The Sustainable Ocean Alliance has been a staunch advocate for the “blue economy” for a few years now and a breeding ground for early-stage ocean-focused startups. Now empowered by $15 million in new funding, the nonprofit hopes to expand its reach and give more tangible support to the class of climate-motivated founders they call “ecopreneurs.”
Funding comes from a variety of sources, most notably Marc and Lynne Benioff, whose Salesforce-derived philanthropy has had a striking green theme, or in this case, blue. Benioff challenged SOA founder Daniela Fernandez to find and accelerate 100 ocean-focused startups and projects in 2019, and the organization has more than doubled that goal. Apparently that activated the donation center in his brain and the result is this new money.
Resonance Philanthropies, Inclusive Capital Partners Foundation, Maja Kristin and others also gave their best. Fernandez told me the funding will be used immediately to scale up their efforts.
“We’ve had so much demand, both at the grassroots level and at the profit level, but with the limited resources we had, we had to be very selective in who we funded,” she said. “There’s such a funding gap in this space — a lot of money goes into research, but not seeding these projects, empowering young people around the world, thinking about how the industry can be disrupted and redesigned.”
She stressed that while the efforts of agencies such as the UN are necessary and helpful, those who make progress end up on the ground elsewhere — often young people are baffled by the passivity or dragging behavior they observe in these institutions. SOA’s hope, confirmed by hundreds of small investments and sponsorships, is that a strategically placed few thousand dollars can be the difference between a passionate leader becoming an influential and successful founder or just moving on.
Also part of that is the ability to write bigger checks – up to $100,000 for emerging companies and projects. That may not sound like much compared to enterprise SaaS decacorns, but for pre-seed founders like the ones I met in their marine accelerator, it’s a vital lifeline that can turn a hobby and passion into a working business.
But the organization has also found that their cohort-based accelerator, useful as it is, doesn’t quite meet the growing demands of the sustainable startup economy.
“The time-bound model is broken, I would say. These entrepreneurs need support for life,” says Fernandez.
Craig Dudenhoffer, Chief Innovation Officer and head of the accelerator program there, echoed this claim and elaborated on how they will change the system going forward.
“We see startups jumping across multiple accelerator programs to access new networks and funding. Short-term accelerator programs take startups to ‘the next stage’, but what comes next?” he wrote in an email to BestFitnessBands. “The SOA Startup Network… breaks through traditional accelerators and provides startups with year-round access to SOA’s network of mentors, partners, investors and a community of entrepreneurs with an ocean impact, without the rigid structure of an accelerator program. Startups are accepted all year round and receive immediate support from the SOA network. By participating in the program, startups receive investment from SOA and access to support for the life of their ocean startup.
Like the Olive Garden, you’re family when you’re part of the network. While Fernandez acknowledged similarities with bigger startup accelerators like TechStars and Y Combinator, she said the advancing admissions and focus on this fledgling network is key.
“Many of these entrepreneurs come to us and say, for example, that I need a seaweed expert for our advisory board. And we have to say, just wait until our program starts again next year. We want to offer that expertise at any time of the year, but also take our entrepreneurs to the keystone meetings where they can pitch to investors, governments, companies and potential partners.”
The goal is to become the de facto professional network for ocean and eventually more broadly climate-focused entrepreneurship, something that would help stimulate new groups, challenges, competitions, and so on. (Previously funded or incubated companies are automatically added to the network, in case any of you are reading this.)
While this $15 million is more money than SOA has had since its humble beginnings a few years ago, it’s just the beginning of a rush to raise $100 million over the next three years. The Benioffs have been generous, but they’re not going to cover the whole bill.
“We are definitely looking for other investors and philanthropists to help reach that $100 million goal,” Fernandez said. “We have to make the ocean a priority. It is the most underfunded of all the UN SDGs [sustainable development goals]† Here at the UN Ocean Conference, when a youth leader turned to a government leader and asked them what would come next, there was no tangible plan. There were excuses for what their generation has done, but no concrete change they would hold themselves accountable for.”
As expected, if you want something done right, if at all, you have to do it yourself – as sustainability leaders are increasingly discovering. Hopefully organizations like SOA will help them with that.