Boosting Blue Economy Entrepreneurs
AFDF Startup Accelerator encourages ocean industry innovation
By Vanessa Orr

oming from a commercial fishing family in Bristol Bay, Sara Erickson believed that fisheries were throwing away a huge resource that could be making money. Namely, the skins left over from seafood processing.

Her solution was to create AlaSkins, a company in Kenai that uses the skins of commercially caught halibut, cod, and salmon to make dog treats. She had reason to think it would work, based on results from an Arctic fisheries development agency.

“The Iceland Ocean Cluster had already shown how to increase export value from using cod skins—now they’re making more from that than they’re getting from fillets,” she says.

Alaska has had its own Ocean Cluster since 2017, started by the nonprofit Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association to provide information, referrals, and guidance for fishing industry entrepreneurs.

Erickson says, “That model was exciting to me, and the accelerator fit my line of thinking. We both have a focus on the blue economy.” The program directed Erickson to people who could help, including fishing reporter Laine Welch in Kodiak, who wrote an article about what AlaSkins was doing.

“That helped with getting my name known and getting connected to others; it pushed me to make contacts and connections and helped me to promote and push my agenda through Alaska and elsewhere,” says Erickson.

AlaSkins dog treats are now sold in fifty stores and to Alaska wholesale customers. “I’ve been thinking about getting in with larger wholesalers, and the accelerator has been helping me try to find funding and grants,” Erickson says. “I was thrilled when I found them, and they’ve been such a great support ever since.”

Alaska Ocean Cluster transferred to the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation (AFDF) in 2022 and rebranded as the AFDF Startup Accelerator. Its current portfolio includes individual entrepreneurs and multi-million-dollar startups working in maritime automation, vessel decarbonization, ocean data, marine transportation, seafood quality, ocean modeling, mariculture, and marine coatings.

AFDF also organizes the annual Alaska Symphony of Seafood, which Erickson entered to compete against other value-added products. “The accelerator has been instrumental in helping me make connections in the seafood industry, including finding processing plants to provide skins,” she says. “They also offer moral support; even when I get super discouraged, they tell me that I’m doing great. I can’t thank them enough for their total support of what I’m doing; they really want to see me succeed.”

Providing Direct Support
“As we meet different companies or entrepreneurs, we try to look for areas of collaboration, where we could work together to accomplish something meaningful,” says AFDF Startup Accelerator Director Garrett Evridge. “This can range from helping a company find a COO to refining their business model to making introductions to prospective investors, clients, or other mentors.”

AFDF is a nonprofit coalition with a Congressional mandate, created by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act to develop products, equipment, and techniques for the benefit of harvesters, processors, and coastal communities. The Startup Accelerator serves that mission directly by supporting private-sector partners working in the ocean economy.

Industries working in Alaska waters employ more than 70,000 people and contribute more than $2 billion annually to the state economy.

While the AFDF Startup Accelerator was originally funded by the Bering Sea Fishermen’s Association and a grant from the US Economic Development Administration, today it is funded by a variety of partners, including the Denali Commission and Builders Vision, a Chicago-based impact platform founded by Walmart heir Lukas Walton to support changemakers and innovators building a more humane and healthier planet. According to Evridge, the accelerator is focused on two verticals: direct support of companies and the development of different projects.

“We like to connect companies with other individuals who can offer guidance as well; it’s a really cost-effective way to help them,” he adds.

“The accelerator has been instrumental in helping me make connections… They also offer moral support; even when I get super discouraged, they tell me I’m doing great.”
Sara Erickson, Owner, AlaSkins
Evridge meets with companies that have been accepted into the accelerator every two to three weeks to talk about their progress toward clearly defined goals. “For example, an early-stage company may be starting to see growth, but their accounting system is in disarray,” he explains. “We’ll have a two-hour session where we look at their statements and end-of-year compiled financials and start to build out a system so that they can engage more comprehensively with their company financials.”

The AFDF Startup Accelerator is currently working with sixteen companies at all stages of business. Clients range from a single entrepreneur developing electric deck gear who needs help identifying a market, finding funding, and working through technical issues all the way up to Saildrone, one of the leaders in the uncrewed vessel space.

The accelerator’s clients also provide a broad spectrum of services or products. For example, Foraged & Found makes consumer goods out of kelp, and SafetyNet Technologies provides precision fishing devices to reduce bycatch. Some are home-grown Alaska ventures, and others have potential impacts that are national in scope.

Developing Ocean-Based Projects
While providing support to various companies, the accelerator is also involved in developing maritime industry projects. Last summer, for example, the accelerator completed pilot testing on three pollock trawlers using SafetyNet light technology to reduce bycatch.

It also worked with PolArctic, a Virginia-based oceanographic and data science company that identifies and creates solutions to business and policy questions about the Arctic through the artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning techniques.

“We build AI models that answer a lot of challenging questions concerning climate change and adaptation, including when and where ice will be,”says PolArctic co-founder and CEO Leslie Canavera. “We recently got an NSF [National Science Foundation] small business research grant to build a digital twin of the ocean to forecast where fish stock will be.”

AFDF Startup Accelerator helped Sara Erickson contact processors to source halibut and salmon scraps for her company to market as dog treats.
assortment of fish skin products
AFDF Startup Accelerator helped Sara Erickson contact processors to source halibut and salmon scraps for her company to market as dog treats.
closeup of Salmon Skins
“The Alaska business landscape is quite underdeveloped, so we’re hoping to contribute to increased business formation and economic growth in the state and its communities… Part of this is showing Alaskans that they can start a business.”
Garrett Evridge, Director, AFDF Startup Accelerator
After learning about the Alaska Ocean Cluster during a blue economy meeting, Canavera reached out to the accelerator, which had just revamped and was looking for companies to help.

“We were a great fit,” says Canavera, “and working with Garrett has been fantastic. As an economist and commercial fisherman, he brings a wealth of knowledge to the process.”

AFDF Startup Accelerator has also helped PolArctic connect with funding sources and get in front of potential customers, she adds. While working with the accelerator, PolArctic became involved in a pilot project helping crabbers forecast ice as a way to increase safety and decrease pot loss. “They have helped us ensure that when we are building solutions, we are building ones that people actually need and want,” Canavera says.

Soliciting Solutions
While every company could benefit from support and subject expertise, applicants accepted by the AFDF Startup Accelerator must be the right fit.

“The best thing for companies to do is to reach out to us, and we’ll have a conversation about their goals,” says Evridge. “We aren’t a good fit for everybody.”

In case AFDF Startup Accelerator is not the right organization for an applicant, “We’ll send them to other programs and mentors who we think can help them,” Evridge explains. “We regularly send companies to Launch Alaska, another accelerator program, or other innovation programs on the West Coast.”

The accelerator is always open to those who want to make inroads into the blue economy, in part because they understand how difficult it can be to start a business in the 49th state.

“Alaska is a very difficult place to do business, when you look at the underdeveloped capital, structure of venture capital, and private equity—it’s expensive,” says Evridge, compared to vibrant startup ecosystems in Seattle or Singapore.

“The Alaska business landscape is quite underdeveloped, so we’re hoping to contribute to increased business formation and economic growth in the state and its communities,” he adds. “Part of this is showing Alaskans that they can start a business. If we can assist them, then they can start making sales, finding growth, hiring folks, and paying taxes.”

Evridge adds that if a company can offer a solution to a maritime problem, they want to hear about it.

“Look at bycatch, for example—if there’s a company that offers a solution, we want it. We’re agnostic as to where it comes from,” he says. “We want to solicit solutions and sources for economic growth wherever they are present.”

Connecting to Resources

One of the challenges that the accelerator faces, however, is that it is completely grant-funded and doesn’t currently take an equity percentage from clients as some other accelerators do. “There are different ways to structure these programs, and in the future, we’ll see how it evolves,” says Evridge. “For me, it’s nice to have the flexibility to work with anyone we can help and not worry too much about equity or charging them for our services, especially since a lot of early-stage companies don’t have the money to pay for fees.”

So rather than earn a cut from clients’ success, AFDF leverages its nonprofit status.

“We’re always fundraising, and it’s clear from our experience that there is a need for a program like this,” Evridge says. “It’s not something that makes sense from a financial perspective, but it makes sense from a developmental perspective.”

As a coordinating entity, the AFDF Startup Accelerator is always looking for more help from those who could assist businesses in the maritime industry—anyone from accountants to IT experts to investors and philanthropists.


“Programs like this give us a chance to support others,” says Evridge. “If a company comes to us with challenges and no one in our network has that expertise, one of easiest ways we can support them is to connect them with informed people who can help.”

“I feel very fortunate that I am one of the companies that gets to work with them,” says Erickson of her experience with the accelerator. “It’s extremely difficult to do business in Alaska—shipping is hard, the labor cost is high, there are just endless amounts of hard things.”

AlaSkins has persisted since starting as an idea a little more than six years ago, with each small achievement building toward the next.

“The accelerator has been great in keeping me motivated and positive,” Erickson says. “They see the blue economy as something that needs to grow, and they work hard to get in front of Alaskans to say that this is a possibility. They want us to use the resources we’ve been given to full advantage.”