scripps Seaside Forum in La Jolla on April 27, teams in the second group, or cohort, gave five-minute pitches about their start-ups to show their progress over the past seven months, Scott said.

The presentations also included a request for funding to the various investors in the audience.

Each pitch was followed by five minutes of audience Q&A. Teams then staffed booths in the lobby to further explain their visions.

The first cohort ran from October 2021 through May 2022. Collectively, the 12 teams in both cohorts have raised more than $8.3 million.

StartBlue team members, program administrators and others gather at the second cohort's Demo Day on April 27 in La Jolla.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Aras Photonics

Babak Bahari, founder of Aras Photonics, is working to develop a product that uses lidar (light detection and ranging) for ocean and coastal monitoring.

With global costs of about $90 billion to clean the oceans and billions more to watch them for problems like oil spills, “it would be great if you could have some … technique that can monitor these problems and protect them before they become human disasters,” Bahari said.

Current monitoring systems, which include the use of radio waves, satellites and cameras, are “very slow, expensive and … inefficient,” he said.

Aras Photonics is working to develop a product to incorporate lidar — which features laser technology — as an underwater data monitor “for any sort of changes in the ecosystem,” Bahari said. The product also could be fitted on a drone for above-sea use, he said.

Lidar technologies are superior for monitoring because they are “fast, reliable, useful for even invisible objects like chemicals, and potentially … inexpensive,” he said.

Berkeley Marine Robotics

Also exploring laser technology is Berkeley Marine Robotics, which is developing an autonomous robotic system with underwater laser communication to help ships reduce emissions related to biofouling.

Biofouling — the accumulation of organisms on ship hulls — can slow ship speeds and increase unwanted emissions, according to Sushil Tyagi of Berkeley Marine Robotics.

Current systems to clean biofouling involve sending divers once or twice a year under the ships for inspections, leading to a lack of data and the proliferation of the problem, he said.

By using lasers underwater to collect data on biofouling levels, information can be tracked and optimal times for cleaning can be predicted, Tyagi said.

Improving cleanup will lead to more efficient travel times and help ports protect marine ecosystems, he added.


CoilReef founders Roger Benham, Noah Brown and Ben Smith hope their product will address the “unprecedented pressure” put on the ecosystem by humans’ growing dependence on the ocean, Brown said.

CoilReef is a “removable and low-cost artificial reef system for marine habitat formation and restoration,” Benham said. “It’s also for wave energy mitigation or dissipation to address beach erosion issues.”

It also can enhance the aquaculture and research industries, Brown said.

The product is made of titanium, which does not corrode in seawater and is not harmful to living creatures, Benham said.

CoilReef is a cost-effective alternative to other artificial reefs, which often are made of concrete that can leach chemicals into the ocean and are not removable, Smith said.

The largest need for the company is dedicated space to manufacture it, Benham said.

Ocean Soteria

Ocean Soteria’s mission is “to help revitalize our coastal kelp forests and climate vitality by re-engineering ocean balance,” said President Zac Hooker.

Kelp forests have declined in recent years, Hooker said, partly because of purple sea urchins known as “zombie urchins.”

The urchins can live up to 70 years and are devastating kelp forests, “eating almost every leaf in the area,” he said.

Ocean Soteria is seeking investments for its idea for an autonomous subsea floor crawler that can quickly identify and cull the zombie urchins.

The machine would kill most of the urchins by punching a hole in each (and leaving some untouched). The remaining dead biomass of calcium bicarbonate shells would help alleviate ocean acidification, another benefit, Hooker said.

The method is superior to current methods of using a subsea hammer to control the urchin population, “which is like putting out a wildfire with a squirt gun,” he said.

Octopus Garden

Conor Elliott and Natalie Zembsch founded Octopus Garden, which focuses on sustainable seaweed growth.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Also focused on promoting seaweed growth is Octopus Garden, which Conor Elliott and Natalie Zembsch founded to use “artificial upwelling to allow farmers to relocate offshore and provide coastal support and then increase yield to meet a growing demand,” Zembsch said.

“The destruction of environments is never good,” Elliott said, referring to global examples of seaweed being cleared for aquaculture.

“Seaweed is a super-unique crop to grow,” Zembsch said, as fertilizers aren’t needed. The plant also helps “clean the habitat” by drawing out carbon and creates its own ecosystem, providing a habitat for young fish and invertebrate species.

Octopus Gardens would provide technology for upwelling, which would move nutrient-rich deep seawater closer to the surface to encourage seaweed growth, she said.

There also would be a grid-like structure to provide support for seaweed farming.

‘Positive impact’

After the presentations, Berkeley Marine Robotics won the Audience Choice Award and will get an unspecified cash prize.

The value of the startBlue program lies in “the community that it’s built [and] the traction that it’s also built for the space,” Scott said.

There has been more support and visibility for blue companies the past few years, she said, and “it’s been really great to see a group of people that are so excited about all the opportunities within the space and also … making solutions that [have a] positive impact on the environment while also making profitable products and having business plans … that will make them sustainable business models.”

For more information about startBlue, visit