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October 17, 2019 11:00 AM, EDT

Port of Seattle Partners With WeWork on Maritime Business Incubator

Port of Seattle A Washington state ferry sails on a foggy day near cranes at the Port of Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

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A new Port of Seattle partnership is taking aim at one of the maritime sector’s most intractable problems: the graying seas.

One-third of employees in Washington state’s maritime industry are over the age of 55, according to 2018 Census data. The bracket seeing fastest employment growth is ages 65 and up.

That’s causing alarm among leaders in the state’s $30 billion cargo shipping, fishing and transportation sectors, who in recent years have rolled out a suite of programs designed to attract teens and college students to maritime jobs.

Their latest effort: The state’s first maritime startup accelerator, the result of yearlong negotiations among the port, the Department of Commerce and coworking company WeWork.

Ten chosen ventures will receive four months of mentorship and training at downtown Seattle’s WeWork Labs, headed by local entrepreneurship guru Elizabeth Scallon, who helped launch the University of Washington’s business incubator CoMotion Labs. CoMotion has received high marks for bringing research to market.

Clocking in at about $200,000, it’s a pilot program designed largely to bridge the gap between the rollout early this year of the governor’s strategy to boost sustainable maritime industry and the opening of a dedicated innovation hub at the port within the next three to four years.

“We’re excited to see who will come,” said Joshua Berger, the lead at the Department of Commerce. “Is it digital technologies? Is it hardware?”

The port hopes the incubator will lure fresher-faced workers from the city’s high-tech ecosystem, who might not be aware of how futuristic navigation and logistics systems have become, said Port Commissioner Fred Felleman, who spearheaded the partnership on the port side.

The recruitment of younger workers is essential, Felleman said, if maritime industries are to thrive in the Seattle area.

“If we’re not training workers for the future, condominiums along the waterfront look pretty good,” he said.

Felleman is up for re-election in November on a platform of encouraging sustainability at the port. He said he hopes the incubator brings forth advances like technology to protect whale populations impacted by shipping noise, and ideas to convert the ferry fleet to run on electricity instead of fuel.

The accelerator may be overshadowed by recent upheaval at WeWork. The New York-based coworking startup has seen its valuation plummet since investors learned it sees no near-term pathway to profitability. In recent weeks, the company has yanked its initial public offering and its CEO, Adam Neumann, has stepped down.

The port, though, remains largely positive about the partnership.

“If somebody wanted to do some widget to reduce bycatch of fish in the trawl fishery, we have the trawl guys here in the backyard, the netmakers in Ballard and the engineers in the towers,” Felleman said. “But how is this person going to test the widget or bring the concept into prototype? WeWork will bring people together.”

Applications are accepted through Nov. 18.

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