Q&A: Kendra MacDonald, CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, on growing the country’s ocean-based economy
June 9, 2021
Kendra MacDonald, CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster. (Photo by David Howells)
Canada’s ocean sectors contribute approximately $31.7 billion annually in GDP and account for close to 300,000 jobs. In February this year, the federal government officially launched the engagement phase in the development of Canada’s Blue Economy Strategy.
Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, based in the Atlantic region, is the nation’s flagship in expanding the blue economy. To recognize the annual World Ocean Day (June 8) and its theme “One Ocean, One Climate, One Future – Together,” Research Money spoke with Kendra MacDonald, CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster on the future of Canada's ocean economy.
Mark Lowey: What has been your biggest challenge as CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, and what has been your biggest accomplishment or given you the greatest satisfaction?
Kendra MacDonald: I came into the role about eight or nine months after the superclusters were announced, including the Ocean Supercluster. We’re a cross-sectoral cluster. So building a pan-Canadian, pan-Atlantic, cross-sectoral cluster to change the way ocean business is done was a real challenge, a big culture change to manage.
But actually seeing some of those changes start to happen has also been really exciting. Over the last year with the [COVID] pandemic, we pivoted early, in May 2020, to supplement our core programs in Technology Leadership and Innovation Ecosystem with a new Accelerated Ocean Solutions Program, focused on smaller-scale projects, small and medium enterprises and shorter timelines.
Last March , we had six projects approved and now we’ve got 50. So it was a really big year for us.
ML: Part of the Ocean Supercluster’s mandate is to increase collaboration among businesses and other organizations working in Canada’s ocean economy. How is that collaboration going and what new projects have got you excited?
KM: The consistent feedback we get from our over 400 members is just having the opportunity to get introduced to companies they might otherwise not have met. West Coast companies collaborating with East Coast companies. I think one of the positives of the pandemic has been reducing the geographic barriers across Canada in terms of collaboration.
We’re focused on changing the way ocean business is done, trying to do that in a digital, sustainable and inclusive way. So that’s where our projects are focused.
In the digital space we saw the launch of digital twins [the Unmanned Digital Twinning Project for digital twinning of underwater infrastructure], underwater robotic sensors and remote monitoring — lots of projects focused on different data collections.
In the sustainability space, there’s been a significant increase in projects. Over the last year we’ve announced projects on transitionary low-carbon fuels, smart coatings [protective coating products for vessels], electrification — all focused on emissions reduction — as well as the development of sustainable protein for fish. [Editor's note: the Sustainable Protein for Aquaculture Project aims to convert greenhouse gas emissions from upstream oil and gas operations into a high-value protein feed for farmed fish.]
On the ecosystem side, which has been really focused on accelerating startups, we’ve had good responses to our Ocean Startup Challenge. [Editor's note: the challenge offers cash prizes, key resources, support and market connections to winning startups and scale-ups to prototype their solutions.]
We’re also doing a lot of work with under-represented groups, including through our Indigenous Career Pivot Project.
ML: How have the Ocean Supercluster and its network partners managed intellectual property in funded projects, and what is the key lesson you’ve learned in doing so?
KM: The Ocean Supercluster’s IP strategy allows the project consortium members, through their IP rationale, to determine their approach to IP. That includes both what background IP they’re bringing to a project as well as how they’re going to share the foreground IP.
We’ve provided some training sessions [in IP] throughout the last year and we also have an IP manager who helps with some of those discussions.
I would say the biggest lesson learned is to have the IP conversations early, especially when you’re dealing with new companies that haven’t collaborated before. Making sure you’re having those conversations and that they’re clear is incredibly important because [IP] tends to be one of the topics that definitely takes time to finalize in putting the agreements together. It’s key to the overall commercialization strategy which obviously leads to the outcome of the project.
ML: The Ocean Supercluster is now in year four of its initial five-year mandate, which runs to March 2023. What sort of impact has the Ocean Supercluster had on Canada’s innovation ecosystem and the country’s economy so far?
KM: I think that this whole coast-to-coast collaboration piece and seeing the increase in connections and the increase in relationships across the Canadian ocean economy, and having the Ocean Supercluster being attributed with several of those is really exciting. Connectivity across Canada was one of the challenges that we were trying to address.
[Another impact is] our work with under-represented groups, like the Indigenous Career Pivot Project creating opportunities for mid-career Indigenous workers to pivot into a career in oceans. There’s also our Ocean Allies Project which produced a report on the barriers to an inclusive ocean economy and how do we start to address some of those.
Our Ocean Startup Project has engaged about 3,000 stakeholders to date and they’ve supported over 40 early-stage ocean ventures. The second round of the Ocean Startup Challenge competition [for innovators and entrepreneurs from rural, Indigenous and urban communities] has just closed. They’ve had really good traction across the country, but also around the world in attracting interest in Canada’s ocean startup ecosystem.
ML: The Ocean Supercluster wasn’t one of the three (out of five) superclusters that recently made a formal request to the federal government for additional funding. Why wasn’t a request made, and will the Ocean Supercluster be seeking some of the $60 million in new funding allocated for the superclusters in the 2021 budget?
KM: We will be fully allocated [in the Ocean Supercluster’s original funding of $153 million] this year, for a total project value of $250 million. We’ve got a number of projects that are still rolling out, so we are focused on momentum out to the end of the program with our existing funding.
We said we would not look for additional funding within that $60 million [allocated in Budget 2021]. We will have a conversation about renewing funding for the Ocean Supercluster, but not within our current five-year mandate.
ML: What is your vision for the Ocean Supercluster? Where would you like it to be in five or 10 years?
KM: In terms of our key areas of focus: growing Canada’s ocean economy. We are undersized in terms of [the ocean economy’s] GDP percentage contribution in Canada. When we look at the $1.5-trillion growth opportunity out to 2030, there’s tremendous opportunity for Canada’s ocean economy to grow.
Also, continuing to see the ocean economy as increasingly collaborative and connected, right across the country, across our researchers and governments and innovation hubs and communities. We see that whenever we’ve got a new connection that amazing things happen. When I look out 10 years, I want that [connectivity] to be part of our ocean culture.
Also, working toward digitizing the ocean economy like we’re seeing in other parts of the economy. So five or 10 years from now we’re really understanding our oceans, having a lot of data we need for decision making, being predictive in our decision making and increasing our safety while reducing our costs by embracing digital technologies in oceans.
We want to significantly move the needle on under-represented groups and have a much more inclusive workforce, along with a sustainable ocean economy. In the journey to net-zero emissions, the ocean has a key role to play by advancing economic growth while making sure it’s sustainable and we’re contributing to a carbon-neutral ocean economy.
Increasing our world leadership, picking our spots where Canada can lead is important. We’re fairly export-driven, but we need to increase our footprint and attract foreign investment and create new markets for Canadian companies.
ML: World Ocean Day was celebrated this week. Why should Canadians care about this day and what it represents?
KM: For all Canadians, the ocean contributes to every second breath we take [the ocean produces at least 50 percent of the planet’s oxygen] and it has a key role to play in achieving all of our climate action goals.
The ocean plays a key role in carbon capture and Canada has the largest carbon sink on the planet. That is shifting because of what’s happening in the North Atlantic [with rising ocean temperatures] and what’s happening in the Arctic [due to global warming]. So as we think about our climate action goals and net-zero targets, we need to take into consideration as that environment changes, what does that mean for all the other actions that we’re taking?
We are an ocean nation and I think there’s been no more critical time than now for every Canadian, no matter where they live in the country, to understand the relationship to our oceans — the ocean [economic] opportunity but also to the rest of the ocean. It’s a global conversation, so Canada has an opportunity to step into that and continue to generate attention with what’s happening in Canada.
We have the longest coastline in the world, and with the resources and the people that we have, it’s a real exciting time to bring some made-in-Canada solutions to the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.