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Mote will complete a new research facility in Summerland Key in 2017. 

In 21 months, after starting in January 2015, Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium raised nearly $52 million, a major sum in Sarasota’s fund-raising world, especially for a nonprofit outside the arts. It’s a game changer for the 61-year-old marine lab headquartered on City Island.

“In 10 years I expect Mote will be the basis of a new Silicon Valley for marine science, technology and innovation,” says Mote’s CEO and president, Dr. Michael Crosby.

The funds from its Oceans of Opportunity campaign mean Mote will fulfill its 2020 Vision Plan by adding 10 top-ranked scientists in the next four years, completing its new coral research facility in Summerland Key in early 2017, continuing to enhance and improve fisheries and the quality of our oceans, and reaching out to underserved communities. But perhaps the game-changing aspect of Oceans of Opportunity has just as much to do with public awareness, especially among locals, of what happens inside Mote’s labs.

Cutting-edge research has always been the foundation of Mote’s existence, starting with the late Eugenie Clark’s work with sharks. And Mote is well known in the oceanography world. The lab has five campuses, 35 Ph.D.s and 25 research programs that reach around the world. “It was never a little lab in Southwest Florida,” says Dr. Bill Causey, the regional director of NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. “It ranks with Woods Hole [Oceanographic Institute] and Scripps [Institution of Oceanography] and a number of academic labs.”

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Snook are part of Mote's aquaculture programs.

Image: Shutterstock

But much of this science was invisible to the public, says Robert Essner, Mote’s campaign chair. “When I moved here in 2009, I thought Mote was just a great place to take your grandchildren,” he says. “The aquarium was a mask, and we had to get people to see behind the mask.”

Essner, a retired chairman of the board and CEO of Wyeth (now Pfizer), says his first inkling that Mote was doing more than educating youngsters was a trip to Mote’s aquaculture facility east of I-75. “Then I began to meet the scientists,” he says. Essner eventually brought down a scientist friend to evaluate Mote. “He told me what they were doing was first-rate,” he says.

Essner had the fund-raising credentials to lead an ambitious campaign. He’s chaired the board of the Children’s Health Fund in New York and was on the board of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. (“We raised $18 billion [for the Lincoln Center],” he says. “This was harder. In New York, you can walk into someone’s office and get a check for $50 million and the next person wants to give more.”) Essner and his board decided that avoiding the aquarium and instead bringing in potential donors to tour Mote’s labs and talk with the scientists were key. “Almost everyone here lives reasonably close to the water and knows that it plays a big role in our quality of life. Everyone could find something they were interested in,” he says.

The next phase for Mote is to raise money to move the aquarium to the mainland (“We have a few sites in mind,” says Crosby) and to rehab the rundown City Island facility, where scientists crouch in closet-size offices. Crosby wants Mote’s City Island campus to be an international destination for marine scientists and businesses. The timetable and costs for these initiatives should be released within the next year.

The $52 million has already changed Mote, though. The campaign raised money from 23,000 donors, half of them first-time contributors. More locals understand the importance of the lab—and are likely to continue to contribute to its success. “We will have a platform to grow on for the next 61 years,” Crosby says. Everyone likes a winner.

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