For the first eight years of its life, Ocean Aero was largely an R&D company, focused squarely on making better, more rugged, autonomous underwater vessels designed to explore the oceans in an environmentally safe way. Staffed largely by former Navy personnel, it made sense to operate out of San Diego.
But at the end of 2020, the founders realized it was time to take the company to the next level and brought in a new CEO, Kevin Decker. “At that point, we became commercially active,” says Decker. The company began making steady gains with its signature product, the TRITON, into defense, offshore energy—oil, gas and wind—and maritime science. But it also began struggling to find the skilled engineering talent it needed to grow.
Decker decided it was time to move. He considered half a dozen states, each with the ocean proximity he needed. Some were known for being friendly to business; most had a lower cost of living than San Diego. But one state—Mississippi—showed an outsized enthusiasm for industry partnership that made it a clear winner. “When we looked at the ground support here in Gulfport, the people and institutions partnering with the state had a vested interest and a personal affinity for wanting to see the Gulf Coast grow and thrive and develop. It was really the people—specifically, the University of Southern Mississippi (USM)—that set it apart.”
Proximity to the USM’s Marine Research Center and the Center for Ocean Enterprise at the Port was already a selling point for Ocean Aero. But in 2021, USM took it to a new level with Gulf Blue, an initiative focused on the blue economy, which is expected to account for as much as $3 trillion in revenue for the global economy by 2030.
Gulf Blue aims to pool the knowledge of research scientists, federal agencies, industry partners and entrepreneurs, all of whom will collaborate to develop the region into a global leader in blue technology. They will begin by focusing on solving challenges in six key areas of convergence: uncrewed maritime systems, ocean-friendly plastics, precision aquaculture, smart ports, coastal data and sea-space systems, says Brian Cuevas, a director in the office of technology development at USM. In those areas, “we felt that we had the innovation, the human capital and the technologies to start competing on a global scale.”
Decker’s team witnessed the enthusiasm and dedication of the Gulf Blue team even before the company moved. “While we were transitioning, sitting there in Southern California, we had allies on the ground championing us every day,” he says. “When we couldn’t make meetings, they went for us. When something popped up, they would rush in. If something went wrong, they would go try to mitigate it for us. I met those guys and I said, ‘This is the right place. These are the right people. This is where we want to be.’”
And the leaders of the Gulf Blue initiative want more businesses like Ocean Aero. To get them, USM knows the region has to offer a top-notch pool of talent, which is why the university is partnering with businesses. “We are actively sitting down with industry and asking, what are your needs?” says Kelly Lucas, USM vice president for research. “And what do you predict will be the needs of your workforce five years from now? Ten years from now?”
Not all of those needs will require traditional academic programs, she notes. “Some will be certificate programs or smaller levels of training, but whatever the need, we want to make sure we’re being responsive to the industry partners in our area.” To that end, USM looks to partner with businesses to codevelop programs. “We’re not asking you to fit into our model of what we already have going on,” she says. “We want to partner with you to make you successful, because if we make you successful and you’re hiring people and we’re training them, and we’re all working together, then we’re all successful.”
The skilled talent pool is also bolstered by the presence of a number of key players in the area, including Huntington Ingalls, with its 800- plus acre facility, Teledyne Technologies and General Atomics Siemens. “There are not too many places in the world that have a better concentration of labor for us than right here,” Decker says.
In the post-Covid environment, where remote work has become the new norm, the coastal community has also been seeing an influx of people who are still employed elsewhere but want to live in Mississippi. That doesn’t surprise Decker, who enjoys the more relaxed pace, the lower cost of living and the Southern culture that remind him of his home state of Kentucky. He adds that for the employees who moved with the company from California, Gulfport was not a tough sell. “You’re not spending a bazillion dollars for a small apartment anymore. You’re not spending an hour each way in traffic,” he says. “Overall, it’s just a better quality of life.”