As a recognized leader in marine research and education, The University of Southern Mississippi (USM) looked to leverage that expertise with the launch of the ambitious Gulf BlueSM initiative last summer. Bringing “Big Ideas out of the Blue®” became the initiative’s official call to action.
As Gulf BlueSM marks its first anniversary, one gigantic idea already producing significant rewards is the Gulf Blue Navigator Program, which provides access to numerous local assets to shorten the development timeline for blue technology startups. With an initial goal of receiving 30 applicants, the program has seen closer to 50 applicants in the first year.
Program Director Hailey Bathurst notes that the Gulf Blue Navigator’s impressive start highlights the growth and significance of the Gulf BlueSM initiative.
“Companies from all over the world find out just a couple of details and are ready to apply, travel to Mississippi and get to work,” said Bathurst. “We have something really special here and look forward to what we can build with the local community to put Mississippi on the map as a center for excellence for blue-tech businesses.”
The Gulf Blue Navigator is housed within the historic Gulf & Ship Island Building in
Gulfport, Miss. As part of the program, scaling startups gain market access while engaging with university, industry, state, and federal partners and potential customers. The Gulf Blue Navigator provides access to state-of-the art research facilities, wet labs, co-working space, networking, and year-round access to warm coastal waters.
Natalie Guess, President of NG Consulting LLC, serves as Director of Business Development for the Gulf Blue Navigator and the GSI building. Guess credits Bathurst and program partner SeaAhead – with its Blue Swell Incubator – for helping boost the Gulf Blue Navigator’s early success by reaching out to potential applicants at every turn. Collaborations with other partners have further aided in the program’s development.
“Our program partners support us in numerous ways,” said Guess. “We have partnered with the Mississippi Aquarium and other industry partners for mentor support and access to infrastructure and expertise that these companies need. Another partner is Chandeleur Island Brewing. They have brewed a special Gulf Blue beer, the Oyster Stout, which is actually brewed with gulf fresh oyster shells.”
Gulf BlueSM seeks to capitalize on USM’s geography and maritime resources while positioning the Mississippi Gulf Coast to lead the development of world-changing innovation. The University’s presence across all three coastal counties and expertise in ocean-related fields are integral components of the initiative.
USM’s assets along the Mississippi Gulf Coast include the Gulf Park campus (the hub for academic instruction on the Gulf Coast), Hydrographic Science Research Center, The Gulf Coast Research Laboratory, Center for Research Fisheries and Development, Gulf Coast Geospatial Center, Thad Cochran Marine Aquaculture Center, Marine Research Center, Roger F. Wicker Center for Ocean Enterprise, and a fleet of research vessels.
When asked to characterize the initiative’s first year, Dr. Kelly Lucas, Vice President for Research at USM, said that she has been inspired by the number of academic, municipal, industry, state, and non-profit team members coming together to focus on growing the ocean economy.
“This effort solidifies South Mississippi and USM as integral players in the ocean innovation economy,” said Lucas. “It takes everyone leveraging their strengths to create an innovation ecosystem and USM, as a leader in the blue economy, is leveraging our expertise, infrastructure, training and community engagement in this initiative.”
The innovative Gulf Blue Navigator Program draws special praise from Lucas.
“The Navigator Program stands out in a field of growing accelerator-based programs by targeting blue-tech startups that have products or services but need more data to raise funds,” said Lucas. “We strive to be unique by providing access to infrastructure and other services needed for testing and evaluating products and services. This way, we assist startups in taking their product or service to the next level.”
USM has been strategically investing in maritime infrastructure that positions Mississippi to advance technology through an initial set of six blue-tech innovation clusters:
- uncrewed maritime systems
- ocean-friendly plastics
- precision aquaculture
- smart ports
- sea-space systems
- coastal data
Helping raise awareness of the burgeoning blue economy’s benefits remains a cornerstone of the Gulf BlueSM initiative. Aligned with that objective is the critical need to grow and retain a talented workforce.
“The Gulf Coast has been a working waterfront for as long as people have lived here, but we need to find a way to preserve ocean health and sustainability while creating new, high-paying jobs,” said Bathurst. “What we are building in Mississippi could be leveraged by other coastal communities that need to innovate in the face of climate change and in our modern world.”
As the Gulf BlueSM initiative embarks on Year Two, Lucas stresses the importance of teamwork and expanding community reach. She points out that Navigator companies are expected on site this November to gain a better perspective on what Mississippi has to offer.
And Guess has a bit of pointed advice for companies contemplating an alliance with the Gulf Blue Navigator Program.
“I want to let people and businesses know that if they are on the fence about coming here, getting office space, or interested in partnering or sponsorship, to do it, and do it now because I think we are going to be extremely busy with so many positive aspects this coming year,” she said. “More businesses, more opportunities, more testing and more exposure.”