Efforts to shape a sustainable future for oceans inspire Tufts’ inaugural Bluetech Innovation Day
Yvonne Hao is charged with the economic development of Massachusetts, but one of her guiding principles could well apply to any ambitious start-up: know your competitive advantage.
“We shouldn’t try to win at everything,” she told a Tufts audience. “Where do we bring something different to the table? Where can we really make a difference in the country and in the world?”
For Hao, the answer lies in what’s called the “blue economy,” or efforts to conserve marine and freshwater environments while using them sustainably for economic growth, energy, food, and other resources. In Massachusetts, which has 1,500 miles of Atlantic Ocean coastline, the blue economy encompasses activities by businesses and nonprofits, including universities, such as marine research, commercial fishing, and generating green energy from offshore wind turbines.
“My dream is that 10 years from now, or maybe five years from now, people think about Massachusetts and climate tech the way they think about Massachusetts and education or Massachusetts and life sciences,” Hao said. “We have a chance to really be the leader, and the blue economy is a key part of that story.”
Hao’s forecast set an optimistic tone for Tufts’ first Bluetech Innovation Day, a June 15 event focused on the rapidly growing range of technologies that intersect with the oceans. The gathering convened leading members of the state’s “bluetech” community to discuss the state of the industry, cutting-edge research, and the latest innovation and investment trends that may help expand and support a sustainable blue economy. Held in collaboration with the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MassTech), SeaAhead, and Branchfood, the event was hosted by the Office of the Vice Provost for Innovation.
In addition to experts from industry, universities, and the Marine Biological Laboratory and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, entrepreneurs were also on hand. Among them were Fish 2.0, which brings innovators and investors together to grow the sustainable seafood sector, BlueOcean Gear, which improves tracking and monitoring of deployed fishing gear, and KnipBio, on a mission is to help fish farmers feed the world with accessible and safe fish “without destroying our one pale blue dot.”
Tufts alumni entrepreneurs included Chip Terry, A91, CEO and co-founder of BlueTrace, focused on improving shellfish operations with streamlined data collection.
Carolyn Kirk, executive director of Mass Technology Collaborative and a panel moderator, noted that the energy and innovation around the blue economy have come a long way since she was mayor of Gloucester 15 years ago. At that time, American’s oldest fishing port faced the challenge of diversifying its economy.
“We said, if we don’t take control of it, we are going to devolve into T-shirts and taffy as a coastal community,” she said. “That was not the future that we wanted for ourselves. And so we studied this concept of blue economy... when no one knew what [it] was. It’s remarkable to be able to sit in a room with so many thought leaders and… see the potential that we have in front of us.”
The event reflects Tufts’ deepening commitment to work with other institutions, startups, industry investors, and accelerators to usher in a new era in the ocean economy and support workforce development, said Caroline Genco, university provost and senior vice president ad interim.
The School of Engineering, The Fletcher School, and the university’s expertise in environmental biology, climate change, offshore wind energy, and alternative systems for food and energy production are resources poised to advance the blue economy, she noted. “Together we can develop technologies that help us steward and protect the ocean,” she said.
Gearing Up to Go Blue
Covering 71% of our planet, oceans support an abundance of life forms, much of which we are just beginning to discover. But oceans are also increasingly imperiled by threats that include warming waters, global trade routes, and the mounting influx of plastics.
Karen Panetta, dean of graduate education at the School of Engineering, has helped advance underwater search, rescue, and inspection technologies. She’s also an innovator in the use of artificial intelligence to optimize aquaculture and monitor ocean health. Her work catalyzed the startup SeaDeep, co-founded by Tufts graduate students, and promising a new generation of vision technology to assess undersea environments and structures aided by artificial intelligence.
She sees outreach and mentorship as pivotal to building a workforce to support a robust blue economy. She gave a shout-out to Tufts’ offshore wind degree program (which offers post-baccalaureate and master's degree programs) as a pathway forward. Especially for STEM professionals who want to return to the workforce after time away, she said, “it’s important to retool and retrain them so that they’re ready to pursue new opportunities.”
Casey Corrado, E16, EG17, mechanical systems and advanced manufacturing group lead at MITRE Corporation, described how industry is seizing opportunities. She had a hand in the opening this fall of the Bedford-based BlueTech Lab, designed for in-water testing of equipment prior to launching costly at-sea experiments; it is expected to accelerate new solutions in areas that include national security and climate resilience. A recent grant Mass Tech grant also funded another initiative, BlueNERVE Network, that will facilitate the sharing of data, collaborative experimentation, and the creation of “a network of us all working together toward a common goal,” she said.
Steve Lohrenz, a professor of marine science and technology at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, discussed working on shaping how offshore wind can coexist with fishing and how a new Biodegradability Laboratory supported by Mass Tech and private funding can help address the impact of plastics on the environment.
Mark Borrelli, A99, coastal geologist at UMASS Boston, described Project BEACON (BlueTech, Energy, Aquaculture Coastal and Ocean Needs), supported with a Mass Tech grant. That investment allowed for the purchase of an autonomous surface vessel that will expand ocean floor mapping capabilities in the region. The grant expands marine operation facilities, including a 171-foot dock, university research vessels, and dockside labs, that will support growing startups and training opportunities for UMass Boston students.
"My underlying theme today is: Get students on a boat,” he said. “If we can get students on a boat, it changes lives; it changed mine.”
The Interconnected Ocean
The connections between the ocean ecosystem and human health were underscored by Shibani Ghosh, research associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. She highlighted research conducted in Bangladesh, a country that depends heavily on fish for protein, where traditional fish harvests are diminished by climate-related warming water. A projection of carbon dioxide emissions was correlated with severe future deficiencies in protein and zinc, which are critical nutrients for young children.
“There are lots of opportunities to think about innovations in supporting climate-smart aquaculture fisheries,” she said. “Climate change is a huge issue.”
Rockford Weitz, F03, FG08, professor of the practice and director of the Maritime Studies Program at The Fletcher School, described the potential to decarbonize shipping used for global trade and, by extension, support global climate change commitments.
“One of the key challenges of renewable energy is how do you have renewable energy storage?” he said. “And the key takeaway of this presentation, I hope, is that it should be floating storage.”
Offshore Wind Opportunities
Another area where innovation can find traction is applied ocean technology, or the tech that’s emerging from basic ocean science research and from onshore wind turbines, said Eric Hines, professor of the practice and Kentaro Tsutsumi faculty fellow in civil and environmental engineering at Tufts.
Developing offshore wind is considered a core priority for Massachusetts, and construction has begun on the foundation of the first of 62 nearly 850-foot-tall turbines planned as part of the Vineyard Wind I project, the country’s first commercial-scale offshore wind farm.
“The largest turbines in the world are being staged out of New Bedford,” Hines said. “And right now, I would say that the foundation technology is something that we’ve only begun to think about and to innovate on. There is a big future here.”
Innovations could include installing the foundations quietly and being more protective of marine life and marine habitats, creating artificial reefs, and creating more local jobs in coastal cities, he said.
Colleen Hansell, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, discussed the possibility of modifying ecosystems to increase biodiversity.
“I think, as we move further and further offshore [to develop wind power], there’s an opportunity to potentially protect sensitive species because we know that further offshore you have cleaner water and it can be cooler,” she said.
Hines expressed optimism about the innovations being developed in offshore wind and other aspects of the blue economy. Colleagues from around the globe “are very ready and willing to work with each other,” he said. “And as a matter of fact, the Europeans have told us many times: ‘We’ve made every mistake you can make. In fact, we made many of them twice, just to make sure they were mistakes! There’s a lot that we can help you learn.’”