But even as that effort continues, AltaSea is now turning its attention to the business of fostering marine-focused companies and research.
Terry Tamminen, the environmental point man for former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger who took the helm of AltaSea in January, told the Business Journal late last month that the organization is preparing to launch later this year two new investment funds totaling $600 million.
Tamminen said one of the funds will be a $100 million venture capital fund aimed at ocean-focused companies emerging from the nonprofit’s incubator and accelerator programs. The other will be a $500 million private equity fund aimed at hydrogen technology companies. The aim is for both funds to have much of their investment dollars in hand by the end of this year or the first quarter of next year.
“These will be the first dedicated funds for AltaSea and its blue concept to commerce incubator program,” Tamminen said. “They are focused on developing the blue economy,” he added.
The blue economy refers to ocean-based activities that boost the economy, ranging from sea-based cargo movement and tourism to sustainable fisheries. Development of the blue economy has been at the heart of AltaSea’s mission since its founding as a nonprofit in 2014.
AltaSea has also this year formally launched its incubator program, which it calls “concept to commerce.” Participating companies are using the mostly renovated space in the first of the three massive warehouses the center is upgrading in the campus buildout.
Tamminen compared the warehouse incubator program to the late legendary Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs’ garage, in which many of Apple’s early innovations took place. “This is Steve Jobs’ garage on steroids,” he said.
Initial campus focus
AltaSea grew out of the process a decade ago to find and design a new home for the Southern California Marine Institute, a research facility on Terminal Island that was seeking a larger and more accessible location within the port complex.
The nonprofit, which was initially supported by at least $20 million in donations from the Annenberg Foundation, signed a 50-year lease in 2016 with the Port of Los Angeles for a 35-acre campus on the century-old City Dock No. 1 at the port. The dock contained three abandoned 60,000-square-foot warehouses along with a vacant 1-acre parcel.
But as a master plan was drawn up for the repurposing of the site, AltaSea quickly grew into more than the new home for the marine institute. It was also to be a magnet for companies seeking to commercialize marine-based technologies – everything from underwater robotic monitoring systems to kelp farming to new power and propulsion systems for marine vessels.
AltaSea hired San Francisco-based Gensler to draw up the campus plan, which centered on upgrading and converting the three warehouses to accommodate incubator companies and research facilities. The plan also called for construction of a science and education center. The buildout cost was pegged at between $150 million and $200 million.
After formally taking possession of the 35-acre dock site in 2018, AltaSea has focused on raising funds, finalizing the campus plans and, in 2020, began construction on the conversion of one of the warehouses.
Tamminen, the former California Environmental Protection Agency secretary in the Schwarzenegger administration, said that in the last year alone AltaSea had raised $24 million toward the campus-buildout effort. That fundraising is continuing.
Tamminen said AltaSea is now part of a coalition of regional organizations that is competing for $61 million in funds from the federal Economic Development Administration to develop and scale blue and green innovations in the goods-movement sector. If the coalition gets the funding, AltaSea’s share would be up to $32 million.
And AltaSea is leading another statewide coalition seeking to win one of four $2 billion hydrogen technology hub awards from the U.S. Department of Energy. If successful, AltaSea could host one or more hydrogen technology projects.
Tamminen has some experience with hydrogen fuel technology: he was the architect of the state’s hydrogen highway program in the Schwarzenegger administration.
In tandem with the fundraising, AltaSea has been bringing on tenant companies and researchers – 24 in all.
“It’s a virtual incubator that developed organically,” Tamminen said.
Among the tenants already there: Carlsbad Aquafarm, San Ramon-based Nautilus Data Technologies Inc., Boulder, Colorado-based RCAM Technologies Inc., a marine pumped hydroelectric storage company, and a USC sustainable seaweed aquaculture lab.
Another company at AltaSea is Torrance-based Blue Robotics Inc., which makes underwater robotic vehicles and components. The company uses the research facility in part to showcase its technologies to marine researchers and students.
The first tenant company at AltaSea was Braid Theory, a venture advisory firm that specializes in advising startups between the time they emerge from university research programs and enter accelerator programs.
“We focus on the blue economy, especially port environments and the decarbonization of goods movement,” said Ann Carpenter, Braid Theory’s chief executive.
Carpenter said that unlike other marine-focused research institutions in California, such as Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla or the Monterey Bay Aquarium, AltaSea’s presence at the largest port complex in North America taps more directly into the segment of the blue economy that Braid Theory focuses on.
“We need to have our client entrepreneurs be close to port customers and the industrial economy of San Pedro,” Carpenter said.
On the research side, AltaSea will soon be host to a demonstration facility for the extraction of carbon that’s part of UCLA’s carbon-capture program headed by Gaurav Sant, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UCLA. Sant is also one of the founders of Manhattan Beach-based CarbonBuilt, which is working on placing captured carbon emissions into concrete.
Tamminen said Sant’s project at AltaSea is focused on capturing carbon out of the air and in the process generating hydrogen fuel. He added that another AltaSea tenant is Robert Ballard, who keeps his underwater exploration vehicle Nautilus there when not in use during the winter months. Ballard, of course, discovered the wreck of the Titanic in the mid-1980s.
Another key component of AltaSea is marine and blue economy education programs. AltaSea has ramped up efforts to bring K-12 students to the campus for tours and programs and has also sponsored various STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs in local schools.
And by the end of this year, AltaSea is aiming to have a large solar panel installation in operation, generating 2.2 million megawatts, enough to power all activities onsite and put some electricity back onto the grid. The roof for the solar panels was completed last month.
“Ultimately, this isn’t just about providing power to the AltaSea campus,” Tamminen said. “The longer-term aim is to use solar power to electrolyze wastewater or seawater and separate out the hydrogen, which can then be used as ‘green hydrogen’ for fuel cells.”