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  • Daniel Kleinman

Catalyzing I & E for the Sea in Miami, South Florida, and Beyond

Bridging Miami and South Florida’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship (I & E) Ecosystem, Oceanographic Research Institutions, and Marine Industries to Build a Regenerative Blue Economy for Local, Regional, & International Stakeholders

The future for the South Florida blue economy is encompassed by both urgency and opportunity; while South Florida faces significant impacts of a changing climate and rising seas, it’s also uniquely positioned to lead regenerative ocean innovation. Regenerative approaches go beyond sustainability, focusing on solving problems at their root cause, rather than sustainably mitigating them. For example, creating biodegradable plastic alternatives to get plastic out of the supply chain altogether instead of recycling plastic, or focusing on aquaculture instead of trying to fish sustainably from dwindling wild populations.

While much has changed in both the global landscape and local economic landscapes since the pandemic began, the foundations for South Florida to drive the regenerative blue economy have existed for quite some time. Meanwhile, South Florida has recently had an exciting influx of talent and capital, along with a heightened global awareness of the interdependent relationship between the natural world and the economy. Altogether, there is no better time to embrace the ocean of opportunity around us than now.

Florida’s Key Foundations for Ocean Innovation

The foundations of the Florida’s blue economy have been detailed at length in multiple publications from the Florida Ocean Alliance (FOA). FOA divided Florida’s ocean industries into five subgroups: ocean tourism, ocean transportation, marine industries, ocean recreation, and living resources. Of these five subgroups, ocean tourism overwhelmingly made up the vast majority of Florida’s blue economy at over $24.6 billion dollars, which was 66% of the total Florida blue economy (FOA, 2020) [1].

Figure 1 - Florida Blue Economy Sectors by Florida Ocean Alliance, 2020

What is notably absent from this list are the fossil fuel and defense industries, which combined represent more than half of the top 100 corporations that make up the majority of the global blue economy. The Ocean 100 study mapped out the global distribution of these major blue economy players below (Duke & Stockholm Universities, 2021) [2]. When comparing to existing blue economy hubs (AKA clusters) in cities such as Boston and San Diego, the historic equation for them have brought together an oceanographic research institution, one or more universities, and naval and/or fossil fuel industry funding. Due to minimal public funding for ocean science, these private sources of funding have led to an increasing monopolization of ocean innovation to serve these interests (National Research Council, 2015) [3].

Figure 2 - Ocean 100 - Top 100 Corporations Making Up the Top 60% of the Blue Economy, Duke & Stockholm Universities, 2021

South Florida’s Unique Ecosystem for Building a Regenerative Blue Economy Cluster Beyond Industry Silos

While having minimal involvement in two of the largest industries in the overall blue economy may sound like a missed opportunity for the Florida blue economy, it has actually created an even larger opportunity for the future as a result. While the defense and fossil fuel industries may have historically had merit, it’s obvious that continued exploitation and militarization are not going to address the mounting impacts of climate change and ocean degradation. Moving forward, South Florida is uniquely positioned to facilitate radical innovation to build solutions for overfishing, plastic pollution, sea level rise, carbon sequestration, clean energy, and ocean science, by not having to serve the entrenched industry siloes that have limited the focuses of other ocean innovation clusters.

Beyond that, many of the elements of the old equation for blue economy clusters are still applicable in South Florida, beyond antiquated funding sources. South Florida has a significant concentration of maritime research between University of Miami, Florida International University, Florida Atlantic University, and Nova Southeastern University, and their respective oceanographic research institutions; Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, SeaTech and Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, Institute of Environment and Aquarius Reef Base, and the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Altogether, there is not an overarching industry focus within the work of these institutions, which have stayed true to their missions of furthering ocean and atmospheric science. Florida Sea Grant produced a great visual (pictured on the following page) mapping out both coasts of South Florida’s oceanographic research institutions.

We have the opportunity to lead building the next version of the model for regenerative blue economy clusters. By activating South Florida’s universities and oceanographic research institutions along with its growing entrepreneurial ecosystem, we can start building solutions focused on regenerating our ocean instead of exploiting it. The remainder of this document provides an overview of the landscape for South Florida ocean I & E as well as guidance for building this community and aligning the resources to support it on varying levels; locally in our oceanographic universities, regionally for Miami and South Florida as a whole, and internationally through collaboration with neighboring Caribbean island nations and beyond.

Figure 3 - Distribution of Oceanographic Research Institutions in South Florida, Florida Sea Grant Participating Institutions

Baseline Study of University of Miami RSMAS Ocean I & E Resources and Programs

I’ve applied my background in design and systems thinking as a University Innovation Fellow to understand the landscape and dynamics for I & E within oceanographic academics as a graduate student working towards my Masters of Professional Science in Exploration Science at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (RSMAS). With the obvious disclaimer that the academic experience is much different than what it was pre-COVID, there are still plenty of programs and resources to paint close to a full picture of the current state of I & E at RSMAS. To first get a baseline of the existing resources for innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Miami, I referenced the landscape canvas of UM’s last cohort of University Innovation Fellows from 2017. Their total resource distribution findings are listed in the table below.

Notable resources within the university were primarily identified in the discover and learn sections of the survey. The discover section included I & E events such as TEDx Coconut Grove, Design Thinking Miami, Canes Summit for Leadership, Diversity, and Social Change, and TEDxUMiami. Meanwhile in the learn section, other university events highlighted included UHack, UM Shark Tank College Day, and the UM Business Plan Competition. Beyond that, the experiment, pursue, and spin out sections highlighted business school programs, services within The Launch Pad at UM, and local entrepreneurial ecosystem resources beyond the university. All of these resources buoyed a variety of I & E courses primarily housed within the business and engineering schools.

I also received insights on more recent interdisciplinary university initiatives for sustainable business and ocean innovation after speaking with Dr. David Kelly, the Co-chair of the Sustainable Business Research Cluster and Academic Director of the Master of Science in Sustainable Business at the University of Miami Herbert Business School. Dr. Kelly highlighted a number of courses and initiatives that have existed to bridge RSMAS with the Business School. Interdisciplinary courses offered spanned hurricane risk and natural disasters, economics of natural resources and the environment, climate and society, as well as environmental law. Meanwhile events with maritime industry included a conference on ocean business with Gulf Stream Yachts’ CEO and a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) Summit. Beyond that, Dr. Kelly mentioned ULink as an additional tool for facilitating interdisciplinary research through catalytic grant funding.

While the existing programs and events highlighted above have provided various chances for students to engage with both innovation and entrepreneurship as well as maritime and sustainable business, more opportunities remain to embed I & E further within RSMAS. As highlighted in the University of Miami’s Roadmap for Our New Century, one of the key initiatives within the university’s mission driven research priority is interdisciplinary inquiry that “support teams of scholars from multiple disciplines in collaborative, problem-based inquiry to address the complex challenges of society.” RSMAS professor Dr. Ben Kirtman is quoted for this specific priority, stating “interaction among scholars across disciplines motivates and drives research in new ways, pushing us to focus on how information is used to support decisions.” However, this same approach applies beyond research; facilitating innovation and entrepreneurship can be equally supported by similar cross-discipline initiatives. On a university level, UM has the opportunity to bring the resources together to build the model for interdisciplinary ocean I & E that can be implemented across other oceanographic research universities as we build a collaborative ecosystem for ocean innovation and entrepreneurship for South Florida and beyond.

Figure 4 - University of Miami Roadmap to Our New Century Landing Page, Featuring RSMAS Field Researchers

Systemic Barriers in Academia Plus Opportunities for Interdisciplinary and Interuniversity Collaboration

As I highlighted earlier in the Ocean 100 study, the large corporations primarily in the fossil fuel and defense industries impose systemic barriers for ocean innovation. However, academia has its own systemic barriers that are not as visible to those outside of the classroom. To get a sense of these barriers, one just has to look at the landscape of opportunities for marine science students. Unity College found that “33 percent of people in these (marine science) jobs worked for government organizations; 31 percent of people worked in “professional, scientific, or technical” capacities; and, 14 percent worked as educators at a college or university.” (Unity College, 2018) [4]. Additionally, the article stated “The field is very competitive and the number of marine scientists exceeds, and is expected to continue outpacing, the number of jobs available.”

The surplus of individuals with marine science degrees has resulted in a shortage of the number and diversity of professional opportunities altogether. However, those limitations are perpetuated by the system itself; students only see the opportunities that continue to be reinforced by the unchallenged notions of what a marine science degree should lead to. As degreed marine scientists continue outpacing available opportunities, the need for new opportunities and new approaches to the field continues to grow with it. Innovation and entrepreneurship not only offer avenues to make progress against this disparity, but offer faster paths to solutions than from public organizations that are challenged by shortages of funding and bureaucratic inefficiencies.

On both institutional and individual student levels, there are a number of opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration, as well as an opportunity for a cultural shift away from the aforementioned siloed approaches to the field. It starts with creating dedicated space, programming, and resources at RSMAS for students to recognize that innovation and entrepreneurship is an available path to them. Events for inclusion in I & E that can further this can include bringing in founders, having design sprints and hackathons, and dedicated interdisciplinary spaces such as makerspaces. Additionally, an entrepreneur in residence could be an asset for many students seeking out mentorship to become a startup founder.

Figure 5 - Innovation Space Design from Stanford - courtesy of Fast Company

Beyond that, interuniversity collaboration is a much larger opportunity. Individually, each oceanographic institution has relatively small marine science student populations with a finite number of opportunities. There is no doubt with the scale of problems in climate change, overfishing, plastic pollution, and more, collaboration between leading institutions is inevitable to have the capacity to build solutions for them. The spectrum of shared opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship between the combined talent pools of South Florida’s marine research institutions can develop resources that are altogether much more than the sum of its parts. The Marine Research Hub was a local government-initiated effort to catalyze this collaboration, and Seaworthy Collective is working to further those efforts through its own innovation and community activation initiatives.

Seizing Miami and Greater South Florida’s