Arctic Cod and Cooperation: Icelandic Innovation as Inspiration in South Carolina

By Darla Domke-Damonte, Ph.D., MIBS, Associate Provost for Global Initiatives at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina.

Inuit Johnny Issaluk holds a recent photo of a South Carolina swamp. That’s what his home, near the Arctic Circle on Baffin Island, would have looked like 56 million years ago, when summer water temperatures at the North Pole hit 74°F. (Copyright: Ira Block, Ira Block Photography Ltd.)

At first, you might not think that South Carolina has much to do with the Arctic. Or, perhaps you may have noticed that South Carolina only comes up when folks want to make comparisons, e.g. to show what the Arctic used to look like (such as with this Ira Block photo from National Geographic featured above) or to demonstrate how big the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska is, such as with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s image below.

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is approximately the size of South Carolina. Image provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

But here in South Carolina, we have real human connections with the Arctic through our flourishing and special relationship with Iceland, one of our fellow Arctic Council member countries. This connection is especially important to us here at Coastal Carolina University (CCU).

CCU’s Icelandic connections go back to the 1980's when great soccer players were discovered in Iceland by CCU’s Coach Paul Banta. Over the years a large stream of Icelandic students has studied at Coastal Carolina University and today, more than 80 Icelanders are part of our Coastal Carolina University alumni community. The Icelandic Whales Alumni Association (IWAA) — which is the name of the CCU alumni organization based in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital, is not only our first international alumni association, but also a philanthropic entity. The organization’s fundraising efforts support as many as five new scholarships for Icelanders at CCU annually.

Thanks to this nearly 30-year relationship, Iceland has had a significant influence on CCU’s work here in South Carolina. Icelandic perspectives on business innovation and sustainability — especially related to cod — served as a novel platform for launching cooperative efforts between Icelandic businesses and nonprofits, an innovation center in South Carolina, and also a variety of educational programs at Coastal Carolina University.

Iceland is one of the world’s top producers of cod (left). In fact, cod is so important to Iceland’s economy that the fish is featured on the country’s Króna coin (right). (Image credits: European Commission and Alamy)

In 2015, IWAA President Snorri Gudmundsson, CCU President David A. DeCenzo, and Associate Provost Darla Domke-Damonte discussed deepening our cooperation by increasing increase efforts to connect current students with Icelandic alumni and Icelandic organizations through projects that benefited both groups.

A visit to Thor Sigfusson, the president of the Ocean Cluster in Reykjavik, was a turning point in the conversation. Ocean Cluster’s mission is “to create value and discover new opportunities by connecting entrepreneurs, businesses and knowledge in the marine industries.” During our visit, he explained the process that they had used in Reykjavik to encourage the use of cod in novel and commercially viable ways, and to bring together higher education, inventors and investors. Cod is by far the most important fish stock in Iceland, so much so that the conflicts between British and Icelandic interests in denoting fishing rights from the 1950s through the 1970s were called the Cod Wars.

Unfortunately, though, according to Sigfusson, “European fisheries typically dump 45–50 percent of cod caught.” So Sigfusson brought together inventors and experts from marine fisheries to generate companies to raise the value generated from each cod from $18 to $80.

According to Thor Sigfusson, the president of the Ocean Cluster, “The Incredible Fish Value Machine” displays how Icelanders have produced “an industry fishing machine” which takes pride in the fact that no other whitefish nation is utilizing more of each fish than Icelanders. (Image credit: Iceland Ocean Cluster)

This novel form of cooperation provided a great starting point for exploring how to raise cooperation and value generated from our contacts and relationships in Iceland to benefit all concerned. U.S. Ambassador to Iceland Robert Barber (who coincidentally, was raised in South Carolina) and his team at the U.S. Embassy provided contacts to other innovation centers and organizations in Iceland and a new model became clearer on how to move forward in Iceland.

U.S. Ambassador to Iceland Robert Barber (second from left) and State Department colleagues Paul O´Friel and Rebecca Owen with Þór Sigfússon (right) at Ocean Cluster House in Iceland in early 2015.

We brought together more constituent groups in South Carolina to determine further cooperation, and returned to Iceland a few months later with Dr. Michael Roberts, CCU Vice President of Research and also co-founder of FifthT, a company that works to support local innovation and economic development in coastal South Carolina. Dr. Roberts’ aim was to determine how to link the innovation and sustainability efforts in Iceland with those of the FifthT programs that support entrepreneurship activity in our part of the state. Further discussions with the Icelandic Federation of Business, the U.S. Commercial Service, and CCU alumni in Iceland yielded a cod-inspired cooperation.

Staff at Ocean Cluster (Reykjavik) explain the synergetic thinking that led to multiple startup companies and the maximization of value from the cod to CCU Wall Fellow students and program leaders as a part of their study program and consulting with Icelandic companies in May 2016. (Image credit: Darla Domke-Damonte)

For each of these groups, whether they were in Iceland or South Carolina, it was important to see real cooperation happen. The first step was the creation of a study abroad program to link CCU’s Wall Fellows Program (a highly competitive leadership development program for CCU undergraduates) with CCU alumni organizations in Iceland. Led by Wall Fellows Director Gina Cummings and CoBE Institute Director Pete Gasca, this would help promote research and exchange between these student leaders and companies and be supportive of CCU Icelandic alumni in new ways. (Interestingly, one of the members of the Wall Fellows Program’s first class in 1993 was Binni Baldursson, a native of Iceland!)

Two Icelandic companies with CCU alumni leaders or owners, Star-Oddi, a manufacturer of innovative scientific research tools, and Lysi, a leading producer of fully refined fish oils for human consumption, participated in the program in the first year. During that time, CCU Wall Fellows teams — comprised of undergraduate student leaders — researched business issues identified as important to each company for six months at CCU. Next, they traveled to Iceland in May 2016 to spend a week with company leadership, fine-tuning their recommendations and presenting them to the company leadership groups.

Coastal Carolina University Wall Fellows students participate in a briefing about cooperation at the Ocean Cluster, Reykjavik (Left). Coastal Carolina University Wall Fellows visit companies during their study program in Iceland May 2016 (Right). (Image credit: Darla Domke-Damonte)
“My study abroad experience (in Iceland) had a major impact on my academic training. The biggest learning experience for me was the opportunity to work on a project for an international company. I learned how to communicate with a company overseas and how to conduct efficient Skype meetings, since time change is a factor in global business. Through this international project, I was able to stretch my mind to consider market-related factors for a global product. I was able to learn how small the business world is and that every department and many different countries can be interconnected for one company.” — Wall Fellow Olivia Carlton

For the 2016–17 academic year, the Icelandic part of the Wall Fellows program will continue in two ways: (1) advancing to implementation some of the ideas proposed in May 2016; and (2) taking on new projects with six more Icelandic companies.

The Icelandic part of the Wall Fellows Program continues to enjoy support from both countries. Ambassador Barber visited South Carolina in April 2016 to deliver the keynote speech at CCU’s “Celebration of Inquiry Conference.” During his visit, he advanced understanding of this cooperation with local organizations and institutions and engaged with students who were preparing for their presentations to the Icelandic companies.

U.S. Ambassador to Iceland Robert Barber delivers the keynote address at the 2016 Celebration of Inquiry at Coastal Carolina University. (Video credit: Coastal Carolina University)

We can all learn a lot from the Icelandic approach to natural resources in the Arctic, including cod — and from the innovative thinking and commitment to sustainability that Iceland offers to the world.

(Photo credit: CCU)

About the Author: Darla Domke-Damonte, Ph.D., is associate provost for Global Initiatives at Coastal Carolina University. In this role, she develops and implements internationalization strategies for the university. She is also a tenured professor of management and formerly served as assistant dean in the E. Craig Wall Sr. College of Business Administration. She is married to L. Taylor Damonte, Ph.D., and they have two daughters, Alexandra and Laura. In her free time, she enjoys spending time with her family, sailing, cooking, reading, biking, traveling and helping in the community. You can reach her at ddamonte@coastal.edu.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.