«Blue economy is a change of the economic model, slow but unstoppable»

The nonprofit EMERGE helps to create a friendly environment for technology-based startups and entrepreneurs. Moisés Santana, manager, reviews the ecosystem of innovation in the Canary Islands and other EU outermost regions, in this interview granted to Europa Rup

Léalo en Español.

WHEN HE LOOKING at the sea, Moisés Santana does not see a liquid barrier that separates us everywhere, he sees a highway of acceleration where the radial of the blue economy that appear before us like fruit on the edge to mature emerge as walls of submerged Atlantis. Like Captain Ahab, capable of sensing under the enraged waves the back of the great white whale, the managing director of EMERGE has a point of view about the ocean that has been well documented since 2015, the year in which this Canarian nonprofit started and the network that puts in relation to startups, technology-based companies and business angels began to unfold, in order to realize innovative technological projects in the marine and maritime field. «The big bottleneck of entrepreneurship is investment», points out Moisés Santana, who was asked to explain if the name «angels» responds to the existence of these investors is almost a miracle: «The truth is that yes, although it is growing, But we must break the inertia and mistrust among investors to bet on innovation. It is not easy to find investors willing to put funds at the service of startups in operations that carry some risk; but, without risk there is no innovation».

For the coworking spaces managed by EMERGE –Marine Park and Palet Express-Cajasiete, both in Gran Canaria– fifty companies have traveled, and cross the stretch from the laboratory to the market, a stretch for many of them insurmountable, such as turtles in his race to the shore. Clearing this stretch of obstacles is the task of EMERGE, which bets to make reality that slogan so many times repeated, and sometimes so discredited, to diversify the economy: «We do not lose sight of the fact that the ultimate goal is to promote an innovative ecosystem in which entrepreneurs and startups generate quality employment and wealth in a diversified economy; Let’s say that we work to lay the foundations of a competitive productive factory that attracts investment to the Islands, in addition to exporting talent, that of this if we are very well equipped. But, this has to be done by counting on all the actors, with public and private institutions, and always with the entrepreneur at the center of the action» –he warns.

In just three years, the numerous actions and projects put in place have placed Canarias, its women and men innovators, at the global forefront in the areas of renewable energy, underwater robotics and biotechnology. It should be highlighted for the common knowledge that the gray matter also nests in territories that are so punished, socially and economically, as the Canary Islands, with a rate of unemployment that, today, exceeds 20 percent of the population. The truth is that the Canary Islands is a global benchmark in the use of the sea as a test bank in wave energy, has the first offshore wind turbine in Spain and brings together projects and research personnel of first order in subsea robotics and biotechnology of algae.

Unemployment in the Canary Islands (IQ 2019)
Unemployment rate21%20,5%21,7%
Unemployment <2545,1%47,1%42,8%
20-24 43,6%45,2%41,7%
Source: INE, Active Population Survey

The European Union promotes the Protoatlantic project from the Canary Islands, with EMERGE as a partner. Five countries of the European Union participate: Portugal, Ireland, Scotland, France and Spain, and includes an acceleration program for startups. Moisés Santana points out that this is a very selective process that brings together important European entrepreneurs: «Born to identify and understand the opportunities of the blue economy for the creation of wealth in this area of ​​the Atlantic where the Canary Islands is a prominent actor» –explains Moisés Santana. «In particular» –he adds–, «the idea of ​​Protoatlantic is to emphasize the role that technology plays in advancing and developing the Blue Economy throughout the Atlantic region of EU influence». A location that, to broaden the focus, could be particularly useful in the outermost regions that, like the Canary Islands, have at sea, in the ocean, an extraordinary opportunity to develop a new economy.

Question: The ocean as a highway to a new economy. Is this understood by the governments?

Answer: Both the European Union and the States and regional governments are in it, also Spain and the Canary Islands, but the governments are only one of the pieces; important, it’s true, but the change does not occur from the top down, it is the civil society who must understand this process. Universities must participate, Compulsory Education and Vocational Training; must understand the business framework and entrepreneurs. If all these actors are not involved, the process will be slower, and may not even be, and may be other actors from countries that take some advantage to those who settle in the market as main players. The governments have the capacity they have, which is not small, but the change must be from the bottom up. Governments are resource facilitators and plan policies, something very important, but who should believe in this change and bet on it is society in its different spheres: academic, political and business, so that innovation happens. It is an unstoppable process, but it takes some time.

Innovation in the outermost regions

Q: In the Canary Islands there are identified actors who are already working on the construction of this bridge towards innovation in the blue economy. I wonder if a Protoatlantic would be viable for the outermost regions.

A: The Canary Islands can be a good example of where to walk, where to start the foundations, although the pending road is long, because it is not enough just to have a theoretical framework of acceleration projects, which is the meaning of Protoatlantic; you have to create the physical structures that accompany that program. An entrepreneurial ecosystem is created from the agglomeration, the connection of different actors, and in the Canary Islands, in the insular territories such as the ORs, we have some handicaps that we can not ignore; for example, connectivity with other territories. Insularity is an objective difficulty for physical relationships between actors, but it is not an insurmountable obstacle. It is possible to overcome it with a powerful digital infrastructure, as it is a platform, although we should never lose sight of the fact that physical contact is vital. By this I want to express that the setting up of an oceanic platform of innovation, of entrepreneurship, that the nine outermost regions share is not a simple process. It would be very desirable, a real challenge.

Q: But, the technological tools allow to create these platforms, even one or two physical centers could act as coordinators for the ORs.

A: Of course, the challenge is to order these tools and make them efficient. This requires time and effort, as well as the ability to understand what is being done and where we want to move forward. We have the INTERREG MAC, many of these INTERREG are platforms; You could leave here to sort the map of what exists. Observe if the projects are sustainable over time or finish when the project ends. Protoatlantic, for example, will continue. It could be a good starting point.

«Governments are resource facilitators and plan policies, something very important, but who should believe in this change and bet on it is society in its different spheres: academic, political and business, for innovation to occur»

Q: Does the blue economy create employment?

A: Of course, you just have to look towards the coastal tourism; it is a consolidated blue economy, although in the version we know it is not innovative, but it comes from the ocean and, therefore, it is a blue economy. Technological innovation can be the engine of job creation; think, for example, in the oceans or in climate change and, from there, in a whole range of areas that need to be created, that are getting up, such as resilience in cities, sensors, clean-up of seabeds, the elimination of plastics in the seas, the sustainable littoral, marine energies, the new technological platforms for ports, aquaculture. And of course, these new sectors, now in expansion, create direct and indirect employment in addition to needing professionals with specialized training. Hence, the need for all actors –and Education is one of them– to be involved in the process.

Tourism and innovation

Q: What would you recommend to a young student who is not clear about what to study?

A: From the Canary Islands, I would look at the world in a global way, because the problems of the islands, from this marine-maritime perspective, are similar. I would tell him to make an effort to understand what are the challenges that we face in the coming decades to select from that look, that understanding, what skills and what knowledge should be acquired to access a good job in an economy totally different from that of the last fifty years. It seems clear that labor and professional relations tend to a more participatory and horizontal model and that will tend much more to self-employment. If you are a biologist, to put a case, and you understand what climate change is, if you equip yourself with the skills and knowledge, you can now access the economic resources to launch your project with much greater transparency than twenty years ago, because it is more involved. We have to expand the look and see beyond what we have before us. I don’t think that things are very different from other historical moments of change, so I say that staying active and attentive goes through reading and training.

Q: Are the universities in this line?

A: Yes, but I insist that people, the general society, should believe it.

P: Maybe it’s unknown.

A: Evidently, everything is emerging.

Q: And the traditional business environment, how does it react?

A: Defending your business interests, of course, although increasingly with a greater component of social impact, because investment, investors, require more every day to take care of aspects such as sustainability. In any case, let’s not forget that a startup is to break the statu quo, and that means creating new business models that can clash with the interests of companies that are in the statu quo, especially with the rentier companies. In that clash, logically, there will be tension, this is what we call the process of disruptive creation, but that is how new business models emerge.

Q: It talks about companies of the status quo, rentiers and disruptive shock and I think about the tourism sector.

A: Of course, especially in the Canary Islands, but Tourism is a very mature business environment, where innovation has its place, but it must be defined if it is to improve the efficiency of the tourism industry in terms of productivity, short-term or, on the contrary, if the search for new business models in the sector with a future vocation is projected. Tourism entrepreneurs, throughout Spain, also in the Canary Islands, must abandon fear and face this debate because if they do not innovate, others will do it for them.

«The British and the Irish have the most developed technological innovation ecosystems. As you go to the South, the models are heavier, more immobile. But in terms of ideas and quality of projects in the Canary Islands, and in Spain as a whole, there are brilliant projects with such competitive quality, even more –depending on the industry– than in the United Kingdom, France or Portugal. In the end, ideas depend on people»

Q: Innovation requires talent.

A: Talent and perseverance, because the process is slow. In Spain, and particularly in the Canary Islands, we have an economic model, tourism, which makes us dependent, and entrepreneurship runs up against it. We must bear in mind that when we talk about a new economy, a new model, we talk about changes in labor relations, to change the inertia of the current model, marked by the hope of a job offer and adopt another in which the starting point be offer and not wait for them to offer you. This process takes time. Of course, not everyone has to be an entrepreneur, it would not even be acceptable, but it must be an option to contemplate. Entrepreneurship should be within the reach of those who have an idea and want to carry it out, something different is whether or not viable, but should be in the collective discourse as a way of professional relationship in a new economic framework. Innovate to participate in the scenario that opens before us, that of the blue economy.

Q: Who are the most enterprising in the European context of Protoatlantic?

A: The British and the Irish because, among other reasons, they have their most developed technological innovation ecosystems. As you go to the South, the models are heavier, more immobile. But in terms of ideas and quality of projects in the Canary Islands, and in Spain as a whole, there are brilliant projects with such competitive quality, even more –depending on the industry– than in the United Kingdom, France or Portugal. In the end, ideas depend on people.

Q: But, a good idea without an ecosystem of innovation can even die without having had an opportunity.

A: That is why I say that we are in the phase of creating a soup of social cultivation in which all the actors participate. Now we are in the «Matthew effect», that of the biblical quotation according to which the one who has more will have more and the one who does not have is taken away from what little he has, and what is involved is to empower those who have less to look for a counterweight in front of those who have more, to break the chain that money always goes to whoever has more money and so on. If we do not break this model, the innovative ecosystem will remain vertical, the larger ones will be great and will feed back to each other. We are changing many rules of the game. It is slow, but unstoppable and exciting.

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