Sure, plenty of money is spent on ocean-based industries, but most of today’s marine investments are into either extractive industries like fishing or oil and gas, or activities like shipping, which aren’t extractive, but don’t exactly benefit marine ecosystems. But in recent years, there has been a sea change in perspectives. Founders and investors have started to look for opportunities to conserve, and even enhance, the ocean’s resources rather than exploit them. “There is tremendous potential for the ocean to provide more food, more efficiently, with less environmental impact and even regeneratively,” said Reece Pacheco, a partner at Propeller. And because the oceans take up so much of the planet and the space is relatively uncharted, there are plenty of opportunities for investors to find niches ripe with financial and environmental upsides. “Our systems are at a point where it is more productive to work with nature than against it,” said Sanjeev Krishnan, chief investment officer at S2G Ventures. “While energy and agriculture are further along the J-curve, the oceans sector is more nascent, but presents an investable opportunity that impacts almost every sector of the global economy.” In that way, ocean conservation tech mirrors climate tech, which has been growing so fast that some have called it “recession-proof.” Of course, some question whether any sector is truly recession-proof and that applies to ocean conservation tech as well. That doesn’t mean that investors aren’t bullish, though. “I’m not sure I would characterize the ocean economy as recession-proof, but the investment opportunities are real from a venture capital perspective,” said Tim Agnew, general partner at Bold Ocean Ventures. Even some of the most intractable and high-profile problems facing the world’s oceans, like plastic pollution, are inspiring investors to dive in. “People have been looking at solving these problems in the wrong way,” said Daniela Fernandez, managing partner at Seabird Ventures. “Profitability and scalability depend on the approach and business model that is being implemented to solve the plastic pollution crisis. We have to think beyond community beach cleanups — there are actually extremely investable approaches to solving the plastic problem.” Investors like Fernandez are looking with fresh eyes at both new problems like plastic pollution and old ones like aquaculture and fisheries management. In the process, they’re betting that innovative approaches to solving those problems will not just create returns, but create disruptions and innovations that spill over into adjacent sectors. “Part of our thesis is that ocean conservation technologies can solve big problems for big ocean-going industries and adjacent industries,” said Kate Danaher, managing director at S2G Ventures. But, she added, there’s still more room to grow. “We need to make the case to even more climate-focused and generalist investors.” To get a better idea of how startups and investors are thinking about ocean conservation tech and the opportunities therein, we spoke with: Tim Agnew, general partner, Bold Ocean Ventures Peter Bryant, program director (oceans), Builders Initiative Kate Danaher, managing director (oceans and seafood), S2G Ventures Daniela V. Fernandez, founder and CEO, Sustainable Ocean Alliance (Seabird Ventures) Rita Sousa, partner, Faber Ventures Christian Lim, managing director, SWEN Blue Ocean Partners Reece Pacheco, partner, Propeller
Tim Agnew, general partner, Bold Ocean Ventures
What is your investment thesis for ocean conservation tech in 2023? What sort of growth are you expecting in the sector? Our investment thesis is focused on innovations that modernize the seafood supply chain, expand production in a sustainable way and address the impacts of climate change. We believe this investment opportunity is in its early stages and will be a major theme over the next decade as it becomes clearer how impactful the ocean can be in addressing the climate crisis and feeding a growing, more urbanized population. Ocean-related businesses are at the beginning stages of adopting new technologies to increase efficiencies and productivity. Is there a meaningful distinction between the tech used by startups focused on coastal regions and the tech built for the open ocean? Answer is yes and no. Ocean shipping and ocean wind are obviously very different animals from kelp aquaculture and climate resiliency, but both are migrating toward more tech-enabled solutions, including digital technologies, artificial intelligence, data gathering and analysis. A lot of the problems facing the oceans, like plastic pollution, don’t seem to have much potential for profit. Is that a fair assessment, or have we been looking at these problems in the wrong way? We just looked at a company that has a booming business of gathering plastic bottles on beaches, separating the types of plastic and selling to companies that are anxious to be able to offer recycled bottles or other products. There is considerable research going into the transition from plastic packaging to biodegradable packaging. There is plenty of potential for profitable businesses, although the process of cleaning up the oceans is going to require time and money. What technology are you excited about that has the most potential to create new markets? Seafood traceability solutions; ropeless traps; microalgae and seaweed are a hugely untapped resource with multiple market opportunities; ocean and weather data collection and analysis. The ocean today only accounts for 15% of the world’s protein and 2% of its calories. What is the potential for the oceans to provide more, and what should that look like? The oceans will provide more food that has a much lower carbon footprint than land-based animal protein. Shifting demand from beef to seafood could have a major impact on GHG reduction. Seafood aquaculture, both on- and offshore, is growing much faster than wild-caught seafood, and will become a major source of high-quality protein. What are some of the keystone problems that an ocean-based food system faces? Social license concerns about aquaculture, species sustainability and the need to broaden consumer tastes to reduce pressure on overfishing. From aquaculture to kelp farming, there is a range of options to get more food from the oceans. Which do you think is the most promising? RAS and closed system aquaculture.
Peter Bryant, program director (oceans), Builders Initiative, and Kate Danaher, managing director (oceans and seafood), S2G Ventures
What is your investment thesis for ocean conservation tech in 2023? What sort of growth are you expecting in the sector? Peter Bryant: We invest in technologies and business models that enhance the conservation, regeneration and resilience of ecosystems, optimize the production of and use of resources derived from the ocean, and provide consumers with a sustainable, traceable and secure food. Kate Danaher: Part of our thesis is that ocean conservation technologies can solve big problems for big ocean-going and adjacent industries. Innovations that create deflationary solutions like saving fuel, lowering water usage or can build diverse revenue streams through multiple industries will be best positioned to weather this economic winter, raise capital, and gain traction in the market. As these types of innovations begin to show commercial results and have a positive environmental impact, we expect that investment in the sector will continue to increase, spurring more oceans-focused funds and increased interest from broader climate funds. What role have impact investors played in ocean conservation? Investor networks? Bryant: Within ocean conservation, there are technologies and entire sub-sectors that are still developing and need patient capital for R&D, reaching product-market fit, and in some cases, creating new markets. Patient capital lets commercially viable companies de-risk themselves and provide them with the runway they need to hit milestones to attract more traditional capital. Impact investors have also catalyzed the growth of the ocean investment landscape by providing the first capital into ocean funds. Before 2018, there were only a handful of ocean-focused funds; however, in the last 18 months, more than 18 ocean-focused funds have been launched. This is exciting not only because it will lead to hundreds of millions of new dollars invested in the oceans, but also because it demonstrates that venture and growth equity investors have seen the potential of oceans and are willing to set up funds with an oceans-focus. Impact investors who are willing to invest early in these funds are playing a pivotal role in attracting the capital needed to grow the investment landscape in oceans.
Is ocean conservation the next climate tech? 7 investors explain why they’re all in by Tim De Chant originally published on TechCrunch