Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation absorbs ocean startup accelerator

After five years of helping small businesses get off the ground, the Alaska Ocean Cluster is moving from the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association to the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.

The Alaska Ocean Cluster is a small business accelerator, providing assistance and consultation to ocean-based startups. It has assisted more than a dozen businesses including Saildrone, SafetyNet Technologies, and Foraged & Found. The products range from scientific research to kelp to dog treats made from fish skins, but the one thing they have in common is that they center on the maritime sector.

The move to be housed under the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation is a natural one, said Garrett Evridge, the accelerator’s managing director.

“We believe working closely with the seafood industry is a vital, but often missing, component in advancing the sustainability, profitability and resilience of our maritime sectors,” he said. “The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation is a natural partner because the work they’ve been doing since the ‘70s is consistent with what the Alaska Ocean Cluster has wanted to do since the beginning.”

The Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation is a Wrangell-based nonprofit that has been working on ways to diversify and grow Alaska’s commercial fishing sector and to address problems in the industry. In addition to seafood harvesting work like developing surimi processing in Alaska, the nonprofit has recently been focusing on the growing mariculture sector and a pilot project to help fishermen reduce energy use by increasing vessel efficiency.

Though there is growing interest in a “blue economy” sector — economic activity linked to sustainable use of ocean resources — the majority of Alaska’s maritime activity is still heavily linked to seafood. Seafood harvesting and processing is an approximately $6 billion industry in the state. Of Alaska Ocean Cluster’s portfolio of businesses, more than half are directly related to seafood harvesting or sales. However, they aren’t necessarily fishermen — two businesses have to do with fishing gear, another is related to fisheries and ocean research, and another recovers fish skins and reprocesses them into dog treats.

Evridge said the Accelerator can be a body that can help the fishing industry come together to discuss some of its issues and find solutions.

“We are incubating not only businesses but also research concepts,” he said. “We’ve done everything from deploying hardware on pollock vessels (in the Bering Sea) to supporting 16 early stage companies to participation in public forums.... the next stage of this project is to narrow the focus and incorporate everything we’ve learned since the beginning.”

Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation Executive Director Julie Decker said in a statement that the Alaska Ocean Cluster has developed a creative approach to supporting early stage companies that could contribute to the needs of the seafood industry. She noted the seafood industry’s need for developing technology in particular.

“AFDF believes that by combining our efforts and expertise, we can unlock more benefits for the seafood industry and coastal communities,” Decker said. “We are excited to integrate the program with AFDF and look forward to working closely with our members to strengthen and build upon what’s been started.”

The Alaska Ocean Cluster, which will now be called the AFDF Startup Accelerator, will be guided by an industry advisory committee. That’s in part to help focus the organization’s efforts to align with the priorities of technology, research and development in the seafood industry. In the last two years, the accelerator has helped support some companies that are already doing that — Evridge pointed to a project that helped install lights on pollock vessels in the Bering Sea to determine their effect on bycatch.

Moving forward, another priority of the new accelerator will be to secure funding to continue its activities into the future. The Alaska Ocean Cluster is a free service provided to its businesses. That presents a funding challenge, Evridge said. Right now, it has support through the end of 2024, and will be seeking new opportunities after that. Builders Vision, a California-based nonprofit, is the Alaska Ocean Cluster’s current supporter, but the organization is working on other leads for grants or federal funding to help continue in the future.

“These types of programs exist across the country,” Evridge said. “The whole premise is to support innovation in a specific sector or in a specific domain. One of the key challenges is how you fund this activity.”

More information is available about the AFDF Startup Accelerator on the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation’s website.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

02/24/2023 - 6:13pm