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Meet Susan Baer of Clear Blue Sea in Mission Valley

Today we’d like to introduce you to Susan Baer.

Thanks for sharing your story with us, Susan. So, let’s start at the beginning, and we can move on from there.
In 2016, Susie Baer was contacted by a fellow innovator and asked to help develop a pitch for a Hawaii Senator’s Office on the topic of ocean conservancy innovations. Our conceptual innovation was an unmanned, solar-powered, semi-autonomous marine robot to perform cleanup of ocean plastics. This involvement led to becoming a co-founder of Clear Blue Sea, a nonprofit with a mission to cleanse the oceans of plastic pollution. Susie coined our innovation the Floating Robot for Eliminating Debris, or FRED.

From teaching and mentoring small business startups in the San Diego cleantech and defense sectors, Susie found herself on the other side when she assumed the role of Clear Blue Sea’s Executive Director as a semi-retired baby boomer. Never before had Susie ran a nonprofit organization, let alone be a startup founder, and she was not prepared for the onslaught of work required to get up and running. This despite the fact that FRED is a far simpler initiative than those complex technology programs she managed for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Department of Defense.

Susie’s list of startup action items is long and ever-growing. With no ready funding, Clear Blue Sea required her to donate full-time her time, energy, and some of her retirement funds to maintain organizational momentum and FRED engineering progress. Fortunately, Susie had lots of peers who she would call on for brainstorming, problem-solving, and moral support.

Serendipity stepped in when Jessica Gottdank, a young Mechanical Engineer who worked for Boeing, called Susie to talk about environmental volunteer opportunities. The two discussed Clear Blue Sea’s goals and challenges while transforming a conceptual innovation into an operational solution to ocean plastics. From there, Jessica came on as a co-founder, Chief Engineer, and Board President, while bringing a Millennial sensibility to Clear Blue Sea.

As Susie learned while working at NASA, lengthy and complex technology programs are best planned and managed when structured into phases, since developing spacecraft takes a lot of work and a lot of time. So, she applied this planning technique to developing Clear Blue Sea’s Floating Robot for Eliminating Debris (FRED) technology program plan, as shown below.

With minimal donations and limited self-funding, Susie innovated an expansive Internship Program to leverage the energy and passions of college and high school students here in San Diego and across the country. These sessions focus on our mitigation solution to plastic pollution, which is adversely affecting our oceans but also address key skills and subjects critical to project success. Susie designed a week of Boot Camp tutorials and team exercises that cover project management practices, systems engineering life cycle methodologies, and collaborative teamwork. Boot Camp nurtures teambuilding for all our Clear Blue Sea interns who come from diverse backgrounds and diverse educational institutions, including USD, SDSU, UCSD, PLNU, Grossmont Community College, and local high schools. Our interns work together across multiple campuses and multiple projects throughout San Diego County.

In three years since securing nonprofit 501c3 designation, Clear Blue Sea has sponsored over 100 student interns on over 20 Science, Engineering, Technology and Math (STEM) and management projects. Our student teams are currently demonstrating two fully-functional, 6-feet mini-FRED prototypes and building two mid-scale FRED prototypes for testing in the Tijuana River region and along the San Diego coast. Clear Blue Sea interns do more than (STEM) projects, with many students self-assigning to projects that enhance our website, maintain social media platforms, evaluate applicable marine legal requirements for ocean cleanup; provide educational presentations, and nurture stakeholder relationships.

As an SDSU Lecturer for the business school’s Creativity and Innovation class and being a career-long Program Manager practitioner, Susie is in a unique position to design curriculum and conduct workshop-based tutorials for Clear Blue Sea’s waves of student intern cohorts. A 5-day Boot Camp is now being taught by all key management staff, as well as by student interns. The boot camp experience is critical to the organization’s accomplishments and project success because all students are given a common introduction to Clear Blue Sea and a common foundation on best practices for innovating technologies and managing projects requiring extensive brainstorming and problem-solving.

With four FRED engineering projects and multiple social media and management projects, Susie and Zane Allen, Operations Manager, have recently secured a warehouse facility where all the project teams can be co-located and better collaborate.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Starting up a nonprofit ocean conservancy organization at the age of 63 is a challenge in itself. While working 60-hour weeks was a standard in earlier decades, trying to keep awake after 10 PM to get an endless list of action items completed can be demanding for a senior. So, most weeks, Susie contributes a 40-50 hour week at Clear Blue Sea. She also teaches at SDSU, so there is a bit of juggling, which is also a challenge.

Clear Blue Sea has developed multiple FRED prototypes, supported extensive student internships, and established a corporate management function and social media platforms with minimal funding. Our current challenge is to secure $2M in funding to hire permanent staff, build a large-scale FRED Prototype, and expand our following. Susie is currently writing grants to philanthropic organizations and environmentally-friendly commercial companies to secure the funds necessary to complete Clear Blue Sea’s Program Phase 2: FRED Prototyping. Susie plans on maintaining the Student Internship Program to provide college and high school kids with a meaningful and challenging work experience in the world of innovation, ocean conservancy, and robotics.

The key struggles are to maintain organizational momentum as student interns come and go. Fortunately, some of Susie’s most accomplished student interns and volunteers have made a long-term commitment to Clear Blue Sea’s mission to cleanse the oceans of plastic pollution. But without adequate funding to pay all of our interns, we often lose students to boring 9-5 jobs so they can pay their bills. It is a challenge for our nonprofit startup, dependent on student interns for performing most of our project work, to compete with employers offering paid jobs and benefits.

Please tell us about Clear Blue Sea.
Clear Blue Sea is a nonprofit 501c3 organization founded by Susan Baer and Jessica Gottdank in 2016. Our mission is to cleanse the oceans of plastic pollution. Our technology innovation is the “Floating Robot for Eliminating Debris,” aka FRED, which is designed to collect floating plastic and debris in rivers, bays, coasts, and the ocean gyres. FRED is an unmanned, semi-autonomous, solar-powered marine robot that will operate in fleets under the governance and control of Clear Blue Sea’s staff at our planned “Remote Operations Services Enterprise” aka ROSE.

Clear Blue Sea is unique in that we have a compelling and innovative technology for ocean cleanup, a unique and innovative student internship program for performing our mission and teaching younger generations to solve environmental crises, and a unique and innovative organizational strategy to transition Clear Blue Sea management and decision-making to our Millennial/GenZ staff so they can take full responsibility for the operations, successes, failures, and future work of Clear Blue Sea. Our senior managers will remain as mentors, but the younger generational staff will be at the helm.

Since 2016, with the participation of over 100 student interns and volunteers, Clear Blue Sea has built two small-scale 6-foot FRED Prototypes and is currently developing two mid-scale 16-foot FRED Prototypes. These larger FRED Prototypes are leveraging two used catamarans, donated for free to Clear Blue Sea, as the marine robot vessel platform. Our FRED debris collection subsystem includes booms that guide marine plastic and debris onto a conveyor belt and into a storage bin. FRED is powered by solar panels which store energy in lithium-ion batteries for use by our onboard motors propelling the vessel, motors for operating the conveyor belts, and power sources for onboard sensors and navigational systems.

Our stakeholders and followers consistently tell us how much they like FRED as a unique, sustainable, and scalable innovation for marine environment cleanup. Mid-size FREDs can operate in rivers to prevent further plastic debris from entering the seas, while our large-scale FREDs are designed to be 100 feet long and operate in fleets of 100 or more. These sets of very large marine robots are needed due to the massive size of the ocean’s garbage patches, most of which are bigger than the size of Texas.

For a startup up to recruit, manage, and mentor over 100 student interns is a challenging task and a unique strength of the organization driven by Susie’s passion for giving younger generations the opportunity to experience how even they can tackle some of the world’s worst environmental crises. Clear Blue Sea has been successful with our Student Internship Program by leveraging Susie’s career as a Program Management practitioner, an instructional designer, and university lecturer in subjects that include creative thinking, problem-solving, project planning and performance management, risk assessment, collaborative teamwork, systems engineering life cycle methodologies, and information technology enterprise architectures.

Susie has shared her knowledge and experience in teaching and mentoring student startup companies and small businesses to develop Clear Blue Sea’s Ocean Conservancy Boot Camp. All student interns are required to complete a week of Boot Camp before being assigned to a project of their choice. The engineering, project management, and business management materials and group exercises provided by Boot Camp result in bonding each student internship cohort and increasing the joy and productivity on project teams.

This summer, Clear Blue Sea has put over 40 student interns through Boot Camp and is now mentoring them all to be effective project managers as well as productive team members. Their scope of projects includes FRED engineering, social media, educational outreach, grant development, website design, finance, project management, and regulatory compliance. Each Friday, all the student intern project teams meet to share their progress and issues they face for peer review by their fellow student project teams. This experience broadens and deepens their internship experience by introducing them to multiple perspectives by teams having different but related projects.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
My most recent proudest moments have been describing for my grandchildren how hard I am working, as a “retiree” and living on social security, to remediate the oceans of plastic. I want them to experience the joy of healthy seas the way I did as a kid while bodysurfing in Ocean Beach.

For my adult children, I felt proud to tell them that I was leading a NASA Safety, Reliability, and Quality Assurance (SR&QA) Systems Assessment Program in the aftermath of the Challenger Disaster by the Johnson Space Center Director. This was in the 1980s.

Now that it is almost 2020, I cringe at the speed at which our natural environments are being damaged and destroyed by a growing human population that has not demonstrated a critical mass of effort to reverse the ill effects of climate change and environmental pollution. I want my grandkids to see for themselves how one person, their grandmother, can make a difference in helping to tackle a global pollution problem that seems insurmountable, but isn’t. A passion for healthy oceans, resilient hard work, and humility in stumbling towards a solution all contribute to making the seas a healthier place so my grandchildren can continue the family tradition of bodysurfing and so marine life can return to thriving in their natural environment.

Beyond myself, I am extremely proud of the incredibly creative and collaborative work that student interns and volunteers have contributed as members of the Clear Blue Sea team. We all share a common concern for remediating the environment, and this drives us to come together at Clear Blue Sea regardless of differences in age, family backgrounds, or ideology. We focus on our actions of implementing solutions for future remediation of the oceans, to live our values and beliefs.

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Image Credit:
Camille Sotello

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