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Updated: September 2, 2019 Focus on startups / entrepreneurship

Making waves in the ‘blue economy’: Marine-focused consultancy opens doors for members

NEOC leaders Photo / Tim Greenway Patrick Arnold, right, co-founder and CEO of the New England Ocean Cluster, and chief operating and marketing officer Chris Cary have big plans for incubating ocean economy-focused startups.

Maine Standard Biofuels is a Portland firm that collects used cooking oil from and food manufacturers across New England and converts it into sustainable energy like biodiesel for Casco Bay Lines ferries. It also turns biorefinery production waste into green cleaning products.

Seeking to land more clients in Maine and well beyond, it recently joined the New England Ocean Cluster to help it make the right connections.

“Our immediate goal is to work more closely with the working waterfront of Portland, and the marine industry in the entire state of Maine for that matter,” says business development director Rodger Strickland. “Longer term, North Atlantic markets in the marine, industrial and general commercial sectors are our goal in working with the NEOC.”

Part management consultancy, part business incubator and accelerator, the NEOC is a private-sector, member-based entity that aims to connect people within the blue economy. Concretely, that means giving clients access to a global network of industry leaders and subject matter experts, offering strategic support and helping turn innovative ideas into commercial realities.

Patrick Arnold of consultancy Soli DG and Thor Sigfusson of the Iceland Ocean Cluster in Reykjavik created the NEOC five years ago. It’s gearing up to ramp up incubation services with a planned move into a waterfront locale whose details were still being finalized as Mainebiz went to press.

“Once we’re in physical space, it’ll be far easier to work with members on a daily, weekly, monthly basis building trust,” says Arnold, who also directs operations and business development for the Maine Port Authority. “That’s really the next big step for us.”

Expert advice and events

NEOC memberships are offered at a flat rate, renewed annually, and are based on company size. Members are paying clients of NEOC, whose services include facilitation and networking, consultation and development and business incubation. Events include an “Entrepreneurship and the Blue Economy,” series, with a Sept. 10 panel on “Collaboration and the Maine Brand.”

For small companies just starting out like John Herrigel’s Maine Oyster Co., the NEOC helps with brand development, content creation and strategic planning, notes Chris Cary, the NEOC’s chief operating and marketing officer.

“The Ocean Cluster aims to provide that complementary capacity to small companies that don’t have the resources themselves,” he says. “We want to consult and do small projects with them, and point to low-hanging fruit.”

Herrigel, who started an oyster farm in eastern Casco Bay with his mother in 2016 and runs an oyster bar in Portland’s West Bayside neighborhood , said the NEOC is helping him on several fronts as he seeks to expand his distribution business and share stories of Maine oyster farmers with consumers. That includes connecting him with CruiseMaine and Maine Beer Co. for a shucking and beer-tasting event that CruiseMaine filmed for promotional purposes.

“They’ve been a great connector and knowledgeable on how to grow the business and work with an industry that’s changing,” Herrigel says.

Outside the business realm, the NEOC works with academic institutions like the University of Southern Maine and University of New England, and Maine Medical Center’s Innovation Cohort led by cardiologist Jennifer Monti. The group of clinicians and ancillary staff looks in a structured way at solving problems in the medical arena, like the use of fish skin for covering wounds for which Maine Med surgeon Damien Carter has a provisional patent.

Now the Cohort aims to tap the NEOC’s network to test the innovation and its market potential.

“I don’t think it will take years,” Monti says. “because the clinical urgency is there.”

Icelandic example

As the NEOC prepares to lay anchor at a new Portland base, its Reyjkavik counterpart offers a shining example, with Ocean Cluster House success stories led by two cosmetics firms making collagen from cod.

While that facility is filled to capacity with 90 companies, Iceland Ocean Cluster CEO Berta Danielsdottir says there’s always a way to add startups.

“Once in a while a company outgrows our offices and we get new people in,” she says. “This is very healthy for us.” Her top advice for the Portland team? Install a good coffee machine and make everyone clean their own cups.

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