By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington Small Business Development Center
SEATTLE, Wash. – The difference between the Whooshh fish transport system and traditional fish ladders — data suggests — is like the difference between crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range with the Donner Party or snug inside the club car of the California Zephyr.
Yes, fish can theoretically navigate fish ladders to get around dams and other impediments, but research over the past seven years shows that it’s a perilous journey that often takes several days and leaves the lucky survivors bruised, battered and too weak to complete their upstream migration.
In contrast, the Whooshh transport system literally whooshhes the fish up and over the dam in a matter of seconds via a seamless pneumatic tube system that works something like a gentle vacuum.
Demonstrated safer, efficient, less expensive
Whoosshh CEO Vince Bryan III said the system has been tested on numerous waterways across the country since 2014, including the Cle Elum Dam on the Yakima River. Seventeen independent laboratory studies have demonstrated the system is safer, more efficient and much less expensive than existing fish passage systems such as fish ladders or lifts, but getting the technology deployed where it is needed has been tough going.
3 percent of 85,000 dams
There are more than 85,000 dams on rivers and streams across the country and very few of them — less than 3 percent by some estimates — allow fish migration up and down waterways. When fish are unable to access their historical spawning grounds, Bryan said, the entire ecosystem, from nutrients in the water to mammals on the river banks, is disrupted.
First created to move apples gently from branches to bins, Whooshh technology was tested on fish in 2011 and has evolved to include real-time automated scanning capabilities, which means the system can transport some species over barriers and not others, or it can be used to remove invasive fish species or diseased fish from the waterways.
Old regulations block new technology
“It isn’t the technology holding us back,” Bryan said, “it’s the regulatory framework which never anticipated an entirely new approach to fish passage and is ill equipped to enable rapid deployment.”
So far, Bryan said, the company has grown from three to 12 employees, and has been financed by angel investors. Now, the company is working to secure institutional financing and international traction to take a quantum leap forward.
Finding new markets
In early 2017, he and his leadership team began working with Sharon Sappington, an international trade specialist with the Washington Small Business Development Center (SBDC) to find new markets, especially foreign markets, where barriers to implementation are less onerous.
The Washington SBDC is a network of 26 small business advisors and two international trade specialists who assist small business owners who want to start, grow or transition a business. The Washington SBDC is hosted by Washington State University and receives federal funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration. Dollar for dollar matching funds come from state and local sources including other institutions of higher education and economic development agencies.
Executives at Whooshh first began meeting with Sappington for assistance with their foreign strategy, but Sappington realized domestic research would be beneficial as well. “This technology is extremely flexible and can work in many different aquatic habitats,” Sappington said, “but their marketing efforts have to be very focused.”
In order to develop more targeted business development strategies, Sappington recommended Whooshh identify:
- Whether domestic dams are privately vs. publicly owned.
- Who has jurisdiction over the waterway.
- Which dams already had fish passageways.
- Which dams were up for relicensing.
- Which dams were a primary impediment to significant fish migration.
The information will help the company identify those dams that would benefit most from the Whooshh system. For example, a dam located upstream from other dams with no fish passage would not be good a candidate.
The first step
As a starting point and a test of the information’s usefulness, Whooshh decided to concentrate on the Feather River in California.
Student interns with the Washington SBDC Market Research Intelligence Team dug into the specifics of the Feather River and surrounding streams, said intern supervisor Tim Taylor. One team went online to search the nooks and crannies of hundreds of data bases to see what information was available, while another team went to the source, searching the Feather River and its tributaries via Google Earth and creating a map of every impediment they could find.
The information, especially data unearthed from the Army Corps of Engineers, was invaluable, said Steve Dearden, vice president of sales and responsible for California. Whooshh is continuing to use the data to build its U.S. marketing strategy.
The Whooshh fish passage system is currently in use or being tested at several locations in Washington State, including the Cle Elum Dam, where Whooshh conducted a successful test to transport Sockeye salmon more than 1,700 feet and over the 165-foot-high dam. The eventual goal is to move more than 200,000 fish above the dam where they will populate more than 29 miles of pristine spawning habitat.
A single tube can transport multiple fish, one right after another, the length of a football field in less than 15 seconds. That means it potentially could move 86,400 fish in 24 hours in a typical three-tube system. “That’s a lot of fish,” Bryan said.
A history of innovation
The transport system originally was developed 10 years ago to help with a labor shortage on the Bryan family apple orchard in Eastern Washington. The Bryan family has a history of entrepreneurship and innovation.
Bryan (or Vince 3) was for many years an in-house legal counsel for Adobe Systems. Bryan’s father, Vincent Bryan Jr, is a retired neurosurgeon who developed the first artificial cervical spinal disc, and he and his wife, Carol Bryan, founded The Gorge amphitheater in Eastern Washington during Vince 3’s formative years. His sister, Janine Bryan, was a research scientist at Merck Research Laboratories and the project lead for the development of Gardasil, the first cancer vaccine to prevent cervical cancer caused by HPV infection. In May 2016 Janine Bryan joined Whooshh as director of biological studies to supervise the research and studies testing the safety and effectiveness of the Whooshh system
No dawdling in Europe
“We’ve done enough studies,” Bryan said. “Now we need action.”
Whooshh’s technology has been used in Norway for several years, and Bryan is currently working with hydro operators and fisheries managers in France and Sweden.
“I think adoption in Europe is going to be much faster,” Bryan said. “They just want to solve the fish passage problems, which is what we want.”
Bryan said he was skeptical when John Brislin, regional manager of Export Import Bank of the United States in Seattle, first referred him to Sappington for export assistance. Bryan said he had been in the trenches a long time and wondered if involving the SBDC would help.
“There is a perception that working with the government — the SBDC in this case — slows down the process,” he said. “We did not find that to be the case. We found just the opposite.” Sappington’s insights into how to effectively focus their marketing efforts helped them move forward more quickly, he said.