Leveraging ocean science as an innovation engine for Atlantic Canada

Talking to Innovators: Clearwater Seafood’s John Risley

John Risley is Nova Scotia’s widely-recognized seafood baron and one of the province’s most  influential corporate citizens — founder of Clearwater Seafoods, Ocean Nutrition Canada, and Columbus Communications. Clearwater is one of Canada’s largest publicly-traded seafood companies with the majority of its products sold for export. Risley has been a long-time champion of Atlantic Canada’s ocean science research expertise and has led efforts to establish an innovation ecosystem where that expertise can be commercialized and exported to the world.

Last year, Risley made a $25-million gift to the Ocean Frontier Institute that was recently established at Dalhousie Univ with $94 million in funding from the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, the largest research grant in Dalhousie’s history.

RE$EARCH MONEY editor Mark Henderson recently spoke to Risley about Atlantic Canada’s strategy and prospects for becoming a global innovation hub of ocean-related science.

R$: When it comes to R&D, commercialization and innovation, why should the rest of Canada and the world take notice of what’s happening in Atlantic Canada, particularly in the area of ocean science?

Risley: First, we have the largest coastline in the world. Two, climate change is having an enormous impact on a huge component of that coastline, i.e. northern Canada. Yet we have very little understanding, if any, of the impact of climate change on our northern frontiers, all of which are coastal areas.

Third, we have the second largest concentration of ocean-related PhDs in the world in Halifax. It’s high time that we tried to generate some real commercial value. I don’t want to be dismissive of the research value resident in the work’s that being done by that community in the Halifax-Dartmouth area. But that work is largely focused on basic research and what we need to do is to reorient some of that work around commercially attractive research. Then we need to build a start-up community and other commercial opportunities that arise out of that commercially interesting research.

R$: I attended a Canadian Science Policy Conference panel in 2014 where you and former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna discussed the challenges facing Atlantic Canada’s weak innovation performance and the need for businesses to engage more in collaborations with academia. Two years later, are you more optimistic?

Risley: Yes I am. There are a number of things that are coming together to support a big picture opportunity in Atlantic Canada. One is this focus on ocean research—more than ever before—as an area with some very interesting commercial opportunities. You’ve got small countries like Iceland punching above their weight and you’ve got the Norwegians who have made enormous leaps and bounds in this area. It’s just amazing what the Norwegians, a community the size of Toronto, have been able to accomplish. All of the interesting technology that has grown the world’s aquaculture industry has come out of Norway. Norwegian commercial interests are present around the world—they’re here in Canada, the US and in South America. We don’t have to be the pioneers of that model. That model is alive and working incredibly well in other jurisdictions around the world.

Another reason is that the business community generally is more border agnostic than it ever has been in the past. If you were talking about doing something in Atlantic Canada 10 years ago you really had to rely on the Atlantic business community to be the initiators of whatever that initiative was. Today, if they don’t see the opportunity there are lots of other people around the world who will and they will come here.

Finally, the start-up community in the region is breathtaking. It’s awesome to see the successes and the financing that’s being attracted by really smart young people with some great ideas. What’s really encouraging is that it has happened without anything other than a generic focus. The start-up community here is not really built around any particular industrial focus. It’s all over the place.

So just imagine what would happen if we became really world-class in commercially interesting research of some sort or another. The idea of the Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI) is to focus on a couple of initiatives in the ocean sector that have real commercial prospects. The fact that the research is taking place here and it’s globally important and is being contributed to by global players is going to spawn a whole acceleration of the start-up community in Atlantic Canada.

R$: What are some of the business opportunities you see flowing from the OFI once it starts generating the type of research that’s expected?

Risley: Look at the Norwegian model. Going back more than 30 years ago, you had what was then a state-owned company that sponsored all the original research into salmon aquaculture. Out of that research the Norwegians built an industry which they took globally. Today, the farmed salmon industry is worth billions of dollars, and that was a result of the research that was done in Norway decades ago by a state-sponsored firm. My point is, provide the opportunities and the entrepreneurs will come. I’m a firm believer in build it and they will come.

R$: So it seems like the requisite components of a vibrant innovation ecosystem are starting to coalesce in the region?

Risley: Absolutely and it’s great to see.

Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.