Investors, experts talk ‘blue economy’ in Oceans@Duke annual symposium

Oceans@Duke hosted its third annual Blue Economy Symposium “Blueprint for Coastal Resilience” Friday to discuss the landscape of the blue economy, which works to use ocean resources for economic growth while preserving the environment. 

Hosted in the Fuqua School of Business, the symposium brought together investors, entrepreneurs, consultants and project developers working on cutting-edge technology in the blue economy.

“When we think about climate change [solutions], we are terrestrially biased,” said Daniel Kleinman, founder and CEO of Seaworthy Collective. “… At the end of the day, we live on a blue planet, with 71% of our planet being ocean. But more importantly, the ocean is the greatest carbon sink and heat sink on our planet and yet, we don’t focus enough on leveraging that.”

The day-long symposium featured blue economy experts, two panels, four “tide talks” presentations, a keynote address and a lunchtime interactive showcase. 

In his keynote, Kleinman discussed the paramount role of blue economy startups in developing and scaling climate solutions that sustainably prioritize the ocean. 

Panel discussion on scaling green coastal infrastructure

The panel included Natrx Adaptive Infrastructure President Matthew Campbell, Margaret Boshek, senior coastal engineer at Moffatt & Nichol, and Arcadis Senior Resilience Planner Devon McKaye. It was moderated by Sara Oliver, executive in residence in the department of civil and environmental engineering. 

Panelists discussed the process of scaling coastal infrastructure, from design bidding to permitting and implementation. They called for the use of green coastal infrastructure as an alternative to traditional “gray” concrete coastal protection infrastructure to regenerate the marine environment. 

“Once you put in a sea wall, you have now dynamically changed that environment, and you can't just rip out that sea wall, and the sediment is going to come back. It doesn't work that way,” Boshek said. “Fortunately, our government has taken the approach that living shorelines and green infrastructure and softer solutions have a benefit.”

Boshek and the other panelists emphasized that green coastal infrastructure is ecologically and economically advantageous and will be increasingly crucial as coastline dynamics shift in response to climate change. 

Tide talks

Following Kleinman's keynote address, Campbell spoke at the first of four “tide talks.” He explained that technology plays a critical role in developing infrastructure that strikes a balance between providing coastal and ecological resilience. 

In a second tide talk, Mark Huang, co-founder at SeaAhead, a blue technology startup accelerator and early-stage venture capital firm, spoke about the disruptive potential of ocean-based technology innovation. Huang highlighted how the blue technology ecosystem cuts across traditionally defined subsectors, creating opportunities for cross-disciplinary founders in ocean entrepreneurship. 

In the following tide talk, Shelby Thomas, CEO of nonprofit Ocean Rescue Alliance International, detailed ORAI’s work in developing artificial reefs that mimic natural geology to restore marine biodiversity and enhance coastal protection.  

After lunch, Dorreen Wong, associate director of ecopreneurship and investments at Sustainable Ocean Alliance, hosted the final tide talk. The organization empowers young people and mobilizes the global movement to restore ocean health through grant-making and supporting a worldwide “ecopreneur” network. 

Panel discussion on the business case for marine ecosystem services 

In the panel, Huang and Thomas were joined by Virridy Chief Strategy Officer Alex Johnson and Chris Osburn, professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences and the director of the Blue Economy Innovation program at North Carolina State University.  

The panelists spoke about opportunities to capitalize on the growing demand for marine ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and coastal protection. 

“Whether your demand is from big government agencies or the private sector for adaptation or mitigation, demand is going to be there,” Johnson said. “People [will be] spending money on the environment for the next three, four, eight decades, so it's more just figuring out how you build a business around that.”


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