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Talking about... the Ocean Exchange
Co-founder Cort Atkinson on connecting innovators with entrepreneurs to help the environment
ECOncrete, a type of concrete that reduces harm to marine life, is an example of a working solution.

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WORLDWIDE PROTESTS last week demanded global leaders take action on climate change. And beginning this Sunday, the Ocean Exchange will hold its fourth annual meeting in Savannah.

Perhaps it’s unfair to link the two events. I interviewed this week’s subject weeks before the protests. But I can’t think of more opposite ways of addressing the world’s most pressing issues.

Call it bangers vs. board rooms, activists vs. corporations, whatever you prefer.

For their part, business leaders here in Savannah founded the Ocean Exchange as an express reaction to what they felt were “problem-focused” ways of talking about the environment.

Look at this pollution! Look at this melting ice cap!

The organization’s co-founder Cort Atkinson told me what was going through those leaders’ heads as she sought support initially.

“They said, ‘We’re a community whose businesses are integrated into oceans and transportation and we have a long history of innovation in those areas,’” Atkinson says. “We’d like to see something much more business-oriented and solution-focused.”

So, the Savannah Ocean Exchange bounded to life in 2008 as a way to connect innovators and business people in the service of addressing big problems.

And not just innovators with back-of-the-napkin ideas. Innovators must come to the Exchange with working prototypes that businesses can implement now.

Things like robots that sail unassisted across the Pacific to monitor ocean health. Things like wires that harvest more energy from the sun. Things like concrete that reduces our impact on marine life.

And not just middling business people, but CEO’s and VP’s. Southern Company, Gulfstream and Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics are among their sponsors.

“Organizations have set really broad and aggressive goals and they want to meet them,” Atkinson says. “What we do is help bring them the types of technologies that will help them do that.”

The Exchange offers innovators the support of a worldwide network of 450 well-connected advocates.

“What’s driven such rapid success for our innovators is that when they need guidance, we connect them with the guidance and help and then they just work together,” Atkinson says. “We don’t slow them down in any way.”

Atkinson says the concrete, made by a young Israeli startup, ECOncrete, is an example of a solution that went from working prototype to big contracts rather quickly.

Along the way, over its four years, the Savannah Ocean Exchange dropped Savannah from its name because they wanted to stress that they are a global organization.

And they started addressing problems beyond the sea. They now accept solutions for problems dealing with any aspect of the environment, the economy or health.

“We take the ocean as being the global connector,” Atkinson says. “It impacts what’s going on on land and in the forests.”

Sadly for us, they also dropped public programs. So, their three-day meeting at the Trade Center will be a private affair for 10 innovators, 150 advocates and their invited guests.

The main event will be the selection of two award winners. They’ll each get $100,000 from the organization’s sponsors to help advance their solutions.

I imagine lots of suits, fancy phones and hushed presentations. It’ll certainly be quieter than last week’s demonstrations, some of the largest addressing climate change in history.

Would the bangers shout “not enough?” Would they question whether companies are really looking for solutions? I did. (Well, I didn’t shout.  But I politely asked.)

Atkinson’s response is that working solutions have to come before corporate change.

“When businesses know the solutions are there, then they are willing to agree to all types of policies that will move whole industries forward,” Atkinson says. “Our job is to shine a light on the solutions so that people can see and use them.”

And I’ll add “demand that they be used.”

Both activists and boardrooms propel this dialog.