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Navigating a confluence of technology and sustainability

point-97-fisherman-crop

Charles Steinback still remembers the day a San Diego fishermen read him the forty-five minute riot act.

It was over breakfast. And the conversation was a heavy one: Regulators were mapping the fishing grounds off the coast of California. And while the end-goal was to carve out habitat protections that would make areas off-limits to fishing, it fell to Steinback to assure they did the least amount of damage to fishing towns.

At the time, Steinback was relatively new to Ecotrust, the Portland-based nonprofit focused on ecosystem and civic resiliency. Fresh-faced and fresh out of college, he had hoped his efforts would be welcomed. Instead, what he got was a proverbial finger in his face. And a nearly hour-long lecture about the meaning of community—from a man who questioned whether Steinbeck even knew what the word meant.

“I took that to heart. It was years ago, but I remember literally walking away from that conversation, going back to my hotel room, and sitting there for three hours writing a ten-page email to Pete about community and what it is, and here’s what it means to me, and here’s why I want to work with you, and why I need you to work with me.”

The email earned the critic’s respect and buy-in. It was a moment that showcased what Steinback would bring to the business of ocean conservation: deep roots in a fishing community, a collaborative approach, and a strong belief that information-sharing can make ocean management—often a divisive, heart-wrenching business—better than it otherwise is.

Combining disparate disciplines

Flash forward, and Steinback is now managing director and cofounder at Point 97. (Pronounced Point Nine Seven, a nod to the percent of the earth’s water in the ocean). The for-profit company, launched as an Ecotrust subsidiary in August 2013, is Steinback’s next career iteration of fresh-faced optimism. It still has him doggedly focused on bettering ocean management.

In its rebirth as a startup, however, Point 97 has taken the former ocean planning division at Ecotrust and made it into something more likely found in the Silicon Valley.

It’s a three-way marriage, if you will, among techies, data geeks, and conservationists.

Stacy Fogel, marketing director at Point 97, puts it this way: “We create technology solutions for ocean management, because these tools enable these communities that depend on the ocean to take care of it.”

Finding the right person

Steinback was the obvious choice to take the reins. “Charles is a smart guy. He’s a really good listener. He’s low-key. But he understands the big picture,” said Ed Backus, Ecotrust’s former vice president of fisheries. When people in fishing towns work with him, they don’t feel like they’re being pushed to acquire something they don’t need. They feel like they’re learning the things they need to pay attention to.

Charles Steinback

Charles Steinback, cofounder and managing director, Point 97

In that way, Steinback hasn’t come so far from his roots. Raised in Astoria, he isn’t from a fishing family. In fact, both of his parents are teachers. But he grew up in an era of mill closures and constrained fishing, and was eyes-wide on the fact that most of his friends’ fathers were unemployed during his middle school years. For him, that competing pressures on natural resources could make a whole town ache wasn’t something he ever had to learn. He knew it. And when he brought that perspective to ocean conservation, he brought something the movement had often lacked.

Though he was in tune enough with his own constitution to know he wasn’t a fisherman, wasn’t going to be a lumberjack, he said always knew he wanted to lend a hand to communities like Astoria. He arrived on the doorstep of Ecotrust in 2001 having just earned a degree at UMass Amherst.

“I literally just walked in, handed them my résumé and said I would do anything,” said Steinback.

Ecotrust embodies something uniquely Oregonian

Why Oregon? The simple answer is Ecotrust, a leader in sustainable fisheries management, which has provided the vision and resources to support Point97.

At a time when much of the regulatory environment—and nonprofits with ocean missions, really—were focused on the idea of “overfishing” as the root of all evil (90s and 00s, mostly), Ecotrust was really successful at plugging into fishermen as a resource and getting at deeper truths about our oceans. Yeah, we’ve overfished. But there are fewer fish for other reasons. Migratory changes related to ocean acidification and rising temperatures have also produced the troubles we see. And Ecotrust was among the first to approach fishermen and fishing communities in an inclusive and collaborative manner to solve problems around these issues.

When states first began to look at carving out ocean areas for marine conservation and renewable energy, for example, Ecotrust was deploying guys like Steinback to figure out how to keep those new rules from just gutting fishing towns and family fishing operations. And Ecotrust was also among the first to recognize that some systems designed to prevent overfishing, however environmentally sustainable, are so capitalistic that they have the effect of locking a lot of people out, including whole cultures, while funneling money to people who don’t actually fish.

Ecotrust’s approach is sadly far from typical. There are a great many nonprofits and a whole lot of government regulators too, who until recently viewed fishermen as pests to be gotten rid of, and those fishermen are such a small constituency that they were easily rolled. Now, as conservationists come around to the idea that fishermen have deep knowledge about our oceans, and, oops, wait a minute, we actually also need these people to eat, Ecotrust is way ahead of the game.

Ed Backus, Ecotrust's former vice president of fisheries

Ed Backus, former vice president of Ecotrust fisheries

Now, if other groups want to get any meaningful conservation work done – work that isn’t just knee-jerk simplistic and actually includes preservation of fishing culture and communities – they need a Point 97. What that brand is selling, more than anything, is trust. It was hard earned and carefully built through years of closely listening to real people affected by change. That would not have happened without the respect and expertise guys like Steinback and Backus, both of whom really know fishing towns and fishing people, offered fishing people. They learned that in Oregon. You can think of Backus as the godfather of this stuff, and of Steinback his successor, nonprofit or none. And now Point 97 has the secret sauce: they truly believe that American culture is better off if we preserve the culture of fishing people, even if we’ve got problems to solve, and fishermen know they are allies.

Mapping the future

Over more than a decade, he has helped Oregonians map the territorial sea, carving out space for energy development. He’s assisted fishermen like Pete from San Diego in protecting their communities when marine protections came about. But it was his hand in designing an online planning application as part of that California-effort that ended up branding him someone who could use technology to facilitate conservation. That his planning tools paired community needs with habitat protections, and helped achieve more nuanced goals than push pins on a map, got attention. The money seemed to follow.

Now at the helm of Point 97, he says what’s flowed from the company’s launch fifteen months ago is a “lot of interesting growing pains.”

“Growing up in a nonprofit doesn’t necessarily prepare you for running a company,” said Steinback. In that way, he went from a structure that was always chasing money, and stretching its own capabilities, to learning that what works in business is the opposite of that: a model with a tight focus and careful, managed stewardship of limited products.

“We’re full of good ideas. But good ideas that people pay for? And that can support a business? That’s what you have to figure out,” he said.

Point 97 on the job

Though he’s struggled to find examples of for-profit companies that sprung successfully from nonprofit parents, and combat similar issues, he says he’s getting good guidance from the Portland startup community, where its not at all odd to pair funding and development goals with social impact missions. In that sense, being in Portland is giving Point 97 the support it needs to grow from within a model that might make it an outlier elsewhere. And that assistance is unlocking potential.

“I can go meet with a CEO of another startup that’s maybe four or five years along,” for advice and mentorship not available in the conservation community, he said. “I don’t think I would be experiencing those things if we were still operating from within the ENGO.”

Next on the menu?

Software and data portals. Tools for data collection, analysis, and synthesis. And a healthy dose of people-products like civic engagement and advisory services.

The outcome is that Point 97 has turned rugged, no-nonsense fishermen of Oregon’s Dungeness Crab into iPad-toting data junkies, now testing, with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the viability of real-time harvest reports on crab. It’s a platform that also aims to offer the fishermen business tools. Other projects have been deployed in the Mid Atlantic, where surfers are mapping recreational use of the ocean as wind turbines stake out space, and in the Solomon Islands, where a new mobile app is tracking fish as they head to market.

Whether mapping boater activity in the Northeast, or building a monster database to underpin planning in the U.S. Virgin Islands, the thirteen employees at Point 97, six of them developers, are busy. They were already a revenue positive division before becoming a company. Now, they’re looking for growth.

“When you’re out there providing tools to help people make decisions, to do that on a global scale, you’ve got to get to scale,” said Backus.

That’s why Ecotrust turned its ocean division loose as a for-profit. It was an effort designed to address the fact that, to really have impact on ocean issues, those impacts had to be wide-ranging.

“It carves out a section of space where people have different performance standards, the pace is different, there’s more decision-making power given to the CEO, and things can happen in a much more rapid-fire pace, and that’s what’s needed,” he said.

Continuing to refine

For Steinbeck, his Sisyphean contest still lays ahead. Likely, 2015 will see Point 97 continuing to refine its focus. Though he’s aware the company is doing too much—something he called an “old habit” from the nonprofit days—Steinback said its test is how to tweak a for-profit model in a way that still resonates with longtime partners while attracting customers for the company.

The solution will come from the entire team, one he describes as a group that wins together, loses together, and sometimes wants to rip each others hair out, but always comes back the next day committed to solutions and moving forward.

Steinback says they are realizing that the company may have to limit its direct work in communities in the future. Though working with people is a practice that, in the past, allowed the ocean planning division to gather ideas, solve problems, and measure direct results at Ecotrust, Steinback says its also a practice that’s been expensive and time consuming for Point 97, and is unlikely to scatter the company’s social impact as intended.

“There’s this tension or struggle between working in communities with people and trying to make a profitable company. That’s our biggest challenge. It’s trying to figure out what that transaction will look like,” he said.

When they answer that question, Point 97’s team will be bringing the most successful of the tools they’ve built in their backyard to the world.

“We’ve just barely tapped into that,” Steinback says. And when he talks about really plugging into that success, the characteristic zeal turns on. It’s easy to hear that fresh-faced kid from Astoria.

And it’s easy to understand why he’s still got work to do.

For more information, visit http://pointnineseven.com, follow Point 97 on Twitter, or like Point 97 on Facebook.

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Lee van der Voo

Lee van der Voo is a freelance reporter based in Portland. She was a 2013 Alicia Patterson fellow focused on social and economic inequities in fishing. Her writing about seafood has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, High Country News, and other media.