Spawning start-ups for Canada's blue economy
July 13, 2022
The World Bank regards the "blue" economy as a diverse collection of ocean-based activities, ranging from fisheries and marine transport to waste management and renewable energy. Given that this vast environment represents more than two-thirds of the planet's surface, and Canada is blessed with extensive access to it, the right support and investments could make this country one of the blue economy's global leaders.
“We have the longest coastline in the world and so much inherent knowledge," says Donald Grant, Executive Director of the Ocean Startup Project. "But we haven’t taken advantage of that from an innovation perspective. Canada has this massive opportunity to create ocean solutions that have both economic benefit and environmental impact.”
In January 2020, a group of six organizations in Atlantic Canada saw this enormous potential. The Genesis Centre, Innovacorp, Creative Destruction Lab, New Brunswick Innovation Foundation, Prince Edward Island BioAlliance and Springboard Atlantic, along with Canada's Ocean Supercluster, came together with the shared vision of developing more ocean technology start-ups in the region. With support from Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the Ocean Startup Project was born, with Grant at the helm.
The pandemic lockdown struck just two months later, but according to Grant, the Project thrived.
“We were able to go virtual really quickly and capture an audience across Canada and globally," he recalls. "The Ocean Startup Project soon expanded beyond Atlantic Canada and became a national initiative. We now have the Technopole maritime du Québec and the Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies (COAST) in British Columbia to help with our mission to start more ocean companies in Canada.”
One of the goals of the Project is to raise awareness of the opportunities in the blue economy and to draw out Canadian innovators at the earliest stages. The Ocean Startup Challenge, which they launched in 2020, does just that.
“We want to act as a trusted partner for those people who see a problem and have an idea on how to solve it,” says Grant. “We give them access to industry, provide some funding, help them break down barriers and figure out if there’s a market fit. We bring in some of the best mentors from around the world, who provide them with that ever-important guidance. The money we provide is great, but it’s really the mentorship and resources that we offer at a very early stage that builds the foundation for success.”
The Ocean Startup Challenge has had two cohorts to date, supporting 43 start-ups with more than $1.6-million in funds. These early-stage ocean technology companies have created more than 70 jobs in Canada, and have raised approximately $7.5 million in non-dilutive funding and $8.5 million in equity investments.
One of those start-ups is Devocean. Based in Granby, Quebec, the company is developing new technology for ropeless fishing. The team came together at the University of Sherbrooke, wanting to build a solution for the environment and fishing community. Recognizing that sea mammals can get caught up in fishing gear, they came up with a way to eliminate the kilometers of rope used to connect crab cages sitting at the bottom of the ocean to a buoy on the surface.
Acoustic Bait Technologies in Antigonish, Nova Scotia is an Indigenous-led business that won the Ocean Startup Challenge in 2021. The company is developing a way to replace conventional lobster bait with recorded acoustic sounds that attract lobsters into traps. This innovation is especially timely as there is a moratorium on mackerel and herring, which is the bait that would otherwise be used.
Another winner of the 2021 Ocean Startup Challenge was Voltai, a Burlington, Ontario company that is exploring how to harness energy from boat motion and turn it into useful electricity using small, light generators. With the support of the Challenge, Voltai’s CEO, Maja Maher, was able to move the company to Dartmouth, Nova Scotia and become part of the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE) there. Her immediate goal is to get a pilot project on the water this summer, ideally with a Nova Scotia-based company, so that this technology can be tested in the field.
“The Ocean Startup Challenge really allows us to source business founders and work with them at the earliest stages,” explains Grant. “We have great incubators and accelerators in Canada, and we can act as a feeder for them. We’re building a kind of start-up pipeline for Canada, where early-stage innovators can get to a place where they can get accepted by these incubators and accelerators, and scale.”
One thing that Grant didn’t predict for the Ocean Startup Project is how it has helped build such a burgeoning ocean start-up ecosystem in Canada. Although it was not part of the original intention, the Project has helped catalyze the proliferation of start-up organizations and knit them together nationally.
In just over two years, Canada has seen the creation of places like Novarium, the Vancouver Maritime Centre for Climate, COAST, Port Innovation, Engagement, Research (PIER), and Maritime Launch, which draw together companies, investors and the scientific community to create business opportunities. The Project now has a Lab2Market Oceans program, hosted by Memorial University, which is taking in its third cohort. They’re also hiring an Indigenous Ocean Ecosystem Navigator to identify what is important to Indigenous communities from an ocean start-up perspective.
“If you want to have an impact in this world, I see no better place than the ocean, because it’s the lifeblood of the planet,” says Grant. “We’re seeing really great success out of our first two years, with lots of ecosystem development, engagement and awareness, along with strong founders who want to make a real difference. I’m excited about the future. I believe Canada can become one of the best countries in the world to start and build an ocean company.”
Applications are now open for the Third Ocean Startup Challenge, with up to $40,000 in funds for Idea and Early Stage Ocean Innovators based in Canada. The deadline is September 1, 2022, with information sessions taking place over the summer. For more information about the process and to apply, visit oceanstartupproject.ca/challenge.