For startup Aquagga Inc., the Tacoma Maritime Innovation Incubator is a proving ground for technology to destroy some of the world’s toughest water contaminants, one of its co-founder says.

Aquagga is among the first three companies in the new incubator, which aims to fuel maritime-related innovation and economic growth in South Sound within the broader “blue economy,” the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth.

The incubator plans to host at least seven companies a year and is accepting applications for four more entrants through May 15. The incubator operates under its parent organization, Seattle-based Washington Maritime Blue. The nonprofit alliance emerged from state-led efforts to make Washington home to what it calls a “world-class, thriving, and sustainable maritime industry by 2050.” Washington Maritime Blue, founded and headed by President and CEO Joshua Berger, also includes the Maritime Blue Innovation Accelerator in Seattle, which launched early last year. While the accelerator is separately organized from the Tacoma incubator, the two work closely together.

Nigel Sharp, co-founder and CEO of Aquagga, shows the dial on the company’s chemical-destroying “pressure cooker” in the incubator lab. He was not using the equipment during this photo. All photos by Jeff Hobson unless otherwise stated.

“The incubator alone has really set a whole bunch of things in motion,” including allowing Aquagga to transition its technology into the real world and opening doors for conversations with private investors in Washington, said Nigel Sharp, co-founder and CEO of Aquagga, a spinout from the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, whose technology has received various recognitions. “People are excited about the progress we’re making, and we’re able to run a bunch of customer feasibility studies right now in the incubator … and already started to get samples processed.”

Sharp describes the company’s technology as a “pressure cooker on steroids” that destroys toxic water contaminants known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), man-made chemicals used in various industries around the world that don’t break down in the environment and thus are sometimes called “forever chemicals.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there’s evidence that exposure to PFAS can lead to adverse human health effects, and notes PFAS can be found in living organisms that include fish, animals, and humans, where PFAS have the ability to build up and persist over time.

PFAS are often stored like nuclear waste, or burned, which Sharp said isn’t completely effective and creates other undesirable compounds that can become airborne. The company takes concentrated PFAS that have been removed in environmental remediation projects and permanently destroys them by breaking their molecular bonds.

Aquagga incorporated as a for-profit public benefit corporation in 2019 with a social and environmental impact provision. It says its mission is to end environmental contamination from PFAS, while leveraging resources and success to support other impact-minded leaders and entrepreneurs, and its founders are intentionally positioning themselves at the intersection of public health and environmental justice.

To Nathan Tolbert, who’s directing the fledgling Tacoma incubator, Aquagga is the type of company that makes sense for Tacoma to nourish in the blue economy, being that the region is surrounded by water and has a history of significant water-cleanup projects. The incubator, which provides office and lab space in The Center for Urban Waters on the Thea Foss Waterway, is focused on attracting companies that can bring innovation to three broad categories: clean water; clean energy derived from water, such as hydropower and hydrogen fuel cells; and trade and logistics.

“The eventual goal is that people all over the world think about this part of the country when they’re forming one of these businesses, and they say, ‘Hey, how can I get into that accelerator or that incubator? Or maybe I’ll just found my company there, and then I’ll know those guys, and I can be part of the ecosystem and it’ll be easier for me,’” Tolbert said.

Nathan Tolbert, director of the Tacoma Maritime Innovation Incubator, shows the incubator space within The Center for Urban Waters.

He sees the incubator as part of a support network for businesses that are good for the maritime industry and local economy, and that promote sustainability.

Washington Maritime Blue defines sustainability as a growing economy, healthy ecosystems, and resilient communities, the latter is achieved by applying a social justice lens to its efforts to ensure thriving communities across the maritime sector.

While the Tacoma Maritime Innovation Incubator is new, the Seattle accelerator in January began working with its second cohort of 11 startups, providing a four-month program of mentorship, resources, and programming. Tacoma’s incubator envisions a yearlong hosting of its companies.

The Seattle accelerator is more education-focused, providing “a kind of mini-MBA” on building a maritime startup and “super important,” but some startups won’t be quite ready to hire a lot of people or raise money from investors, and need a little more time, Tolbert said. The Tacoma incubator can be the next step for those companies.

“Why would it not be coming down to Tacoma?” Tolbert said, and getting plugged into the ecosystem here, with the incubator offering a year of free rent, access to lawyers, potential funders, engineering advisors, and other connections.

Nigel Sharp.

“We’ll take care of that for you, make sure that you succeed, and then after the year, we hope that by bringing you down here … you will want to stay here forever, and you will want to build your headquarters in this area, and you’ll grow yourself as big as you’re going to grow right here — so that’s kind of the hub-and-spoke model that we envisioned. Maritime Blue is fully on board with that.”

For Aquagga — whose founding team of Sharp, Jonathan Kamler, Brian Pinkard, and Chris Woodruff has been dispersed between labs at the University of Washington in Seattle and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks — the incubator offers lab consolidation and access to connections.

“We’re excited about having a new base in Tacoma,” Sharp said. “There’s something really satisfying about being able to look out the window and see so much industry happening. … We might be a small business building something in the back of … the building, but we have some pretty big ambitions of what we want to do with it. And I think the opportunities are there with the incubator, for sure.”

Aquagga is solving a global problem, he said, seeing Tacoma as a place to accelerate its efforts, attract talent, and grow the company. But its visions stretch beyond just Tacoma.

“We’d like to see this company grow nationwide and even bigger,” he said, but, “At the moment, it’s home base for us; it’s an exciting place to start things.”

The other two startups accepted in the incubator are Sea Potential LLC, and Equll.

Equll was one of the 11 startups accepted in the first cohort of the Maritime Blue Innovation Accelerator in Seattle in 2020. Equll offers a digital platform for the port drayage industry that helps eliminate waste and inefficiencies through technological solutions that directly connect truck owner-operators and shippers by automating the entire process. The platform offers benefits to shippers and truck owner-operators, Equll co-founder and CEO Bati Tola said in a video presentation last year where cohort companies were showcased.

Ebony Welborn. Courtesy of Welborn/Sea Potential.

Sea Potential co-founders Ebony Welborn, 25, and Savannah Smith, 24, with respective degrees in environmental science and marine biology, work with BIPOC youth to foster interest in and appreciation of marine ecosystems, and with maritime businesses on workplace culture welcoming to BIPOC and their perspectives.

The company’s name derives from helping the wider community see potential in BIPOC youth and helping BIPOC youth see potential in themselves, the website says.

“How we do the work that we do is by creating innovative forms of environmental education and outreach using healing activities and conversational frameworks around ocean justice,” Welborn said of marrying ocean information and social equity.

Sea Potential’s website notes that biodiversity is important in nature; additionally, diversity in perspective is critical to the growth and evolution of communities. Smith and Welborn said they didn’t know programs like the incubator existed.

“We were just really blown away by the support that would be offered to start up through something like this,” Smith said.

Savannah Smith. Courtesy of Smith/Sea Potential.

Said Welborn, “It is an honor to be accepted into the Tacoma Maritime Innovation Incubator. It feels good to know that others believe in our vision of the world and want to invest in making it happen.”

Tolbert wants to encourage all startups with something to offer in the blue economy, particularly in the incubator’s pillar areas of clean water, clean energy derived from water, and trade and logistics.

“No matter who you are, no matter where you came from, what education background you have, who your parents are … there’s a pathway to do this,” he said. “If you want to build something in one of those pillars, I can help you, and if you get in touch, I will help you — and even some of the folks where I can’t directly with the incubator, I still do it on my own time, and I don’t charge.”

Outside the incubator, Tolbert consults companies on growth and sales in the finance and maritime industries from his home in Pierce County. He’s not being paid for his incubator work, and the incubator doesn’t charge fees or take equity.

“If it’s something where folks are passionate about building something that helps all of us in this area, we want to talk to them, and that’s what’s going to make this successful,” he said of building a maritime-related support system.

Brian Pinkard, co-founder and chief technology officer at Aquagga, left, and Chris Woodruff, co-founder and vice president of engineering. Courtesy of Aquagga.

Many startups have great ideas and are smart, but don’t know where to turn, he said.

“Your first step can be to call us,” Tolbert said. “I can tell you all the other steps — even if it’s not joining the incubator, even if it’s you should do something completely different than that — I can at least point you in the right direction so that you can feel like you have a pathway on how to get this done. And that’s the most important thing to all of us here, is that people understand you can do this. There is a way, and there are people who can help, and we can help you find them.”

Tolbert, whose father ran a trucking company that hauled cargo to and from the Port of Tacoma and for whom Tolbert worked as a dispatcher as a teen, is particularly interested in startups with products or services that can help existing South Sound companies advance.

That could include helping existing manufacturers build something even better through a new technology, for example.

Frank Boykin Jr., director of the Manufacturing Industrial Council for the South Sound and who is mentoring Sea Potential, said he’s thrilled about the incubator.

“The mentorship aspect of how the program has been articulated is extremely inviting to me, wanting to make sure that there’s room for other communities, in particular, that perhaps had been left out of maritime and other economic journeys thus far,” Boykin said. “All that is critically important to me, as well as the economic development for the prosperity for others in this region and through this project.”

Aquagga’s Sharp is excited about his company’s work and looking for passionate engineers wanting to make a difference in the fight against water contamination, saying he expects the company to begin hiring rapidly soon. The company is focused mostly on environmental remediation projects now, largely “washings” of soil around airports and military bases where PFAS were in industrial firefighting foams used in training, leachate from landfills, and wastewater.

“I can very gladly say that every single day, even though we’re not destroying very much right now, PFAS are being destroyed in the lab every single day of the week, so that’s kind of exciting,” he said.

For more information about the Tacoma Maritime Innovation Incubator and how to get involved, email Nathan Tolbert at nate@maritimeblue.org or visit here.