Undersea Technology: A Strategic Rhode Island Advantage
In 1869, the U.S. Navy’s first research facility—the Naval Torpedo Station—was built on Newport, Rhode Island’s Goat Island. This rich history continues today, as the state is home to the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, which provides the technical foundation to ensure the U.S. Navy’s undersea superiority. Fitting for “the Ocean State,” we have identified more than 170 Rhode Island organizations that touch undersea technology—and we believe that is a conservative count. We are a cluster leader not just in New England but indeed in the entire country.
While it may be difficult to measure the economic impact of the Rhode Island undersea technology cluster as a whole, we can look at the Rhode Island defense sector as partial representation of the cluster’s economic impact. The defense sector contributes $3.7 billion to Rhode Island’s GDP, resulting in $1.9 billion in income for Rhode Island households and $105 million in state income tax. And it’s not just the government that employs those working in defense—of the almost 33,000 jobs in the sector, about half (16,119) are in the private sector, compared with 16,874 federal jobs, both military and civilian.
That last point is an important note. When people think of undersea technology, they often think of defense-sector businesses. But in Rhode Island, we know that the ocean offers almost infinite opportunities to explore every aspect of science, technology and engineering—both in the defense and non-defense sectors. We have for many years sought to cross-pollinate our undersea technology interests, looking for times when commercial technology is suitable for defense, and vice versa. And we know that emerging and future technologies will create even more exciting avenues for exploration and discovery. A great example is the Deepwater Wind Block Island Wind Farm, the first U.S. offshore wind farm, which came online this year in Rhode Island and is now fully powering Block Island.
Each August, the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance (SENEDIA) hosts our annual Defense Innovation Days in Rhode Island. This three-day event, August 28-30, brings leaders from the Department of Defense, Industry and Congress together to share ideas and innovation related to undersea technology, cyber security and other defense technologies. Previous speakers have included the Secretary of Defense, the Undersecretary of Defense and the Chief of Naval Research. Senator Jack Reed, Rhode Island’s senior senator and Ranking Member of the Senate Arms Services Committee, has keynoted the conference every year. With continued investment in the defense sector, we look forward to spurring increased innovation and keeping our nation’s edge as the world’s undersea technology leader.
To further this aim, in 2016 we created the Undersea Technology Innovation Center (UTIC) to get innovation to the market quickly and generate more jobs and economic growth. UTIC promotes advanced learning in the undersea cluster and the rapid development, testing and commercialization of innovative undersea and maritime technology for commercial, academic and defense organizations. We cast a wide net of potential collaborators, and even in this short time of operation, we are seeing that some of the most important work of the center is the networking and sharing of information that is so crucial to maximizing the economic impact of the undersea technology cluster.
UTIC’s consortium-based model welcomes participation by organizations—both traditional and non-traditional in this space—that have technologies that can contribute to undersea and maritime applications. It also provides assistance, including mentoring, to companies that want to enter the defense sector by matching up government requests for research, development and technology with businesses that can provide the needed services. It hosts “Tech Talk” events, which are organized as informal breakfast meetings for undersea technology networking. UTIC is in the process of formalizing a national consortium of members who work collaboratively with the U.S. government to develop undersea and maritime technology solutions.
Seeking partnerships that expand the boundaries of what are considered the commercial applications of undersea technology creates economic growth. It is exciting, for example, when academia can cross-pollinate their research with smart commercial applications, such as Greenfins LLC partnering with the University of Rhode Island to develop the first U.S.-based Tuna Research Center of Excellence.
When one thinks of who are the important players in this cluster, the first thoughts often go to government and giant corporations (and with good reason —organizations such as Electric Boat and Raytheon are valued corporate leaders), but it is the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) that have the most diverse economic impact. Those large companies rely on multiple SMEs in their supply chain to provide them with the materials and services they need. Additionally, the role of the nontraditional technology company is becoming more important as the government looks to accelerate innovation to solve emerging mission needs. SENEDIA and UTIC will continue to champion the SMEs who contribute so greatly to the undersea technology cluster in Rhode Island to ensure that they continue to grow and thrive in this important economic arena.
Molly Donohue Magee is the Executive Director of SENEDIA, an organization focused on being a catalyst for thought leadership and innovation in undersea technology, cyber security and other defense technologies. She is also the Executive Director of UTIC, an organization focused on building the resources and relationships to advance undersea and maritime technology.