Guest commentary: San Diego would make a premier West Coast blue tech hub

Compass needle pointing to the words Blue Economy - 3d rendering

The oceans cover about 70 percent of our planet’s surface and contain almost 97 percent of its water.

The vast majority are unexplored, though they’re a huge factor in the climates we experience and are a potential sustainable source of resources. We are increasingly looking for renewable energy, food, water, medicine and minerals in our oceans, further increasing transport and port activity. Think offshore wind, wave energy, seaweed and kelp products, desalination, seabed mining and autonomous underwater vehicles.

The global “blue economy” is expected to grow from an estimated $2.5 trillion today to double that by 2030.

What if we grew San Diego into the premier West Coast hub for blue tech? Why not? We’re located on the Pacific Ocean, we’re a city eager to grow our economy and create more well-paying jobs, we have one of the world’s most renowned oceanographic institutes, some of the nation’s finest academic institutions with highly ranked engineering programs, the United States’ second-largest Navy base, the Port of San Diego, SPAWAR [Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command] and the best weather in the country.

We are uniquely positioned to capitalize on existing resources and institutions, develop a single unified vision and transform several great existing initiatives into one collaborative effort to put San Diego on the map as a blue tech hub with worldwide allure. No other city on the West Coast has what we have. Ours to lose?

San Diego has done it before with its life sciences industry. On the back of academic and research institutions (Salk, Scripps, UC San Diego), everybody came together to share, promote and support innovation and commercialization of new technologies. Today, San Diego is the third-largest biotech hub in the U.S., employing about 70,000 people (vs. 21,000 in 2000), contributing around $50 billion in economic value.

Blue tech employs about 24,000 people here, per a report prepared under direction of TMA BlueTech [an organization that promotes San Diego ocean and water technologies], and it generates roughly $16 billion for the local economy. What keeps us from doubling or tripling those figures?

Other cities started blue tech incubators and accelerators, attracting innovative people and technologies. We have some amazing initiatives here with the likes of TMA BlueTech, the Port of San Diego’s blue economy program, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and UCSD Rady School of Management’s StartBlue incubator, and our future Seaport development with a planned Blue Campus, to name a few.

We have a spectacular concentration and diversity of academic and industrial resources, and we should shift gears as the opportunity is here now. We know from success stories around the world, as well as our own biotech history, what the key enablers are to transform academic research into innovative start-ups. We see what other cities have achieved around the creation of blue tech clusters the past five years. We need all of that to address our needs going forward, but we should change our approach here and develop some momentum.

We need to develop a single unified vision around a blue tech sector for San Diego, with continued support from the city, county, port, academics and industry organizations and execute that vision under a collaborative structure that ensures all stakeholders come out ahead. We’re ultimately all better off working together than alone.

We should consolidate incubators and accelerators somehow, maybe virtually. In a perfect world, we would have one single piece of real estate (campus) where start-ups and their support services are located as well as offer space for industry representatives who benefit from front row seats to new ideas.

We have plenty of examples from around the world showing that innovation benefits from scale and diversity in order to promote cross-fertilization — meaning incubators or accelerators are more successful (generate more new companies and jobs) when they are surrounded by a diverse set of skills, experiences and worldviews.

This would speak for a campus that combines biotech, blue tech, clean tech, telecom and others all in one place. Granted, not easy with San Diego’s real estate prices.

Last but not least, we need to set up a regional development fund to act as the catalyst behind some of the success stories in the sector and help attract capital from outside our region, as well as new start-ups that would be a great fit to establish themselves in San Diego. This could be a traditional fund, a public-private partnership or perhaps be structured as a nonprofit that reinvests proceeds in new companies and becomes a voice in the various policy conversations related to parts of our oceans currently not receiving appropriate oversight.

If we’re going to redevelop Seaport and ask local taxpayers to help fund it to the tune of over $500 million, then setting aside $5 million as a catalyst behind generating an additional 20,000 jobs or $16 billion in economic value (assuming we only double existing blue tech scale) will be a rounding error with potential economics that are hard to argue with.

I grew up in the Netherlands, got degrees in civil engineering and offshore technology and started my career working offshore in the North Sea. I spent 15 years in the subsea industry, living in the U.S. and Europe. I went to business school afterward and joined a large private equity fund as an investment professional with a focus on natural resources, working out of Dallas and London offices.

We moved to San Diego six years ago, and over the past several years I have probably looked at, talked to or worked with about 100 early-stage companies involved with our oceans. I see the quality and quantity of both the business propositions and management teams steadily increasing to where, combined with an increased appetite from the capital markets, I think this is the perfect time to establish an alliance supporting the development of San Diego’s blue tech sector.

Thomas Verhagen is a resident of Bird Rock.