As executive director and 25-year employee of Mote Marine Laboratory, Kumar Mahadevan oversees a complex organization with six education programs, 220 staff and 1,592 volunteers and a $19-million budget that funds such diverse efforts as research on red tide and the Mote Aquaculture Park, a research fishery east of I-75.
Q. What are the challenges of combining a serious research institution with a major tourist attraction?
Mote's foundation is still research, but what started out as a storefront aquarium has turned out to be so successful. The research part does not benefit unless people understand what the benefit is. The downside is that some people think of us as just an aquarium and not as a research institution.
Q. Nonprofits have been turning to entrepreneurial ventures to help finance their good causes. Was that the intention behind the 162-seat seafood restaurant [dropped because of opposition from neighboring restaurants] proposed for the new research facility?
The restaurant was conceived as an amenity for visitors. The snack bar is too small and limited; we have 400,000 people going through each year. But it was also to get a public message out. A lot of our fish are declining, and the answer is for people to eat sustainable seafood. We would have had exhibits and information in the menu. And it would have been self-financing. The marine mammal and turtle rehabilitation program, for example-it gets a lot of press, but every year we spend $400,000 more than we bring in through that program. The restaurant would have been self-supporting, and whatever extra money would have helped something like save the dolphins.
Q. Does the Aquaculture Park also generate funds to help underwrite research?
The Mote Aquaculture Park is a unique, cutting-edge project. It demonstrates that people can make money if they use this technology and take pressure off wild fishes. The information will be available to any investor who wants to buy 50 or 100 acres and put up one of these farms. Unless we can show it's going to make money, private investors aren't going to want to do these kinds of things. Whatever money we make [from selling fish Mote raises at the park] will go back into aquaculture research.
Q. Any plans for other such entrepreneurial ventures?
One area with strong interest is the biomedical side of marine biology. For years, we've studied why sharks don't get cancer. There's a possibility of going to the market if we can tie in with a pharmaceutical industry or organizations like Moffitt Cancer Center, somebody who can take it to the next level of human health. There's also some neat stuff going on in terms of technology: how we can track red tide by sending unmanned robots, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles.
Q. What are your chief goals now?
I'd like to see the lab on a strong financial base. It's a tough financial climate for an organization our size. Our budget is $19 million this year; our endowment is $10 million. The rule of thumb [for endowments] is to have two-and-a-half times the annual budget on hand. We should be at $50 million; looking ahead, $70 or $80 million to help when times are tough or when the lab has to do things that the government won't fund but that are important for marine environment.
Another goal: to bridge the gap between science and policy. Our lab does a great job in science and education efforts but not that great a job in translating science to policy issues. We're going to need smart, bright people to translate science to policy and do it in a way that the general public can understand.