It makes a whole lot of sense that the bluetech startup platform SeaAhead would be founded in the Ocean State.
In 2017, company cofounder Alissa Peterson was looking for ways to utilize her experience in the startup world. After graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, she worked for McKinsey & Company’s global sustainability practice and then for a grid-scale battery technology company in California. A job at NanoSteel brought her to Providence, where she became interested in getting involved in the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem. A meeting with Mark Huang and Jason Kelly sealed the deal. Excited about bluetech as an industry where southern New England could make its mark, the three of them founded SeaAhead in May 2018.
“We believe that there are many new technologies out there with the potential for major ocean impact, if we can support them through the early stages of commercialization.”
“We formed SeaAhead because we believe that bluetech is an under-invested, under-resourced sector,” says Alissa. “Bluetech is the next sustainability-driven venture sector. It is where cleantech was over 20 years ago and where sustainable food and agriculture was more than 10 years ago. New England is an ideal region for a new bluetech cluster generating and growing ocean-related innovation to make a positive impact.”
According to Alissa, bluetech is still so new that it’s not on the radar screen of many investors and has only recently been noticed by the public sector. “It’s a challenge for startups to flourish when the supportive and connective tissues aren’t in place,” she says. “Given the ocean’s immense impact on both economies and livelihoods, it’s an incredible opportunity. SeaAhead exists to help elevate bluetech in the minds of investors and others that can support the innovators.”
The mission of SeaAhead is to support new venture development for the ocean. They bring stakeholders together to tackle large, ocean-related challenges and create impact in areas such as clean shipping and ports, sustainable food from the ocean through aquaculture and fisheries, offshore alternative energy, plastics and pollution mitigation, and smart, resilient waterfronts.
“We believe that there are many new technologies out there with the potential for major ocean impact, if we can support them through the early stages of commercialization,” says Alissa. “We try to identify those technologies, explore their marine/maritime applications, and support the entrepreneurs behind them by making connections to investors, mentors, and strategic partners.”
The SEG Network Effect
Once SeaAhead was formed, the next step was to build it out so it would be able to achieve its ambitious mission. Alissa joined SEG’s 2018 Impact Accelerator in order to take advantage of important tools and resources for developing the company. “I entered the SEG Accelerator in January 2018, so my relationship with SEG started with the beginning of SeaAhead,” she says. “SEG supported us with community, space, and connections to folks who have been extremely helpful. We actually held the SeaAhead kickoff event at the SEG Hub in June 2018. SEG has definitely been a part of our growth.”
Two years after its official kickoff, SeaAhead is successfully tackling its mission. The company’s Bluetech Hub, located at CIC Boston, offers ocean entrepreneurs a vital innovation community. In 2020 SeaAhead launched the first cohort of its BlueSwell Incubator, which focuses on bridging the gaps between innovators, ocean experts, industries, and the venture community. It also launched the BlueGreen Innovation Challenge, a unique pitch competition for Rhode Island students, in partnership with National Grid RI, 11th Hour Racing and CIC Providence. Participating students will form teams and design potential solutions that address challenges at the energy-food-urban community-coastal nexus. The top three teams can earn prizes totaling $15,000.
“A driving force behind the BlueGreen Innovation Challenge is a desire to produce actionable concepts that can benefit Rhode Island communities.”
“The BlueGreen Innovation Challenge builds on Rhode Island’s track record of impactful student-driven innovation,” says Alissa. “We really want to see creative designs that connect these important systems in novel ways,” Alissa adds. “How might clean energy positively impact the seafood sector? How can more efficient ports and their associated transportation systems address social, economic, and health inequality?”
The BlueGreen Innovation Challenge is open to students who attend an institution of higher education or who are a recent graduate. Each team can have up to six participants, at least half of whom must be from Rhode Island or attend a school in Rhode Island. “We want to make sure that we get a diverse group of applicants,” says Alissa. “Teams with students studying different things – a communications major from CCRI, a data science major from Bryant, and a marine affairs student from URI – can come up with a more compelling and interconnected proposal than an individual could come up with alone.”
Challenge applicants will work on their projects over a number of months. Finalists selected for Phase 2 of the program will work to flesh out and improve their ideas. Each finalist team will receive a $1,500 stipend to use for anything they need to advance their projects – from transportation so they can visit the port or the docks, to materials for prototyping or for improving the quality of their final videos. The final showcase in April 2021 will showcase all their hard work and select the top three winners.
“A driving force behind the BlueGreen Innovation Challenge is a desire to produce actionable concepts that can benefit Rhode Island communities,” says Alissa. “Whether it’s a piece of infrastructure or a startup company, we hope that National Grid, 11th Hour Racing, and our other program partners will be able to help turn some of these projects into reality.”
As their platform for ocean innovation develops, SeaAhead remains a core resource for the bluetech community in New England. Alissa’s advice for entrepreneurs centers on building that community. “Find your people,” she says. “There are going to be a lot of people who tell you that you are crazy or that what you want to achieve is impossible, so seek out the supporters – the people who believe in the impact you are trying to make – and get them on board. Entrepreneurship is a team sport, and you are going to need a lot of help.”