Growing Recognition of San Diego’s Blue Tech Economy Offers Opportunities for Regional and National Leadership

Blue Technology

Recently, there has been increasing media and local government attention to an industry sector called “Blue Technology” in San Diego. From a joint resolution between the City and County of San Diego in support of a Blue Tech incubator in the region, to op-ed articles on the future of Blue Technology in San Diego, this industry sector is suddenly receiving significantly more attention than ever before.

What is Blue Tech?
Simply put, Blue Tech is the advanced technology sector of the maritime industry. It covers everything from aquaculture and marine biomedicine to ocean-scoping robots and very large floating platforms. To put it in terms of a simple analogy, Blue Tech is to the Maritime Industry what Biotech is to the Pharmaceutical Industry. Blue Tech companies break new ground, create new technologies, and drive the future of the broader maritime industry.

Blue Tech is the subject of so much attention because San Diego has one of the largest Blue Tech industry clusters in the United States and it is in danger of losing those businesses. While Blue Tech companies grow out of research and development from area resources like the Scripps Oceanographic Institute and Navy research and development installations, there is relatively little keeping those companies in the region. There are no programs to train employees to ensure a steady supply of qualified workers for Blue Tech companies, little recognition of the importance of the Blue Tech cluster to the San Diego economy, and the vast majority of Blue Tech companies’ clients are not local – meaning these businesses could be located anywhere to serve the customers they do. Without programs to support the economic development of the Blue Tech sector the same way that Biotech and Cleantech have been supported in recent years, San Diego is in danger of losing its Blue Tech leader status before that status is even nationally recognized.

One option that has been proposed is a Blue Tech Incubator that would assist new companies in developing and commercializing their innovative technologies. One could also look to other similar industry clusters for best practices – the Biotech industry, through the leadership of BIOCOM, spurred industry development in the early 2000’s by establishing a multiuse regional training center in the San Diego region, which eventually grew into the BIOCOM Institute. Other possibilities include city or port ordinances to facilitate Blue Tech industry development in specific areas, the establishment of a research & development pier similar to AltaSea in Los Angeles, or statewide tax breaks for Blue Tech development or infrastructure investment.

There are a number of significant challenges in achieving these goals. The most notable is the fragmented political landscape of the San Diego coastline. Any effort would need to be a collaboration among the Port District, the five cities it abuts, military interests and installations in the area, and possible the Airport Authority as well. An additional challenge is that San Diego is far behind other cities in recognizing the Blue Tech industry and in developing ways to facilitate its continued growth – other cities that are more receptive to and encouraging of Blue Tech may successfully lure businesses away with value added services and business benefits. Finally, issues at the Federal level continue to work against the visibility of the Blue Tech industry. Existing NAICS codes are insufficient and outdated, which results in a large number of Blue Technology innovators being lumped into categories that also include a high percentage of traditional maritime functions. Because of this, it is time and cost prohibitive to evaluate and track the status of the Blue Tech industry in many areas. The true size and scope of the industry in California – and the potential importance of the San Diego cluster to the state and the country – are still unknown.

Supporting and encouraging the development of the Blue Tech industry in San Diego will require a concerted effort involving an integrated program of community outreach together with local, state, and Federal legislative advocacy.