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Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA): Perspective from a funder, Emily Tewes, Science and Policy Adviser

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An image of an ocean is the background. At top left, a photo of Emily Tewes standing on a sailboat at sea. “Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA): Perspective from a funder, Emily Tewes,Science and Policy Adviser”

This week, for our Funder Perspectives series, we spoke with Emily Tewes, from Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA). Emily has a background in Marine Science and now works as the Science and Policy Adviser at SOA. This interview is the first in a series of interviews with individuals who are directly involved with decisions made by research funders. If you work in research addressing Sustainable Development Goal 14 Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development – this one’s for you!

Hi, Emily! Could you briefly share your career story and what you like most about working in your role at SOA? 

When I was younger, I thought I wanted to strictly do science. Then, when I was in graduate school I realized that much of my work and the work of my colleagues was important, but it was not being applied or shared with an audience outside of academia. That’s why I decided to apply for a Knauss Marine Policy Fellowship while I was finishing my masters. The fellowship meant a move to Washington, DC. to work with the Federal government in one of 70 or so offices that were accepting fellows. Through the fellowship, I ended up being placed in a position with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in their Climate Program Office. There I got a sense of how federal policy affects where research funding gets directed, and how a lot of NOAA’s baseline research get’s used in decision-making. After the year-long program was completed, I stayed on at NOAA, first with the NOAA Teacher at Sea Program and then working in the International Activities Office of NOAA’s Research Branch. 

In late 2018 I moved from the United States to Spain, and with that move I also wanted to make a career shift and find work with an ocean-focused non-profit organization. I ended up at Sustainable Ocean Alliance, an NGO with the world’s first ocean-focused start-up accelerator program, as well as the world’s largest network of young leaders focused on ocean solutions. The best part about my role over the years has been working with and learning from young people all over the world. On a typical day I will virtually “travel” to 6-10 countries, and I have been able to consistently work with and mentor very talented young professionals in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean.

Tell us about SOA:

Sustainable Ocean Alliance (SOA) was founded in 2014 with the mission of bringing youth to the decision-making table at major international fora (such as the UN) as well as to promote and support youth that are developing solutions to the critical problems facing our ocean and climate. 

SOA started the first ocean-specific start-up accelerator program in the world, and has now accelerated 45 companies in 16 countries focused on ocean technology. We also have the largest community of young ocean leaders in the world. A key part of that community is our Regional representatives and our network of 72 Ocean Solution Hubs (in 45+ countries) – groups of young leaders actively leading projects in their communities. We have also supported 220+ young professionals with microgrants, and many more through educational and professional development training programs.  

Tell us about the Microgrants Program:

We started SOA’s Microgrants Program amid the COVID19 pandemic in 2020. The purpose of the grants program was to provide youth – in our network as well as from outside our network – with funding to execute their own local projects. We have historically supported a very wide variety of project types, as long as they are connected with Sustainable Development Goal 14, Life Below Water. However, projects typically have fallen into one of the following themes: Blue Carbon, Fisheries, Ecosystem and Species Conservation, Baseline Research, and Waste Reduction (primarily plastics). 

How many grants are distributed annually and in what amounts?

In 2020 and 2021 we distributed 100 grants per year that ranged from approximately $1,000 – $4,000 USD. For 2022, we have tried to lessen the administrative burden by supporting fewer projects and providing each project with more funding. We are beginning to support grants with an average of $5,000 USD and in 2022 so far we have supported about 44 projects and counting.

What types of projects are you looking to fund?

Because we are a youth-based organization, we are looking to fund projects whose project leaders are between the ages of 18 – 35, and we fund any project that is solving for or addressing problems related to Sustainable Development Goal 14. This year we have mixed things up and instead of doing one large open call for proposals, we have done a few smaller calls for proposals: the first was for projects that raise awareness about deep seabed mining, and advocate for a moratorium. The second call was for U.S. – based sustainable fisheries solutions. The third is still open – we are currently accepting on a rolling basis and by invitation only projects that are focused on Blue Carbon – including mangrove, seagrass, salt marsh, or kelp restorations or other related solutions. If you have a Blue Carbon solution and would like an invitation to apply, please email me at

What makes a strong application?

We are looking for applications that have either proven or unique solutions to solving our target ocean problems. Some qualities that make a strong application include:

  1. Having a social justice component to your ocean solution.
  2. Having a well thought through and realistic timeline and objectives.
  3. Having well-defined and achievable impact metrics.
  4. Having a clear and realistic budget that demonstrates how the small grant will make a significant impact toward the project goals.
  5. Having project leaders and/or a support team with related work experience and expertise and a track record of success. 

Many of the researchers that we speak with are interested to know about success rates of particular grants – what do you think about this measure in your line of work?

As this grant program has only been running for a few years, we are still building awareness of the program. In 2020 and 2021 our success rates were a bit less than 50%. This year, as we have been doing more specific and invitation-only calls for applications – our success rate has been significantly higher. 

What are some of the most common mistakes that applicants make?

The most frequent mistake is not following instructions. We receive a lot of quality applications that don’t add enough detail about their project timeline and objectives, although our application gives a clear example for how to answer the question (and the level of detail we are looking for). We also receive a lot of applications that do not have a clear, realistic, or detailed enough project budget. 

Any recommendations for prospective applicants?

We are looking for detail-oriented applications that have clear and measurable impact objectives. When it comes to budget, we – and most granting organizations – have a preference for funding direct-project costs (with not a lot of overhead). Follow the instructions/guidelines and have fun with it! Share as many links and resources as possible so we can really get a feel for the project, and adding a video submission is a major plus. We want to learn as much as we can about you and your project!

Visit our website and browse some of the past projects we have supported here.


We thank Emily Tewes for sharing her candid insights with us.

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