What’s the ‘Blue Economy?’ Cleveland Water Alliance aims to create industry around fresh water

The Cleveland Water Alliance drives innovation to protect Lake Erie.

The Cleveland Water Alliance wants to build a “Blue Economy.”

What does that mean? The four-year-old nonprofit aims to create an entire business ecosystem — from research and innovation to manufacturing — around water. Specifically Lake Erie.

Cleveland would be to fresh water what Silicon Valley is to information technology. Or what New York is to finance.

“A region can become adept and talented around a theme, and our hope is that’s water,” said Blake Oatey, member of the executive committee of the Alliance board. “You become a regional powerhouse.”

The water alliance brings together researchers, academia, corporations, government and utilities, hoping to build momentum in water innovation that snowballs into a giant water industry. It could work in tandem with the region’s focus in healthcare or — maybe — blockchain, Oatey said.

Blake Oatey (Laura Johnston, RocktheLake)

Alliance members include:

  • Cleveland Foundation
  • Cleveland Metroparks
  • Port of Cleveland
  • Cleveland Division of Water
  • Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District
  • Ohio Department of Natural Resources
  • Cleveland State University
  • Case Western Reserve University
  • Kent State University
  • Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory
  • NASA
  • Many corporations, including Arcellor Mittal, Fairmount Santrol and YSI

“We have very forward thinking institutions,” Oatey said.

RocktheLake sat down with Oatey, a 35-year-old Cleveland native who serves as the director of business development for Oatey Co., a plumbing components manufacturer. Oatey moved back three years ago after stints in South Carolina and Toronto and joined the Alliance. Here, he talks Lake Erie, its renaissance, the Alliance and its future.

This article has been edited for length and clarity. It is part of a partnership with the Cleveland Water Alliance.

What’s the Cleveland Water Alliance all about?

We’re still a new organization. I think we have a ton of potential and we’re just starting to hit our stride. We see ourselves as a facilitator, the glue in pushing this forward.

The Alliance has two main goals:

  1. We want to create the first “smart lake”
  2. We want to bring water innovation. We want that to be happening here.

Tell me about the first goal.

It’s like a smart home. We want lake that can learn, react and provide data. We would use a lot of technology to amalgamate data.

(For example, the Cleveland Water Alliance works with the Great Lakes Observing System and Limnotech on data buoys, which record anything from water temperature to the number of fish around.)

Text a Great Lakes buoy, and it’ll text you back with the latest water conditions

What about the second?

Everyone likes to watch Shark Tank. (With the Erie Hack competition) we issue problem statements. We put a prize out, and make it a competition. We’ll probably do another one around the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire.

Oatey has been involved for two years, and the Alliance has been very helpful for us in innovating. For innovation to be successful, you’ve got to solve a problem that there’s a market need for. We want to come up with new stuff, develop new products to solve real life current problems out there.

Can you give me an example?

Say a researcher at Case Western Reserve University comes up with an idea. In a perfect world, he gets connected to a company, or he starts one. They make the project, and a utility company pilots the product.

That’s a perfect scenario for the Alliance. We make sure all this is happening.

Why Cleveland?

We have a surplus of water, which no one else has. We can market Northeast Ohio as a water-rich area. We want to be known for our resources, our product development. Our utility companies are open to innovation. We want to be solving problems — and there are problems.

What problems is the Alliance focused on?

The biggest problems are probably the harmful algal blooms; stormwater run-off; complicated contaminants, such as prescription drugs; and the integrity of the watershed.

Some of the issues we face are daunting problems. We have to work together.

I always ask this question. Do you think Cleveland is experiencing a lakefront renaissance?

This is an incredible resource we are blessed with, a great asset. I think people are recognizing that.

People want to be out in the lake more. You just want to take the boat out. You want to be paddleboarding in the lake.

Where’s your favorite spot on the lakefront?

Huntington Beach, with my paddleboard. I was an early adopter, ordered on online like five years ago. It’s so quiet. You go there at 6:30 or 7 p.m.; it’s like happy place territory.

What’s your hope for the future?

It’s a great economic opportunity for Cleveland. I’m excited for the day when they talk about water technology, they’re talking about Cleveland. That’s my goal.