Encouraging collaboration between scientists and business has always been a prime mission at the MARBIONC Center. We were pleased to recently host an event aimed specifically at small start-ups in the seafood and aquaculture industries, which of course ties in directly with our marine science research.
The Fish 2.0 organization’s first regional workshop in the southeastern United States was held here, on our CREST Research Park campus, March 15 through 17. Nearly two dozen fledgling enterprises from a 12-state region attended, making connections and gaining skills needed to attract investors and grow their businesses.
Fish 2.0 operates globally to connect promising new businesses with investors. Its workshop here marked the start of its regional “track” focused on shellfish and crustaceans along the South Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts.
Bringing this event to Wilmington was something of a coup for us and our partners. This was a collaboration between UNC Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE) and the Marine Bio-Technologies Center of Innovation (MBCOI), which is based on our marine-science campus. (I wrote about MBCOI in a March 2016 article.)
A crucial catalyst was Diane Durance, who became the CIE director last year. She brought to the university some excellent contacts with Fish 2.0, having participated in the group’s programs several years ago.
While running a statewide business-development agency in Michigan, she was also working on a business plan for a venture of her own. It was intended to create indoor aquaculture systems for small family farms, and she went through Fish 2.0’s process for entrepreneurs. Ultimately, that proposal didn’t come to fruition, “But I’ve had Fish 2.0 on my mind ever since,” Durance said. Her interest in marine science and aquaculture had a lot to do with why she came to UNCW, she added.
Until last year, all of Fish 2.0’s programs operated on a world-wide scale. But then the organization announced its new “regional tracks,” including one for our area.
“I put two and two together,” Durance said, when she heard about this new opportunity. She had been talking with Dr. Deb Mosca, CEO of MBCOI, who was also familiar with Fish 2.0. They proposed hosting the regional workshop here, and quickly got approval from UNCW Chancellor Jose V. Sartarelli.
“The chancellor said, ‘Do it.’ It fits with his strategic plan,” which emphasizes the university’s global reach and impact, Durance said. The Fish 2.0 organization liked our proposal, in part because of our track record in developing marine science-related businesses, and in part because of its relationship with Durance.
Of the 21 businesses that signed up, more than half are based in North Carolina, five of them right here in Wilmington. The workshop’s primary purpose was to get the owners ready to make effective pitches for investment capital.
Those who get through a two-phase selection process will pitch directly to investors at Fish 2.0’s annual global gathering at Stanford University in November.
Both Durance and Mosca emphasized that, while searching for investors is important, Fish 2.0 is also about building a community and establishing strategic partnerships. Even those participants who don’t become finalists will benefit from advice and mentoring from established experts in their fields.
Workshop participants got a chance to make practice pitches, with constructive criticism from people with experience in the process. Next, Mosca explained, “There’s different stages where participants get advice and mentorship.” Those who don’t make the final cut aren’t left out in the cold, she said. Feedback from investors and opportunities to visit successful going concerns are all part of the process.
Of those who made it to the final round in the 2015 competition, 60 percent got funding or entered into partnerships or collaborations, she said. Other potential benefits for finalists include a chance at cash prizes, totaling $50,000 this year, and at “industry prizes,” opportunities to observe and learn from successful ventures.
The investors who come to Fish 2.0’s pitch sessions can be confident their prospects are qualified and well prepared to launch a business.
We are optimistic that the regional workshop will return to the MARBIONC Center next year. “It’s my goal to continue this relationship with Fish 2.0,” Durance said. “That helps us draw participants for our track, being part of something big and global and established.”
It was gratifying to hear that both the Fish 2.0 staffers and the visiting entrepreneurs liked the workshop venue. Just as important was MARBIONC’s track record in developing commercial uses for scientific discoveries, and in nurturing young companies.
And after touring our facility, Mosca said, “Everybody was impressed with the state-of-the-art laboratories,” fully equipped and ready for tech-minded tenants to move in and use immediately.
Meanwhile, even before Fish 2.0 chooses the site for next regional workshop, the university is considering putting on our own event this fall, partnering with MBOCI. The idea is to connect seafood business start-ups with each other and with resources, such as federal Small Business Administration lenders. Durance has been talking with the Fish 2.0 people about the possibility of explicitly linking our event to their brand.
An important note about funding: UNCW and MBCOI secured money for the workshop’s up-front costs, as well as for successful participants’ travel to California later this year from internal resources and external sponsors.
We have gotten some grants to help, but are still looking for sponsorships. Businesses, foundations and non-profits interested in promoting the seafood and aquaculture industries should find benefits from being sponsors.
The objective of this workshop, and of all Fish 2.0 projects, Mosca said, “is growing the seafood industry in a safe, sustainable manner.” I echo Dr. Mosca’s comment. Economic development in the marine biotechnology and life sciences sector in Southeastern North Carolina and the Carolina coast is a goal of all partners in this and other connecting efforts.
UNCW CREST Research Park is a frontrunner in marine biotech research and development. Researchers are exploring the potential of natural products derived from the sea to treat or cure human diseases and meet other important needs.