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Mentors Help Maritime Startups Chart a New Course

February 16, 2021

In 2020 Washington Maritime Blue and the Port of Seattle partnered to launch Washington’s first maritime accelerator to help maritime companies innovate and grow, and spur new technology and investment in one of Washington’s most enduring and important industry sectors. Startups receive access to industry and ocean leaders and work alongside a global network of mentors and advisors over the three months program. Mentors are a critical part of this program. Their unique backgrounds, experiences, and expertise help advise, guide, and inspire each of the founders as they work toward innovative solutions to help the maritime industry thrive in the future.

Following the launch of the second wave of the Maritime Accelerator Program on January 27, 2021, we check in with two program mentors who provided invaluable coaching, support, and inspiration to the first cohort, and learn about their experience and hopes for the program moving forward.

Christian MeinigMeinig

Christian Meinig is the Director of the Engineering Development Division at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory. He leads a diversified team of engineers and technicians specializing in the research, development, and deployment of ocean and atmospheric instruments and observing platforms.

1. How did you get involved with the Maritime Accelerator program?

I’ve been involved with Maritime Blue since its inception. As the Maritime Accelerator was getting started, I thought my family’s startup experience, coupled with my engineering leadership and government background would be a good fit for the program and allow me offer perspective on what might be useful to develop our WA Blue economy and learn more about our oceans. 

2.    How was the mentorship part of the Accelerator program set up?

The mentorship aspect of the program was somewhat structured but allowed for unplanned opportunities for founders and mentors to connect. I gave a talk at the University of Washington Arthur W. Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship and later worked with founders on developing a business plan with a goal to develop a compelling vision and secure funding. I later worked with founders and helped them identify and understand any gaps in their plan and present alternatives and potential solutions.

3.    Why is the Maritime Blue Accelerator program important for the industry as a whole?

The really exciting thing about the Accelerator program is the way the maritime community has gathered around it. It brings together a new community, creating a hotbed of innovation connected to the whole community surrounding them. The Accelerator program is helping to grow our industry, improve sustainability, and reduce our carbon footprint. It’s part of a flywheel that is gathering momentum and picking up speed, fueling important discussions in our community.

4.    Why is it so important for the maritime industry to think sustainably about the future of the industry?

When people hear the word “maritime” they have a limited view of what that means. It typically doesn’t encapsulate how broad the industry is and how much life is touched by maritime, including the air we breathe. The ocean produces over half of the world's oxygen and absorbs about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide we create and stores a lot of heat.  Without the ocean, we’d have a much hotter atmosphere right now.

We need to think beyond ‘sustainably’ about our future and start new ‘regenerative’ thinking.  We need regenerative products that remove carbon from the air and we don’t have many decades left to make this shift, before many negative feedbacks get established. You don’t hear enough on urgency, community, or collective actions we need to take to get us there. Seattle’s entrepreneurial and environmental culture is in our roots, and there is an opportunity here to do great things together.

5.    What are you looking forward to the most with the second cohort?

We had a diverse set of candidates come out of the Accelerator. They built off each other in a strong way and brought new perspectives to the industry. I’m still in touch with a lot of the founders so it’s exciting to see funding come through and I love seeing updates on where they are in their progression of goals they set. I can’t wait to see what the second cohort brings to the program and to the industry and how the first cohort can give back in some way to this new group.

Lauren OffenbecherLauren Offenbecher

Lauren Offenbecher serves on the Washington Maritime Blue Board of Directors and is Director of Strategy at SSA Marine, which together with its affiliates, operates marine terminals and rail yards in more than 250 strategic locations around the world.

1.    How did you make your way to the maritime industry?

After receiving a joint JD/MBA degree (Juris Doctor and Master of Business Administration), I worked in litigation at a large law firm. Although it was exciting and intellectually challenging, it wasn’t fulfilling. I wanted to spend my career building things up instead of tearing them down. In 2011, I joined the legal team at SSA Marine, and in 2016 I was asked to take on a new role as the Director of Strategy, pivoting from the legal to the MBA part of my education.

2.    How did your background impact your perspective as a mentor?

I learned about the Maritime Accelerator initiative through our company’s involvement with Maritime Blue, and I thought it would be a good fit based on my background and our company’s values.  At SSA Marine, we have always valued innovation, problem solving, and working together with our customers, port authorities, and other stakeholders to create value. I am fortunate to work alongside colleagues who have worked in the industry, and with our company, for decades. They are incredibly knowledgeable about terminal operations, which are a unique and critical portion of the broader maritime industry. I wanted to help participants understand the challenges and opportunities in our portion of the industry. 

3.    What was your experience like as a mentor in the program?

I enjoyed meeting the participants and learning about their ideas. Originally, I had planned to lead a port tour for the participants to give them an up-close view of the complexity involved in container terminal operations, but COVID changed our plans. Instead, I participated in virtual “office hours” where I talked about our operations and answered questions from several of the startups. I had also started to work more directly with a few of the startups and had hoped to introduce them to a few of our domain experts. Unfortunately, the pandemic made scheduling challenging, and we really needed to stay focused on keeping our ports open and our supply chain functioning smoothly.

4.    Why is bringing Seattle's startup culture and entrepreneurial spirit into the maritime industry so important?

People don’t appreciate how entrepreneurial this industry already is. There are incredible local companies, including our own, innovating every day. It is important to tell our story to the next generation of entrepreneurs to show them where we’ve come from and how even small changes can make a big impact at our scale. Through the Accelerator, we have an opportunity to bring new people and new perspectives into the industry, and they can learn from our decades of experience.  As an outsider, it’s easy to look at our industry and think you have the solution, but there are so many moving pieces and nuances that you can’t see from the outside. The supply chain is deeply interconnected, as are the relationship within the supply chain, and disruptions to any portion ripple throughout the entire supply chain in ways you don’t expect.  After years of experience, our people are incredibly adept at identifying what obstacles lie ahead and potential solutions for addressing them. 

5.    Why is it so important for the maritime industry to think sustainably about the future of the industry?

Sustainability is about making sure our children and grandchildren can continue to enjoy what we enjoy today, which includes clean air and water, but also good, family-wage jobs, which are prevalent in the maritime industry.  Both industry and the environment are important and interconnected.  It shouldn’t be industry at the expense of the environment or the environment at the expense of industry. We need to work to make both pieces sustainable moving forward to continue to create value. It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.

6.    What are you looking forward to the most with the second cohort?

I’m looking forward to helping the second cohort understand our portion of the industry, providing our perspective, and serving as a conduit to other people in my organization. I work with a lot of incredible people, and I’m looking forward to getting more of our people involved this year and helping to provide different areas of domain expertise and technology experience.  My colleagues are passionate and knowledgeable about what they do; we’re fortunate to have an incredible team of employees and a very different level of expertise than you’ll find in a lot of other places.

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