Maritime High-Tech Center Grows
Research institutions make Woods Hole a fertile area for firms making marine instruments
WOODS HOLE, MASS. — ANYONE familiar with a high-tech map of the United States knows Silicon Valley in northern California, Route 128 west of Boston, and Research Triangle in Raleigh-Durham, N.C., mean scientific innovation and economic growth.Mention Cape Cod in the same context as these locales though, and the only high-tech connection might appear to be computer executives vacationing by white sandy beaches. However, a nascent consortium of researchers, state officials, and business entrepreneurs here, have been quietly working in the last few years to redraw the US high-tech map and put Cape Cod squarely on it. Located within a 30-mile radius of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) in southeastern Massachusetts, some 20 companies have pioneered a $100 million scientific marine electronic instrumentation market and rung up $20 million to $35 million in biotechnology sales. "Cape Cod has the largest concentration of marine electronic instrumentation firms in the country," says James O'Connell, economic development officer with the Cape Cod Commission, a government entity seeking to diversify the Cape's economic base. The area employs 1,500 full-time oceanic/maritime researchers and support staff. Marine electronic instrumentation firms have 350 full-time workers, and expect to add 300 more by 1996, he says. "All of the ingredients are in place for the transfer of state-of-the-art research into marketable technology," says Dave Gallo, director of industrial and international programs at WHOI. Two research institutions here, WHOI and the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL), are world-renowned. They are the scientific base for a dynamic high-tech industry, much as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology did for computer companies in the Boston area, says Gary Glenn of Centers of Excellence Corporation, a state-funded economic development organization. Proponents of development hope to "incubate" similar conditions found in other high-tech centers in the country, and then to bring in start-up money for viable projects. "It's not just building the tools or doing the science, but how you match the two together and use them that gives us the edge," says Mr. Gallo. Many of the characteristics of a high-tech center are already in place in the Woods Hole area, according to a study by Henricus Stander, a graduate student at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government: * Companies have access to highly educated individuals and a scientific base (WHOI and MBL) to support research and development. * Local companies interact with local buyers who are sophisticated and demanding consumers of the companies' products. * Support industries are located in close geographic proximity to the core businesses. * Intense competition among companies in the same field guarantees innovation. One hurdle that the Cape Cod area faces that other established high-tech centers do not is the lack of any large commercial or consumer market for its products. Sophisticated, highly technical, and precise oceanographic equipment, albeit critical to the work of scientists in the field, doesn't have a wide market. "We do see potential for growth, but the likelihood for our products appealing to consumers is way off in the future," says Peter Zentz of Benthos Inc. The North Falmouth, Mass., manufacturer of underwater cameras and remotely operated vehicles developed the flying underwater video systems used to obtain images of the Titanic and the Bismarck in their graveyards on the ocean floor, seen by millions on TV. Concerns about the environment and climatic changes offer the best near-term opportunity for a mass market for oceanic scientific instruments, industry sources say. To understand global weather patterns, it is necessary to get into the depths of the oceans and to understand them the way it is now possible to understand a weather map on TV, Gallo says. Craig Dorman, director of WHOI, says that if there is a push for a global ocean observing system like the one for atmospheric weather conditions, "we will wire the ocean the way NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] measures weather in the atmosphere."