LA innovators dive into the sustainable ‘blue economy’


AltaSea’s Alan Hill (right) teaches Ernest Ekejiuba (left), a senior at King/Drew Magnet High School, how to operate a professional grade underwater robot. Photo by Zeke Reed.

Lizette Nsilou used to hate her marine science class.

“I was not interested at all,” recalls the King/Drew Magnet High School senior. “I was like, man, I do not care about coral reefs and stuff like that.” 

That was before she started building her own underwater robot out of PVC pipes, propellers, and pool noodles. 

“When we started soldering and putting together the remote and building the actual robot, I actually started to enjoy it,” Nsilou says. “I actually started having fun.”

Nsilou spoke to KCRW from AltaSea, a nonprofit housed near the Port of LA where her marine science class was on a field trip. Part incubator, part research facility, and part educational institution, AltaSea supports scientists, entrepreneurs, and students working to make Los Angeles a global hub for the so-called “blue economy” — the aquatic equivalent of the sustainable green economy on land.   

Getting students like Nsilou excited is just one part of the mission, says AltaSea CEO Terry Tamminen. He’s bullish on LA’s “blue” future. 

“Los Angeles is absolutely going to become the Silicon Valley of the sea,” he tells KCRW. “I do believe in the next 10 or 20 years, this will be to the California economy what Silicon Valley was 40 or 50 years ago.” 

Gesturing to AltaSea’s expansive renovated warehouse complex, Tamminen extends the metaphor. 

“In the same way that 50 years ago in Silicon Valley, there were a lot of innovators who went back to their parents' garage … well, AltaSea has a much bigger garage.” 

AltaSea’s expansive “garage” is a series of 100-year-old warehouses on the water. Photo by Zeke Reed. 

So what exactly takes place in this “garage?” 

Tamminen breaks it down into three categories: sustainable aquaculture, renewable energy, and blue technology.

Sustainable aquaculture

Aquaculture involves cultivating marine plants and animals like kelp and mussels for food, fuel and even pharmaceuticals. While fish farming can get a bad rep for its ecological footprint, AltaSea hosts multiple aquaculture operations focused on sustainability.

Sergey Nuzhdin and his team experiment with growing different species of kelp in rows of tanks under UV light at AltaSea. Photo by Zeke Reed.

USC researcher Sergey Nuzhdin and a team of graduate students from USC's Aquaculture Lab oversee a vast array of bubbling tanks at AltaSea, where they test and grow resilient species of kelp. They plan to raise large amounts of algae on “kelp elevators” — floating structures driven by robots that rise and fall in the water column. 

“We are selecting for kelps that will be able to grow fast,” Nuzhdin explains. “We are working on kelps that can withstand warmer temperatures.” 

Another tenant at AltaSea called Holdfast Aquaculture breeds mussels, oysters, and other bivalves for use in farming operations throughout the Pacific Southwest. The demand for their product, known as “seed,” is growing as more Southern California aquaculture farms come online, says co-founder Ian Jacobson. 

Renewable energy

“Everyone's familiar with offshore wind turbines and wind energy,” Tamminen explains, “but [renewable energy] also includes wave energy, and things like extracting carbon pollution from the ocean and the byproduct is hydrogen, which can be put into goods movement, container handlers, ships and other kinds of trucks and things that are otherwise hard to electrify.”

One startup at AltaSea called Eco Wave Power builds buoys that work like wind turbines for waves. When installed along the shoreline, they rise and fall with the swells and convert mechanical energy into electricity. 

Kelp is also being investigated as a source of biofuel, and Nuzhdin’s lab receives funding from the U.S. Department of Energy to this end.

Blue technology

Blue technology includes the underwater robots the students at King/Drew built, which are increasingly used in a range of underwater operations from conservation research and aquaculture monitoring to ship hull inspections and seafloor mapping. 

A Torrance-based startup called Blue Robotics tests its products at AltaSea’s facilities, and CEO and founder Rusty Jehangir says he expects the marine robotics industry to grow in popularity similar to the recent boom in aerial drones. 

A former drone engineer, Jehangir says he “watched that industry go from … people tinkering around with drones to people having multimillion dollar companies, and drones being at Best Buy.”

One of Blue Robotics underwater robots or remote operated vehicles (ROV). Photo by Zeke Reed

Blue Robotics Marketing Chief Elisa Miller hopes that means more students will want to get involved. “Our dream is that an occupation in the marine robotics space is something that kids dream of in the same way that they grow up wanting to be like an astronaut or teacher or doctor,” she tells KCRW.

The next generation

AltaSea and its partner organizations all share a mission to expose young people to the emerging blue economy. 

LAUSD Board Member Tanya Ortiz Franklin represents the area around the port and sees partnerships with organizations like AltaSea as a pathway for students to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow. 

“Just the proximity to the water and to the blue economy can make their creativity spark and motivate them to maybe try to solve a problem in the future,” she says. “It will be our kids that figure out the next career paths and create new job opportunities that we never would have even imagined.”

The school district hopes to support careers in the blue economy that are accessible to students at all ability levels — not just those pursuing higher education. To that end, the San-Pedro-based Willenberg Career and Transition Center for students with severe disabilities recently started a shrimp brining operation. Students there are able to work and get paid selling the shrimp to aquariums as fish food. 

More conventional marine employers are also investing in ocean education. For example, the day students from King/Drew Magnet High School visited AltaSea, the Navy sent two recruiters to speak with them. Boeing, one of the Navy’s biggest contractors, funded the robotics program at King/Drew. 

Marine employers with as large a footprint as the Navy, the major international shipping companies, and even oil and gas companies will no doubt shape the trajectory of the blue economy. Small sustainable startups like those at AltaSea will have to find ways to work with these legacy industries if they hope to fundamentally transform how we use the ocean. 

As AltaSea Education Director Alan Hill puts it, “I think it's about all working together to make a plan moving forward to create those changes. It's going to involve everybody. It's going to involve some of the groups that have been seen as perhaps the worst polluters. But … this is a huge challenge for us, and it's about bringing everybody together.”