The Blue Economy Is a $3 Trillion Opportunity

By Vanessa Scott

The blue tech sector and the blue economy are growing rapidly, along with the need for innovation that addresses climate change and supports UN Sustainable Development Goals. As part of this movement, UC San Diego and its partners are leading innovative research and innovation programs to tackle ocean challenges with advanced science and engineering solutions. One key example is the startBlue Accelerator, which announced its inaugural cohort in 2021.

UC San Diego hosted an informational webinar on the crucial opportunities presented by the blue economy and the startBlue program, a joint project of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Rady School of Management. The program supports science and engineering start-ups in the rapidly growing and highly vital blue tech sector, devising new solutions that can be integrated into science, industry, investment and government networks. The webinar was the first of the UC San Diego Transformation Series. Speakers were Gwen Nero, Scripps’ then director of corporate affiliates, business development, industry outreach and innovation, and Karen Jensen, entrepreneurship advocate at the California Institute for Innovation and Development, Rady School of Management.

What Is the Blue Economy?
Per the World Bank’s definition, the blue economy encompasses “sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health.” In the United States, the ocean economy carries a $373 billion impact, with 2.3 million jobs (based on 2018 numbers) in sectors such as tourism, transportation and national security. Globally, the blue economy is worth $1.5 trillion, sustaining 31 million jobs (in agriculture, energy, fishing, shipbuilding and more), and is expected to double its impact by 2030.

One reason for the increased focus on blue tech and the blue economy is the urgency of meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include the intention to “conserve and sustain marine resources for sustainable development” (SDG 14). With the challenges and opportunities presented by climate change, blue tech innovation is at a premium. The startBlue accelerator puts UC San Diego, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Rady School of Management and the San Diego business community squarely on the front lines.

What Is the startBlue Accelerator?
The startBlue Accelerator is the latest in UC San Diego’s StartR series of programs fostering innovation and entrepreneurship. It provides training, hands-on experience, technical support, industry mentorship and fundraising opportunities for blue tech start-ups ready to grow.

The current cohort is remarkably diverse and includes start-ups seizing opportunities in biologics, robotics, food, energy, 3D printing, stormwater filtration, measuring underwater biomass and monitoring fish populations, and even improving a centuries-old invention: the anchor. 

Start-ups in startBlue do not need to be affiliated with UC San Diego but need to be able to attend in person for in-person program content.

“If you have even just a small idea in this area and you want to explore, we’d love to see you in startBlue,” said Karen Jensen.

“Maybe startBlue isn’t your first step,” she added. “There are so many other entrepreneurial programs on campus that are great ways to get your feet wet, get involved, learn more and prepare yourself for whatever the next program may be.”

Along with mentorship and material aid, participation in startBlue also affords some social opportunities, which can spawn business relationships. “We’re planning on having further mixers,” said Jensen. “Generally, we hold these in the late winter or early spring quarters, primarily in preparation for the Triton Innovation challenge. We encourage everyone to come meet each other. We’ve had several teams form this way.”

The next startBlue cohort opens in May 2022.

Why San Diego Is Poised to Lead Blue Tech Innovation
The defense sector and U.S. Navy presence in the San Diego area has long positioned it to be a leader in the blue economy. In San Diego alone, 46,000 direct jobs exist under the umbrella of the blue economy, and it’s only going to grow.

“San Diego is unique in terms of the resources it offers to start-ups, more specifically, to later-stage start-ups who are looking for equity-based investment and who are looking to deploy a pilot, for example,” said Gwen Nero. “In the ocean space, we have TMA Blue Tech and the Blue Tech Incubator, and we have the Port of San Diego’s Blue Economy Incubator, which are fantastic resources for start-ups that are at that stage. But, critically, we’re lacking support for our newest start-ups that need to develop their go-to-market strategies, and that’s where startBlue comes in. We’re supporting those teams as they’re spinning up, looking to compete for nondilutive funding, and then going to transition into these later-stage programs.”

How to Get Involved in Blue Tech
The startBlue program presents many generous opportunities for local business leaders and subject matter experts to play a part in developing the future of the blue economy.

“Mentorship has been arguably the most valuable thing we offer our teams,” Nero said. “These are available at different levels, including lead and secondary mentors. “The lead mentor is more of a generalist, who’s an expert in start-ups. You don’t need to be an expert in the blue economy or in that particular sector that your team is working in, but you need to be someone who’s a self-starter, who’s well connected and willing to share your network with your team to help them toward their milestones for the program. Our secondary mentors are more domain experts in that particular sector that the team is working in. It’s a collaborative team approach that we take.”

“The best thing you can do, if you’re interested in this, is get involved,” said Jensen.

The webinar recording can be viewed on YouTube.

For more information on the startBlue program, or to sign up as a mentor, visit or email

Vanessa Scott is the industry relations and innovation program manager at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

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