Today, sustainable seafood is an exciting field for innovation. It has the potential to improve ocean health while making significant changes to the $390 billion global seafood industry. To name just a few signs of change: underwater sensors, robots, cameras and big data tools are creating an Internet of Fish. Algae is shedding its green-slime image and becoming a glamorous super-ingredient. Oyster farming is surging back to life as an economic engine and environmental asset. And traceability and transparency solutions are giving seafood buyers a much-needed look at the journey from water to plate.
“None of this was happening when we launched Fish 2.0 in 2013,” says founder and executive director Monica Jain. “And few saw it coming, given the historically slow rate of change in the seafood industry and its complex, often low-tech global supply chain. We believed, though, that progress would accelerate if we could remove barriers to innovation: neither investors nor entrepreneurs had the knowledge and networks they needed to get promising ideas off the ground and move needed capital into the sector. Happily, we were right.”
Key lessons uncovered
Now, a global network that connects entrepreneurs, investors and experts – Fish 2.0 – helped power a steep rise in both the level and pace of innovation in sustainable seafood. It’s also created a perception of the industry as a place where innovators can build thriving companies that deliver environmental and social benefits. And over the past seven years, Fish 2.0 has surfaced five key lessons that form a framework for jump-starting sustainable innovation in any industry.
1. You get what you design for.
Fish 2.0 was designed to create connections: on the surface it was a business competition, but each element of the project served to bring participants together to grow the sustainable seafood sector. Those who give time, expertise, and connections to others are rewarded and invited back. “Takers” who do not contribute to the network and just seek personal gain are actively excluded. The result is a network so valuable that it’s now the main draw—Fish 2.0 ceased to be called a “competition” last year.
2. Large-scale change requires large-scale networks.
Accelerator and incubator programs are an important part of the innovation landscape, but they can’t create large-scale change. Their smaller cohort sizes (usually no more than 10–20 companies ) cannot allow broad participation or build general awareness. Those who apply but are not accepted rarely receive specific feedback from investors, so may end up frustrated by the application process. Also, accelerator and incubator programs are place based. The best ones provide in-depth training and mentoring that requires entrepreneurs to relocate for several months at a time.
Fish 2.0 was designed to operate online, allowing busy entrepreneurs anywhere in the world to participate in their own time zones and schedules. Because of this design, 588 entrepreneurs from more than 40 countries have received expert feedback from investors, impact advisors and business leaders.
Investor participation was also designed with efficiency in mind. The online judging portal allows busy investors to share their expertise easily, anonymously and candidly. As a result, 388 investors and experts have volunteered their time as advisors and judges to help sustainable seafood entrepreneurs develop their businesses.
3. Plan for success, not mediocrity.
The Fish 2.0 team wanted to drive major change and needed to scale Fish 2.0 to do that. Rather than set goals they were sure they could meet, they were willing to risk falling short of audacious ones. And in most cases, they felt they not only met but exceeded their goals—giving thanks to numerous people in the network who they say were inspired by their ambitions and encouraged them to think even bigger.
In Fish 2.0’s first year, 20 businesses from an initial pool of 84 applicants qualified to pitch onstage during the Global Innovators Forum at Stanford, most of them based in the U.S. This year, 40 businesses from a pool of 151—based in Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, the Netherlands, Norway, the Pacific Islands, the Philippines, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.—will take the stage.
Initially, most Fish 2.0 participants were early-stage companies. Now the pipeline is more mature and also more able to absorb capital—almost all businesses presenting already have prototypes or products in the marketplace. You can see this progress in the funding levels: investors have put at least $300 million into the first three cohorts, and $200 million of that went to the 2017 cohort alone. The 2019 cohort, presenting at the Nov. 5–6 Forum, has the potential to draw even more. That’s partly because over 700 investors are now subscribed to the Fish 2.0 network and communications, compared with a virtual vacuum at the outset.
4. Share knowledge widely and accessibly.
To fill the knowledge gap in the seafood sector, Fish 2.0 has produced 27 investor briefs on topics ranging from algae products and aquaculture technology to traceability and tuna. They found that their audience is incredibly busy, so they trimmed these down to just one page over time. They’re geared to providing intelligent investors with enough knowledge to start doing their own research.
Additionally, they aimed to work with mainstream as well as trade outlets to share their story. Fish 2.0 has generated—either directly or via network participants—at least 365 articles and broadcasts focused on seafood innovation and sustainability, in media outlets including Fast Company, Stanford Social Innovation Review and TechCrunch.
5. Find partners who bring something to the table and really work with them.
Partnerships have been essential to expanding and enriching the network—and in every case they report they’ve sought and benefited from partners’ expertise. In the current cycle they began working with NOAA, which supported workshops across the country at three locations with aquaculture centers and labs. A partnership with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington links Fish 2.0 participants to a hotbed of oyster technology development. Longtime support from the U.S. Department of State allowed them to help the Pacific Islands advance their seafood economies, and a new partnership with Australia’s Fisheries Research and Development Corporation hooked them into that country’s highly innovative seafood sector.
The door is open
Looking at the sustainable seafood sector now, Jain sees potential for even faster progress and greater influence on the entire industry.
“Entrepreneurs and investors who have built and run companies before are bringing their expertise to seafood, applying technologies and processes from other fields to seafood’s challenges,” she explains “The sector is benefiting from advances in ag tech, for example, which is spawning new technologies and systems for fish farms. Aquaculture in general has made big leaps forward. Land-based aquaculture used to be viewed as a fantasy; now it has a firm spot in our food future. The development of high-quality underwater cameras and sensors has literally opened our eyes to what’s going on under water, and these technologies, along with robotics, are enabling a new generation of traceability and transparency solutions.”
Many people and organizations, as well as broad market and social trends, contributed to sustainable seafood’s arrival at this place. Fish 2.0’s opened the door and brings people together. “We’ve found that when you show people a compelling opportunity, they want in,” says Jain. “Everyone who engaged helped build the network, and because they did, our oceans and plates are going to be healthier.”