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Casting For Seafood Startups

By Jenny Callison, posted Apr 7, 2017
Entrepreneurs with shellfish-related ventures in the 12-state Southeastern U.S. region have until April 29 to apply for a competition intended to give winners a toehold in the sustainable seafood market.

Fish 2.0, founded by executive director Monica Jain, uses a competition platform to connect seafood innovators, investors and industry experts so that promising ventures can find funding and knowledge resources.

A workshop on the program, hosted by University of North Carolina Wilmington and held at the university’s MARBIONC facility, took place in March.

It’s the first time the organization has extended its competition track into the Southeast U.S. and the first time it has conducted a workshop for the region to help entrepreneurs in the shellfish industry prepare to pitch their businesses to potential investors.

Entrepreneurs with the strongest proposals, drawn from all regions, pitch to investors from around the world at a global competition next fall, according to Diane Durance, executive director of UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.

The inaugural workshop in Wilmington drew 21 participants from five states. The businesses seeking investor funding ranged from startup oyster farms to shellfish-centric software firms to researchers streamlining the process of diagnosing disease in shellfish populations.

Niels Lindquist of Morehead City is co-founder and CEO of Sandbar Oyster Co. Inc., which has invented a material that can be formed into various shapes and submerged to form an artificial substrate to which oysters can attach.

After trying out his pitch at the recent workshop event, Lindquist said it had been helpful in understanding how to develop his appeal to investors.

“It gave me a better understanding of the investor side of the equation: what motivates them, what turns them off, and their limitations,” he said. “I also understand how to tailor a pitch to different investors.”

Durance is a veteran of Fish 2.0’s competition platform, having pitched her own project in Michigan in 2013. When she became head of the CIE in June, she realized there was no Fish 2.0 regional competition track in this part of the country, and set about to change that.

“I’ve had Fish 2.0 on my mind since 2013,” she said. “I knew we had a lot of strength in marine technology here. Attending the workshop increases participants’ ability to compete at the global event, which takes place at Stanford University in November.”

Wilmington workshop participants spoke of the high demand for shellfish and the ways in which technology and automation can raise the productivity and sustainability of existing aquaculture operations, and make it easier for new ones to get started.

Jain, who moderated the wrap-up pitch session, said she expects more participants in the regional workshop next year. The first year’s competition in a region typically draws what she calls “early adopters,” while other entrepreneurs watch and see how things go.

“The first year in Seattle we had about 20 participants,” she said. “The second year, we had 70 applications in five days.”

Earlier this year, NC IDEA, a private foundation in Durham, awarded funding from its Ecosystem Partner Grant to Wilmington-based Marine Bio-Technologies Center of Innovation (MBCOI) to support the center’s role in the Fish 2.0 competition and the recent workshop.

The grant, $75,000, was the 10th one MBCOI has received from the foundation’s Ecosystem Partner Grant program.

“The addition of MBCOI to our growing cohort of grantees further expands the diversity of our program by directly supporting entrepreneurial activity in Coastal NC,” Thom Ruhe, president and CEO of NC IDEA, said in a news release from the foundation. “A number of our recent seed grant recipients and finalists have benefitted from the mentoring, support and expertise of MBCOI. Funding this grant presented an opportunity for our organizations to more formally collaborate in supporting entrepreneurship in the eastern part of the state.”

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