The Global Startup Ecosystem Report Blue Economy Edition

How Mississippi’s Gulf Blue Initiative is Building on Established Strengths to Drive Innovation

The opinions expressed in this sponsored article do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Startup Genome.

“The Gulf Blue Initiative unlocks the talent of the community, aligns the region’s innovation and research capabilities, and promotes entrepreneurship to grow its economic capacity and resiliency.”

The Gulf & Ship Island Building in Gulfport is representative of both the Mississippi Gulf Coast’s deep past and bright future in the Blue Economy. When Captain Joseph T. Jones, an oil tycoon from Pennsylvania, came to the area after purchasing the Gulf & Ship Island Railroad at the start of the 20th century, he built the three-story structure as the company’s headquarters and dredged a shipping channel in the Port of Gulfport with a vision of shipping timber around the country.

Today, this historic building is the center of efforts to build a world-class innovation cluster along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The restored building is the home base for the Gulf Blue Initiative (GBI), a complete package of programs created by the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) in collaboration with partner organizations across the Mississippi Gulf Coast to spur Blue Economy innovation. USM has invested in coast-wide maritime infrastructure to advance technology in six blue technology innovation clusters, and the GBI brings together researchers, government partners, and entrepreneurs to further develop the region as a leader in the Blue Economy. It includes a coworking space and the Gulf Blue Navigator, a six-month accelerator program for established Blue Economy startups.

Building on Geographical and Industrial Strengths

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has projected that over the next two decades ocean-related innovation will generate $3 billion in revenue. To best position the Gulf Coast to participate in that vast potential and to make full use of its established maritime strengths, the GBI unlocks the talent of the community, aligns the region’s innovation and research capabilities, and promotes entrepreneurship to grow its economic capacity and resiliency.

USM has repositioned its research capabilities to support innovation and entrepreneurship. The Marine Research Center offers 18,000 square feet of laboratories and fabrication facilities, as well as test tanks for research in uncrewed maritime systems. USM also boasts a world-renowned center for aquaculture research. As a result of these and several other maritime research facilities in the area, the Gulf Coast has the largest concentration of oceanographers in the world.

Blue Economy businesses also benefit from the area’s infrastructure, including proximity to deep- and shallow-water ports, the Gulfport-Biloxi International airport, and nearby Stennis Space Center, where NASA tests rockets. These facilities make the Gulf Coast an ideal base for a broad range of Blue Economy companies working in several innovation clusters: Unmanned Maritime Systems, Ocean-friendly Plastics, Precision Maritime Aquaculture, Ocean and Resilience Data, Smart Ports, and Sea-Space Systems.

A Strong Network of Experts

Mississippi-based Blue Economy startups also benefit from proximity to government agencies and established industrial players in related sectors such as defense, oil and gas, and advanced shipbuilding. This concentration of expertise draws like-minded innovators, allowing founders to easily rub shoulders, bounce ideas off each other, and establish mutually beneficial relationships. Potential partners and customers abound.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration currently occupies the third floor of the Gulf & Ship Island Building, and wind- and solar-powered autonomous underwater vehicle maker Ocean Aero is also based in the building. Zero-carbon green hydrogen storage hub company Hy Stor operates out of premises, and the coworking space further contributes to the building being a hub of Blue Economy innovation.

“Mississippi’s unique geography, geology, and maritime assets make it the perfect location for creating a renewable coastal ecosystem. Through our partnerships with local universities, including Jackson State University and University of Southern Mississippi, we are committed to supporting and championing clean energy education and careers,” says Hy Stor CEO Laura Luce. “We are proud to be part of the GBI and have developed strategic agreements with key Gulf Coast ports in order to provide reliable, renewable, and carbon free energy to coastal Mississippi and the entire region.”

Incubating the Next Generation of Blue Economy Innovators

Startup founders and established Blue Economy companies considering the Mississippi Gulf Coast as their base stand to gain more than access to talent and industry. Quality of life here is also a draw. Besides offering excellent schools, Gulfport wins visitors over with its charming downtown area. “Every time someone visits, they’re blown away. It’s outside of the realm of what they thought Mississippi was about,” says Natalie Guess, a local business and marketing consultant.

Home grown entrepreneurs are also benefiting from the Gulf Blue Initiative by leveraging relationships and connections to advance their initiatives. David Dale, cofounder of Oak Island Oyster Company, is one example — he is making use of the supportive community to advance novel oyster farming techniques and processes.

The area has long been lively, but its restaurants and shops have seen a boom in business since the inception of the GBI, illustrating the potential of Blue Economy innovation to drive local economic development. This trickle-down effect is likely to accelerate when the Gulf Blue Navigator welcomes its first cohort of six startups in November 2022.

This initial cohort will each receive $25,000 in financial support to support their travel to Mississippi and accommodation during the six-month program. They’ll benefit from coworking space, world-class networking, support and advice from established players in the sector, and access to other resources to take their startups from proven pilot to fast-scaling business.

If Captain Jones represents the roots of maritime innovation along Mississippi’s Gulf Coast, these startups represent its future. Blessed with miles of coastline and multiple ports, Mississippi has been the innovation gateway to the Gulf of Mexico for hundreds of years. By combining these natural advantages with cutting-edge technology and a coherent vision for 21st century innovation, the area is set to further develop into a global hub for the $3 billion Blue Economy, bringing Big Ideas out of the Blue.