AltaSea Emerging as Global Ocean Institute in L.A. Dedicated to Building a BlueTech Economy

Dr. Sandra Whitehouse


At VX2018, ocean explorers & experts convened to share efforts related to building a sustainable blue-tech economy addressing both economic and conservation goals. Moderated by new AltaSea CEO Timothy McOsker, the panel featured Dr. Sandra Whitehouse (AltaSea’s Chief Scientist), Michael Jones (Maritime Alliance), and Doane Liu (GM,City of LA Dept. of Convention and Tourism Development). Together they mapped a vision of the economic opportunities and environmental challenges ahead for the ocean economy. Capturing the panel’s discussion, Former Oceanographer of the Navy Admiral David Titley famously said “the ocean is the dog that wags climate’s tail” in reference to the circular relationships between the ocean and the atmosphere, the water cycle, and the impacts that climate change might have on communities around the world. 

Timothy McOsker: Sandra, what is bluetech, and why is it important to the economy?

Sandra Whitehouse: Everybody today is talking about the growth of the blue economy and how we’re going to capture that in the coming century. Over the next 10 years, we are looking at thousands of innovations as well as hundreds of millions of jobs in this growing part of our global economy.

Many aspects of the blue economy already exist. Some, like commercial fishing, have been around for millennia. We have security needs that are integrated into the oceans. We have shipping, cruise ships, shoreside recreational opportunities, offshore oil and gas, and things like whale watching. Many of these activities are dependent upon the ocean being healthy. Some, like oil and gas, are putting the oceans at risk. When we talk about the blue economy, we are mainly talking about sustainable economic growth in the oceans.

We also have an emerging blue economy. For example, while shipping has been an existing ocean use for centuries, it’s now starting to take place in new areas, like the Arctic. We have to make sure that those new shipping lanes are sited to minimize any risks or impacts. 

There’s also offshore aquaculture, which is going to be very important to the world as we look to the oceans for food security. And of course, there are very exciting new technologies with respect to renewable energy—like hydrokinetic turbines that harness the vast energy of our currents, and other technology to capture the thermal energy of our oceans. The offshore wind component of our economy is growing worldwide; the first five offshore turbines in the United States are now operating just off of Rhode Island.

New technologies are also being developed—for example, a floating platform with offshore wind turbines of a different kind. Having offshore wind turbines on floating platforms as opposed to fixed to the ocean floor is going to transform where these can be sited, especially in California waters, which are quite deep. We have offshore aquaculture quite far offshore, and are tethered to the bottom, also greatly expanding the areas we can use for aquaculture. In Japan, there is even an offshore floating port.

Some technologies are further out. Microsoft’s Natick project is a project to develop servers that can be placed under the ocean so that seawater and the cool deeper ocean waters can be used to cool their servers, which is a big part of their energy needs. This is already in the second phase of testing.

We have deep-sea mining. We are running out of some key metals, including zinc and copper, on land. These are important for our electronics. These technologies are being developed. The first lease in the world was just put out for a company in Papua New Guinea to mine with these enormous tractors going along the bottom and sucking all the slurry up to the mother ship.

As you can imagine, for all of these things, we need really good information on what’s down there and what kind of habitat there is before we start working on some of these new technologies. Of course, on top of all of these ocean uses and emerging technologies and future uses, we have dramatically changing environmental conditions. For example, from 1995 to 2014, there was a rapid shift of the center of the lobster population on the East Coast moving north because of warming ocean temperatures.

We also have an increasing demand for real-time data. Today, a pilot bringing ships into the Port of Boston can rely on information coming out of buoys that tracks individual whales in real time in order to avoid ship strikes.

We’ve come a long way in the last 150 years in terms of how we collect ocean data. We used to have very rudimentary submarines and divers. Now, we’re collecting ocean data largely with ocean robotics. This is a key part of the bluetech sector.

One model is about 2 x 2 feet. It’s tethered, so it can go down and examine, for example, wind turbines’ feet to make sure that things aren’t growing on them. Another called Wave Glider is about the size of a surfboard, and it goes up and down on the ocean—on the top 500 feet—to collect information like temperature and pH. Hercules is a medium-sized one. The Echo Voyager, which is Boeing’s, is about 30 feet long. It’s basically an unmanned submarine designed to go deep under the Arctic ice and down into deep-sea trenches.

What are we using these robots for? We’re using them for things like monitoring—we sent one down to monitor the plume from the Deepwater Horizon spill. We use them to meet managing needs, such as counting commercially valuable species like the red snapper, or invasive species like lion fish in areas of the Gulf Coast. A lot of conservation communities have turned to underwater robotics to look for things like deep-sea corals. We didn’t even know there were corals in the deep-sea trenches until about 20 years ago, and now we recognize that they’re a very fragile and important habitat, so we need to map where they are. 

And of course, we use them for exploration. Bob Ballard, who found the Titanic, among many other sunken vessels, uses underwater robots. Sadly, we need these underwater robots for things like searches. A company called Ocean Infinity has just launched another search for the downed Malaysian airplane this month.

We are using an incredible diversity of underwater robotics in developing wind projects. One goes along the bottom and electronically “looks at” the cables that go from the wind turbine to the shore, to make sure that they haven’t been uncovered or disturbed in any way. 

We have aquaculture facilities using small robots to make sure their nets aren’t torn. It’s much cheaper than sending a diver down and they work on weekends.

At AltaSea, we are really excited that our new innovation center includes a very strong focus on blue technology. Some of our existing business partners are Boeing, Sea Robotics, and Blue trek. We also have Dr. Robert Ballard as our key education partner. His ship the Nautilus is tied up at the AltaSea dock. He’s training teachers; he’s doing livestream views for classrooms around the country. A lot of students come directly to the site to get a tour of the boat. We have a great partnership with the Boys and Girls Club, and they are helping get those students to the site to learn about his work. 

Finally, at AltaSea, we are very keen to make sure that in this blue technology sector we are able to train students and develop jobs for students all along the educational spectrum—from high school to community college to university, up to PhD-level scientists—because it’s important that we are looking at jobs in the blue economy for people with different educational backgrounds.

Timothy McOsker: Michael, describe The Maritime Alliance’s model of stitching together folks who are important regionally, nationally, and now internationally.

Michael Jones: Most people don’t have any sense of the size of the blue economy. If you look at the worldwide space economy, in 2015 the estimate was $355 billion. In 2010, the worldwide water and wastewater industry was estimated to be $500 billion. And if you looked at the OECD study that came out in 2016, it showed that the traditional ocean economy is massive. If you put the blue economy together with the water economy, you’re looking at $2 trillion and millions of jobs. This is enormous, and it’s growing.

There are big five issues related to humanity: food, water, ocean energy, medicine, and real estate. How are we going to deal with water rising? We’re going to have to go out into the ocean. The Dutch are already doing it; in the northern Adriatic, they’re building a floating port. The Chinese have offered to build a floating port off the East Coast of the United States because we don’t have that expertise yet.A business cluster is a regional concentration of related industries that help each other be competitive globally. An organized cluster is where recognition, funding, and leadership intersect. If you organize that opportunity, you can magnify your ability to be successful.

We are recognized as one of the world’s leading organized bluetech clusters. This is what we believe: We believe that you should be working on the triple bottom line and you need to balance economic development and conservation. We are the largest U.S. cluster with about 90 national and international members and we try to create a blue voice, which we think is very important. Our mission statement is to promote sustainable science-based ocean and water industries, and we look at both oceans and water as “one water” in the broadest sense.

In 2016, the San Diego EDC did a study of all the clusters in San Diego. It turned out that, although they had never studied the ocean before until we did a study with the San Diego Regional EDC in 2012, that we were the largest innovation economy in San Diego. Think about that: We were built around the Navy, a harbor, we were found by sea, and nobody had ever studied the blue economy. And frankly, around the world, that’s typically what’s happening. The OECD study that showed $1.5 trillion in 2010 and $3 trillion estimated by 2030 was their first attempt. It’s amazing: You open a door, and a cornucopia of great jobs falls out. One of the things that’s interesting about these jobs is that they’re good paying jobs—both blue and white collar—and you’re talking about a lot of exports.

Organized bluetech clusters live at the intersection of the triple helix: academia, industry, and policy. We have to have all three engaged. In Ireland and South Africa they talk about the fourth [strand]—the public. And of course it’s critically important that we address the public through our educational outreach.

Our members are increasingly national and international including Canada. We are a strategic partner with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Scripps Institute of Oceanography; Oceans Advance, the leading cluster in Canada; the county of San Diego; the Marine Institute, which is the national cluster of Ireland; the World Trade Center; the leading cluster in Spain. We have clusters nationally and internationally. It’s very important for us to work together.

We launched the Bluetech Cluster Alliance in January 2011. There are nine members that are the leading bluetech clusters in the world (two of whom joined together in a Blue growth network in the UK.)  We’re doing a lot in terms of capacity-building. International outreach, we are reaching out to Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Baja California, and South Africa. Domestically, we are doing a study for the state of Washington and Port of Seattle, looking at the creation of a marine innovation center. 

We’ve done a lot of local education. State Controller Betty Yee is a big convert to the blue economy, which is wonderful; it’s people like her who help us push this forward. We’re also talking about a possible TMA cluster up in the Bay Area. And we’re very pleased to be talking with AltaSea about ways that we can collaborate. if you believe in regionalization, then clearly this is a great opportunity. We’re doing a lot to promote bluetech clusters worldwide. The Economist is doing its fifth annual World Oceans Summit. They’ve never focused on clusters before but we introduced them to it and they are increasingly doing work related to the blue economy and we are their advisors on a workshop they’re going to be doing.

What are our needs? We need to be thinking about the bluetech entrepreneurs of tomorrow. We need to have a much better locally sourced technical workforce. It’s a high price to bring somebody in. we’ve got to do a better job of bringing all communities in, including underserved communities like veterans, women, and people of color.

We need financing. This is an enormous and growing industry and yet there is virtually no financing. Our answers? We’re launching a major educational effort beginning in 2018, including with the San Diego Unified School District. I was able to launch with my wife a bluetech foundation to start funding educational programs. We’ve received some other funding, but we’re also going to be looking for more so efforts can be transported to other areas. Finally, we need to create a bluetech investment fund. That’s my goal for 2018. It benefits all of us to know more about the ocean and water, to educate the youth, and to invest in great companies.

Timothy McOsker: One place where it’s very clear how important the ocean is to the community is in the San Pedro harbor area, where the ports of LA and Long Beach/that combination of ports complex is one of the busiest in the world. Doane, having been instrumental in bringing the benefits of the port industry to the community, talk about the AltaSea model.

Doane Liu: Before running the Los Angeles Department of Convention and Tourism, I was chief of staff at the Port of Los Angeles—the largest port in the western hemisphere and 10th largest in the world. You might wonder why the Port of Los Angeles, which does 9 million containers a year and almost $500 million in annual revenue, would care about a project like AltaSea.

A lot of what has been going on for over 100 years in the harbor area was an effort from residents to lessen the impact of this industry on our neighborhood. I live in San Pedro, and I have seen what the port has done over the years. There was an effort for the last 30-40 years to deindustrialize the west side of the main channel. We used to have Todd Shipyards, a lot of lumber terminals and a lot of shipping. All of that has since been moved to the other side of the channel onto Terminal Island. 

How do we give back to the community? Our social license to operate as a port relies on good relations with the community. And what the community wanted was a vibrant LA waterfront, both in San Pedro and in Wilmington. A lot of our efforts have been around the Cruise Terminal toward the north. The USS Iowa Battleship was recently installed; we’re currently redeveloping Ports O’Call, a 60-year-old New England village; and the Marina.  

AltaSea came to us as a gamechanger. It’s the first time that one of these waterfront projects will have a true economic impact. What we’re trying to create at AltaSea is a real campus of high-skill, high-wage jobs. 

“We’ve come a long way in the last 150 years in terms of how we collect ocean data. We used to have very rudimentary submarines and divers. Now, we’re collecting ocean data largely with ocean robotics. This is a key part of the bluetech sector.” –Dr. Sandra Whitehouse, Chief Scientist, AltaSea