Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Jennifer McCall, Co-founder of SeaTox Research
Dr. Jennifer McCall is a leader with one foot in the world of science and the other in business. Already a Ph.D. in immunology, she opted to do further postdoctoral work in the University of North Carolina Wilmington Business of Biotech program that cross-trains Ph.D. scientists in business. She discovered that doing postdoctoral work in marine biotechnology and an MBA was far more difficult than she ever thought. Her eyes were opened to how alien the conversations between the two worlds were, and she worked hard to learn business concepts and the language of business. She also discovered a passion for using business to get technologies to market. The journey led Jennifer and her husband to co-found a university spin-out called SeaTox Research Inc. Believing that science should be broadly accessible and that it doesn’t do the public immediate good if left on the benchtop, SeaTox Research gets it into the marketplace, where it can do the most good because people can access and use it to benefit others.
In this Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Jennifer and I discuss how leadership orients and motivates people and supports them along a shared path to purpose, especially when the journey becomes difficult.
Deb: What is marine biotechnology?
Jennifer: Marine biotechnology is the science of creating products and services by modifying or changing marine life forms. My company develops bioassays, which is a fancy word for tests for marine toxins. The bioassays are based on different biological components, either proteins or antibodies. We create test kits that can be used to screen toxins that contaminate the food web. They protect human health because the toxins can be very hazardous to life.
There are different ways to monitor harmful algal blooms and toxins in the environment. I study harmful algal blooms, which are algae that are naturally occurring in the environment, such as red tides. But there are some human influences that are hypothesized to cause these blooms to be bigger or stay longer. With ocean warming and global climate change, there is concern that these algal blooms are spreading. Consider hurricanes, which are hazards we live with, but that seem to be getting stronger and bigger. Science is looking into why natural events like hurricanes or red tides are getting bigger and stronger. My little piece of the pie is just looking for and developing ways that we can monitor algae blooms to keep our seafood supply from making people sick.
Deb: What is your definition of the Blue Economy?
Jennifer: There are so many different definitions that can come to mind when you say the Blue Economy. It informs how I incorporate my research at the university and the research we do at SeaTox Research. It’s about finding sustainable and holistic ways to use ocean resources for the betterment of society. It’s not just taking advantage of the ocean; rather it’s really trying to work with it in a way that balances economic growth and improves the livelihoods of people while preserving the health and wellbeing of ocean ecosystems.
Deb: Why might this concept be important for the Wilmington area, given all of its water resources?
Jennifer: Taking a step back, throughout human history, people have found opportunities in the environment to better themselves and society. In many cases, though, different groups and environments have been disadvantaged. It’s important for our area to have an evolved concept of finding equitable opportunities for the economy and the environment. We should seek to balance the preservation of the environment with human needs to create sustainable advantages.
The Blue Economy concept leverages McKinsey’s Red Ocean/Blue Ocean Strategy, which says that we should grow markets and opportunities (Blue Ocean) rather than competing in saturated over-developed, highly competitive (Red Ocean) markets. In my opinion, the ocean is our greatest resource. Wilmington has incredible access to the ocean and the Cape Fear River. The ocean itself is a Blue Ocean with lots of opportunities. It’s a great unknown, it has untapped resources and unexplored depths. However, it can also be a threat. Hurricanes are always on our minds here in Wilmington. The Blue Economy concept, with its sustainability aspects, takes a measured approach with respect to the exploration of resources so that it doesn’t end up being exploitative.
Deb: How might Wilmington use the Blue Economy concept to grow? To what ends could it be a positive kind of focus?
Jennifer: Wilmington is a vibrant coastal city. Because of its location, it’s poised to leverage ocean resources for a variety of Blue Economy endeavors. We are a port city with rail and highway connections that could leverage shipping and transport innovations to lessen the impacts on the environment. We are a tourist area that could leverage more Marine tourism. We’re also a college town with both the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Cape Fear Community College to serve as many levels of higher education. This is a research-intensive area with a booming entrepreneurial community. For example, we have amazing aquaculture research groups at the university that are working with sustainable fisheries and marine tourism. Coastal Engineering, a new program at UNCW, focuses on the demands posed by construction at or near the coast. We have a lot of opportunities that we can incorporate and integrate the concept of the Blue Economy and we’re well-positioned to grow several vital aspects of it.
Wilmington was once the largest city in North Carolina. It’s too much to say that we can be again or that we would even want to be again. We may not want to be the giant North Carolina city, but we can continue to make Wilmington more than just a beach destination, a transient place where people come to vacation and leave. We talk a lot about a love of a place, building a community that we all love and is our home is of utmost importance. It’s a privilege to be here. We need to grow our economy in a sustainable way. I’m fond of the phrase, “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The benefit of the Blue Economy is not just limited to a sustainable ocean or the use of ocean resources. There are significant economic benefits and socio-cultural impacts that can be felt throughout our area if the Blue Economy is successfully implemented in Wilmington.
Deb: You’ve painted an exciting picture of a future state for Wilmington. What are the possible critical steps that the community and the leadership need to take to accomplish it?
Jennifer: There are behavioral and technological things that need to be changed and nurtured. We really need collaboration, to work together for success. We need mutual celebration so that when one sector wins, it’s a win for everybody and everybody sees a win as a joyous event. We need to get past an “I’m the only one who’s allowed to win” attitude. That’s very difficult when you’re growing an economy and there’s opportunity on the table. Everybody wants a piece and it can quickly dissolve into infighting and selfishness that is cancerous for success.
Our leaders need to nurture collaboration and mutual celebration. One sector or one group cannot and should not shoulder all the weight of leveraging the economy and growing the Blue Economy. It has to happen together. Rome was not built in a day and it wasn’t built by one person. It will take time and collaboration to build something as powerful as the Blue Economy. There has to be understanding, compassion, and empathy for the many groups represented for the process to succeed.
Technology is another piece. Of course, being a marine biologist who teaches technology translation, I’m biased. The greatest innovation does no one any good if it’s sitting on the bench. Innovations have to get out into the marketplace. In technology development, we talk about this Valley of Death between innovation and commercialization. You have this great idea that you’re selling, but there’s this gap between where you are and where you want to go. You see this massive chasm between technology and the market. We need programs to help innovators, companies, and academics, whoever the innovator may be, to get across this Valley of Death.
When my husband and I started our company, one of our mentors said the hardest part of starting a company is surviving to the five-year mark, which is very daunting. The average startup failure rate is over 90% and COVID-19 has not made this any better. We need to help entrepreneurs survive by helping them get into the market and we need to support innovators and their new companies with efforts like corporate mentorship and data-driven market feasibility.
Deb: What are the greatest challenges that need to be overcome?
Jennifer: There’s no one answer, and I don’t necessarily know the best answer either. It’s something I’m learning. There are things to look for and explore. Economic development is not easy, and when you add scientific innovation to it, it can be even more difficult. Translating all the necessary pieces to investors who don’t necessarily understand the science can be very difficult. The key challenge is communication and collaboration between diverse stakeholders so they can get on the same page.
Maybe every detail of an innovation can’t be understood, but it’s possible to understand where we’re trying to go and the pitfalls of the process. Scientists and business people speak very different languages. I was not nearly as aware of this until I entered the MBA and just saw how very different I felt as a scientist. I still feel different when I try to talk about business. In the same way, it’s awkward for business people to try to understand science. Each group needs to give each other a little grace and understand we’re all on the same team. We all want to achieve the same goal of economic development and improve our area, even if we go about it in different ways. Opportunity comes in different forms and many people in Wilmington are eager for the community to be successful. Mental fortitude is 90% of it.
Deb: What do you see are the three most important things Wilmington leadership can do right now to get started on this path?
Jennifer: First, if it hasn’t been apparent already, I’m very into open communication and creating a sense of community. Maybe we start with facilitating an educational Q and A seminar to ask the questions we just discussed and share ideas on where we are headed. Continual communication could share project progression, successes, and challenges so we can work solutions together. Sometimes when we’re struggling and in our own little box, others may see something that we don’t even see. Having open communication and creating a sense of community can happen in a teachable format so everyone understands different pathways to success.
Second, we should find ways to prioritize and fund Blue Economy development projects through grants or funding carve-outs at the state and federal government levels. It could lead to ways to get money into our system because the endeavors to grow a sustainable economy can be very expensive — more expensive than most, in fact, because we are not exploiting resources. Funding makes it easier for people to get engaged and get on board.
Third, we need to increase support for our local entrepreneurs that are working to translate technology to the market. We have to get innovation through the Valley of Death and into the market. It doesn’t matter if it’s a for-profit or nonprofit organization. And it seems to work best with small and nimble companies. Transitioning more of these technologies into businesses creates growth and economic development. Growing companies hire more employees, many of whom come from our local education system through UNCW or Cape Fear Community College. Our students love this place. They want to stay here. They don’t want to go, they want to be here in our area. We need to support these endeavors so that more companies can survive and thrive past the five-year mark.
Deb: What’s your greatest hope for the future?
Jennifer: Sustainability for ocean resources. I’d like to see us get to a point where we’re net zero. Where what we take doesn’t cause any impact. We’re able to capitalize on opportunities yet still maintain a healthy environment. We can grow the economy to provide jobs and resources, but without harm to the environment. That we don’t destroy the resources that we currently have for future generations to achieve sustainability. We don’t want to overfish, pollute, or create human-wildlife conflict during energy exploration. A net-zero would be one of my greatest hopes.
Another hope is we achieve equity in the use of ocean resources so that the Blue Economy is beneficial to all people, not just a select few. For example, if we do it right and sustainably, things like aquaculture can help solve issues like food insecurity. We can give healthy protein options to people who don’t currently have access to healthy seafood.
When we use the environment to grow the Blue Economy, it’s not a simple path to balance social equity and environmental sustainability. In some cases, they’re on opposite sides. Several recent studies look at tensions within sustainable development approaches. When you’re hungry, overfishing is not your biggest concern. Cooperation and communication are key for balancing equity and sustainability.
My last greatest hope is for collaboration and understanding between scientists and business people. Too many times, it’s ‘us versus them’. We need to have greater empathy for people who don’t share the same priorities, and we need to understand where other people are coming from. If my little piece of specialization can match with your little piece, maybe we can do something great. Finding common ground so that we can raise up the economy together is the biggest opportunity.
Wilmington is positioned to do all of these things.
Jennifer reminds us that leadership is about people working with people to solve problems. It recognizes our need to connect with and listen to other people as we deal with uncertainty and decision-making. By focusing on people, we are reminded that useful knowledge resides everywhere. Sometimes we are so embedded in our own perspectives that we begin to act as if we can’t learn anymore. It’s not true. Knowledge is distributed. Once we accept that fact, we can spot what we know and then open ourselves up to what we don’t. By exposing ourselves to the unknown and clearing out ideas and information that have become obsolete over time, we position ourselves to look forward and make confident decisions. This is the future of leadership. A human-centric approach that might seem soft, but it is vital. We can’t lose sight of the fact that we’re all humans, working together in a system that impacts our communities, environment, and economies.
Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.
Get your copy of Convergence here.