Scripps Entrepreneurs: Q&A with Scientists for Sustainable Technology

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In November 2017, five entrepreneurial teams from Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego competed in the Triton Innovation Challenge to turn forward-thinking science into new businesses. Six months after the Triton Innovation Challenge–a startup business competition presented through a partnership between Rady School of Management, Scripps, and the Jacobs School of Engineering (JSoE)–each Scripps team remains dedicated to their businesses, commercializing technologies for a more sustainable future.

In May, UC San Diego’s Institute for the Global Entrepreneur (IGE) recognized each team for their continued growth and dedication to the development of forward-thinking technologies. IGE awarded each team a $1,000 stipend and access to ongoing startup mentoring by IGE to continue their entrepreneurial journey.

"The entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well at Scripps, and we were happy to strengthen our connection to Scripps as one of our valued partners,” said Dennis Abremski, Executive Director of IGE.

Prior to the Triton Innovation Challenge, these Scripps startup teams completed the first ever entrepreneurial boot camp hosted by IGE and Scripps. The Scripps Innovation Bootcamp, a three-week pitch and business development course, emerged out of the realization that the Scripps teams had the innovative blue and green tech, but needed access to business expertise and resources to support their startups’ success in the Triton Innovation Challenge and accelerate their startup development.

Startup teachers from Scripps and IGE led the workshops, based on the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps (Innovation Corps) program, and, along with outside industry mentors, prepared the Scripps teams to tackle challenges such as the principles of product/market fit and customer discovery.

As a result, the Triton Innovation Challenge showcased the innovations and commercial potential of the Scripps teams and provided IGE the opportunity to collaborate in green and blue tech innovation. "The teams were responsive to the coaching and it paid off,” said Abremski. Each team is still active and earning accolades for their technology and business development.

As the teams continue to work on their innovations, Scripps caught up with a few of the team leaders to reflect on their experience competing in the Triton Innovation Challenge.

Smartfin
Phil Bresnahan
Senior Development Engineer, PhD ‘15

Q: Tell us about Smartfin—who you are, what you do, and how are you different?
A: Smartfin is basically two things. On the one hand it's a surfboard fin. It's a physical object with sensors in it to measure temperature and wave motion, a GPS unit on it to track position, a memory card, and then wireless data transfer technology so that you can send data back to our cloud storage.

On the other hand, Smartfin is an outreach and community building initiative focused on getting surfers and the broader public more engaged in a lot of the issues that we already know are happening in the ocean such as rise in sea level, increase in ocean temperature, and coral bleaching. We are trying to get the surf community, which is already quite fired up about ocean health in general, to become better stewards and communicators of the science that we've been doing here at Scripps and across the world.

Q: What are resources at UC San Diego and Scripps that have made a difference to you as your project evolves?
A: The biggest one would be the people. It’s the fact that I can knock on doors in my hallway and in buildings around campus to ask people questions about how they would make the most accurate and fast response temperature sensor, or what datasets they would be interested in to fill some of the gaps in their research data. The other individuals and teams that we have here are just so incredible in their own right, and it’s amazing to have that pretty much at my fingertips.

Q: How do you plan to spend the stipend?
A: The stipend will help us with our transition to cellular data transfer. This transition gives us the opportunity to get all the data out and I think that this really fits in well with our long-term project goal of not becoming just another neat gadget that you buy once and then let sit on your garage shelf for the rest of its life. We want this to be a true research-grade product.

Q: What is the most rewarding part of being involved with Smartfin?
A: The biggest rewards would be seeing people who I don’t know surfing with the Smartfin. A couple weeks ago I was surfing down in Pacific Beach and after my session with my Smartfin I overheard someone talking to his buddy using these terms that sounded so familiar to me. He said things like, “Yeah, it collects temperature data and then sends it to the cloud. It’s being used for research up at Scripps.” I looked over at his board and I see a Smartfin on there, and I’ve never met this guy before in my life.

Q: Do you have advice for others at Scripps thinking about starting a business?
A: I’m tempted to say something corny like, “Chase your passions,” but it’s really true. I know it sounds ridiculous, but another thing I would say is to start small. When I tried putting sensors on paddleboards during my PhD it was a catastrophic failure. We just took stuff that we had in the lab, and fortunately my then advisor, now supervisor, was really supportive of the whole thing. It didn’t work at all, but it gave us the little kick that we needed to start thinking about how to actually make it work.


The Green Stop
Rachel Labbé-Bellas
Founder/CEO, Former Scripps staff

Q: Tell us about The Green Stop—who you are, what you do, and how are you different?
A: The Green Stop is a mobile, solar-powered, waste-free refill station that can be used at the beach to reduce plastic pollution and provide filtered, chilled drinking water to beachgoers. It will help reduce plastic pollution by removing the use of plastic bottles and other to-go items that beachgoers might need. It will also offer plastic-free vending items such as bamboo straws, reusable utensils, and metal water bottles. To date, no one has thought about offering 100% sustainable services and plastic-free items, especially at our beaches.

Q: What’s your origin story, or how did your company come to be?
A:
In 2015, I was invited to participate on an all-female sailing voyage with an all-female crew of international ocean leaders called eXXpedition. Our mission was to make the unseen seen, from the toxins in our bodies to the toxins in our seas. As a marine biologist and ocean advocate, I became obliged to join the fight of plastic pollution in our oceans. Upon return from this voyage, I had an idea and started to stencil it down. Fired up with determination and passion, I created The Green Stop.

In my last year working at Scripps, I entered in UC San Diego’s Triton Innovation Challenge and pitched The Green Stop after participating at the Scripps Innovation Bootcamp where I found my business partner, Juliana Brasil, an MBA student at the Rady School of Management. Now with Juliana as a co-founder and COO, we are incorporating and seeking funding to pilot our first prototype.

Q: What is different about pitching a business versus your research?
A:In my experience, when you pitch a business you have to further convince people beyond the problem and that involves three parts: show that there is a problem, that the problem is big and many people have it, and that you can solve the problem in an affordable and feasible way.

Q: How do you plan to spend the stipend?
A: The stipend and support from Scripps/IGE helped us in the first step towards incorporation. We just became a Public Benefit Corporation.

Q: How has starting your own business changed your perspective on your research or career goals?
A: It has showed us how we can apply our knowledge to real-life applications. It became my solution—a way to go beyond academia and apply my knowledge and expertise into a new discipline. Research can often close out the world and tunnel vision you into thinking that most people go about their day like you do. This business is my solution—it’s a way for the public to help me save what I had always hoped to save during my research studies—the ocean.


California Seaweed Co.
Brant Chlebowski
CEO, Scripps staff, BS ‘08, MAS ‘17

Q: Tell us about California Seaweed Co.—who you are, what you do, and how are you different?
A: California Seaweed Co. is a pioneer in the systematic, sustainable and scientifically informed cultivation of top quality culinary seaweeds. Our team of scientists, farmers, chefs are working on bringing delicious organic seaweed to the Southern California market.

Fresh, local native seaweed is widely regarded as a healthy, sustainable and economically attractive alternative to many current seaweed products on the market. Local onshore aquaculture of seaweed is potentially a substantial opportunity for innovation and blue economy development, enhancing the working waterfront of California.

We are unique because we apply both traditional and innovative scientific methods to the production and systematic improvement of high-value seaweed varieties, starting with well-known species and then expanding our offerings.

Q: Do you have advice for others at Scripps thinking about starting a business?
A: The support structure for entrepreneurial development at UC San Diego, Scripps, and across San Diego for the blue economy has never been stronger. Although much of the path for a new venture is by definition unknown, the support and guidance to navigate the process is rapidly developing—a persistent and proactive team can find allies and opportunities in the process.

Q: What’s the next milestone or goal for your company?
A: California Seaweed Co. is focused on going to market with our seaweed products to local sustainable seafood celebrity chefs! After that we will focus on expanding production and orders for the back half of 2018.

Q: How do you plan to spend the stipend?
A: I plan on purchasing a new prototype of the pilot scale production system, which we plan to test in our outdoor grow setup.

Q: What are the biggest challenges and most rewarding parts of running your company?
A: Growing a crop on land that exists naturally in the ocean presents a fun farming challenge when thinking about growth system engineering. Working with a smart and motivated team of business advisors, scientists, and celebrity chefs committed to sustainable seafood drives me to improve our company every single day. Sitting at a table at the end of the day with team members and customers who literally taste the product of all of our work is a uniquely satisfying reward.


Hydrokinetic Energy & Storage L.L.C.
Jack Pan
CTO, PhD candidate

Q: Tell us about Hydrokinetic Energy & Storage L.L.C.—who you are, what you do, and how are you different?
A: Our company is an early-stage startup based in San Diego. Our team is constructing mechanical modules for converting ocean wave energy to compressed air for electricity generation and energy storage. Leveraging the advantage of compressed air, these buoy-based systems can provide continuous power in a marine environment where other forms of renewable energy are unsuitable.

Q: How has your research at Scripps inspired this project?
A: As part of my Antarctic expeditions, the icebreaking research vessels would often cross the Drake Passage, one of the most treacherous areas in the world’s ocean, to reach our study site on the other side of the Southern Ocean. During these long transits, I could feel the full force of a raging sea while our thousand-ton vessel was constantly moved like a feather by massive waves.

These long transits gave me time to contemplate the great potential of this enormous force of nature. These polar expeditions allowed me to see what ocean waves are truly capable of. These experiences as a researcher motivated me to work on this startup company; they have also led me to assemble a team of highly skilled individuals and encounter great mentors to move this project forward.

Q: What is different about pitching a business versus your research?
A: In academia, it is often critical to earn the respect of one’s peers who are also experts in the same field. While we have begun to see more public communication and outreach efforts in recent years, many essential ideas in research are still not effectively conveyed to non-experts.

During a business pitch, the presenters not only need to demonstrate their expertise, but they also need to succinctly explain their ideas to investors who are non-experts.

Q: What are the resources at UC San Diego and Scripps that have made a difference to you as your project evolves?
A: UC San Diego and Scripps have been instrumental to helping their researchers and students be more involved in startup communities. For example, the Scripps Innovation Bootcamp as well as the Triton Innovation Challenge are great opportunities to learn more about entrepreneurship and the business world. It is very encouraging to see such a vibrant startup community at UC San Diego, as well as the continued growth and success in the community.

Many faculties and staff at UC San Diego and Scripps have also been very helpful, and they work hard to encourage startup efforts in the academic community.

Q: How do you plan to spend this stipend?
A: This generous support from IGE will contribute to building prototypes and the first article at the Technology Career Institute (TCI) at MiraCosta College, which our company is currently collaborating with, in the near future. We also plan to collaborate with the Hydraulics Laboratory (H-Lab) at Scripps for testing our device. Furthermore, we also plan to take this mutually beneficial opportunity to involve UC San Diego with our future IP filing process.

These interviews have been condensed and edited.

- Tricia Dutton

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