As a founder of the Iceland Ocean Cluster, I have had the luxury of meeting with seafood people in over twenty coastal communities in the US and Europe over the past few years. The dialogues have been extremely enjoyable and beneficial to me and have added more “hands on” experience to the issues I focused on in my PhD; how tech entrepreneurs in the seafood industry build and nurture their networks.

In my studies, I had found the seafood industry entrepreneurs to be less connected and utilised less their relationship network within the industry than did the other entrepreneurs in different sectors. The seafood entrepreneurs had also smaller network outside their home region.

To make a long story short, the visits to these coastal towns indicated a significant isolation of the seafood industry in these areas from many important parts of the seafood value chain. As an example, I visited a large university just 30 miles from a seafood town, I was stunned to see that the academics, many with great research in our field, and even business ideas, had no connection with the seafood industry next door. Seafood entrepreneurs were in very little contact with other entrepreneurs, R&D efforts, etc. Many firms are family-owned, and there is a lack of trust when the network extends beyond family and close friends.

Industries based on natural resources have acted very rationally regarding networks. As the resources are limited, comapnies tend to keep competitors away and keep their networks small. As a result, the networks in the industry are closed. In the supporting services, such as processing equipment, the access of entry was easy; a clever technician could duplicate easily the simple technology used. Where access to the fisheries was open, the same was true for the catch. As the processing technology has developed further with more IT and seafood resources are viewed more and more as high end protein for food, nutraceutical markets etc., there is shift in the industry. The shift is from natural resource-based to a knowledge-based industry. With knowledge-based industries, the more people interact, the faster the knowledge grows!

The lack of cooperation among the seafood entrepreneurs in coastal areas means there are “blind spots” in businesses – not the least of which has been the number of opportunities for future generations of well-educated people. I believe the cluster concept has a vital role to play in the trust-building of the seafood value chain in coastal communities. Both our experience in Iceland and now in the US with the New England Ocean Cluster shows a potential for relationship building in the seafood industry which can lead to more value creation. 

The existing formula for success in seafood has not included a harmonisation or strong cooperation among firms, startups, R&D and Universities. There may be an opportunity here; harmonisation can strengthen the competitiveness of the “protein industry” in coastal communities.

Our philosophy is to build a network of clusters. A crucial element there is to lean local first and then look for synergies. We know ocean clusters are not homogeneous; that is what makes them so exciting. Some may focus on seafood, others on various marine technology, aquaculture, ocean tourism and so on. It is crucial for the clusters to find their niche. However, I have emphasized that this niche is not decided at a brainstorming session at the start – it evolves as the cluster initiates different relationships and sharing of ideas – then the trends and future focus emerge.

We didnt see the green technology becoming so crucial in the early days of the Iceland ocean cluster. But as relationships developed and trust was built among tech companies more and more emphasized their strength in that field and willingness to collaborate more on environmentally friendly solutions. The same is with the focus on full utilization of seafood; it emerged through conversation among entrepreneurs.

After the initial mapping of local ocean industries and building of the local network, the global network is the natural next step. Remember we are in an industry with lots of potentials but somewhat left behind in the startup world. By creating this movement or a network suddenly interesting startups will emerge, not only as isolated islands but a part of a larger network or a movement in the ocean industry.

Thor Sigfusson