Ocean Supercluster aims to catalyze Canada’s ocean economy

Mark Lowey
October 24, 2018

Canada's Ocean Supercluster could galvanize a national strategy to obtain the full economic value of the country's under-developed ocean resource, says the chief executive of the supercluster.

Norway – with a population one-seventh the size of Canada’s – boasts an ocean economy worth approximately $130 billion annually, while Canada’s is worth $20 billion per year, says Matt Hebb, interim CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster based in Atlantic Canada.

“I don’t think the supercluster is necessarily the one to take on writing an ocean strategy, but the supercluster can certainly help to catalyze something like that for Canada. I think we’re compelled to do it as a country,” Hebb told RE$EARCH MONEY.

Canada has the longest coastline and fourth-largest ocean territory in the world, he says. “It’s a real untapped resource, for a country that’s got as much ocean as we do, to have only 1% of our national economy being derived from ocean activity when the global average is 3.5 %.”

Canada’s Ocean Supercluster’s founding partners visited Norway to study the design and function of several innovative ocean clusters. “They take a very integrated approach which involves government, industry and (academic) science all very much at the table, all very much engaged in sorting through goals set out on a long-term basis,” Hebb says. “Everybody is thinking forward 20 to 25 years about how does the regulatory environment need to evolve, how does the long-term research agenda need to be prioritized, and how do long-term business investment and forecasting need to line up. In Canada, we’ve got no ability to do that whatsoever.”

Yet with an integrative national strategy, “it’s entirely realistic” to think of doubling the current worth of Canada’s ocean resource to $40 billion annually, Hebb adds. “There are not a lot of segments of the Canadian economy where you’ve clearly got that kind of opportunity in front of you.”

Eliminating sector silos

Canada’s Ocean Supercluster will create a platform where companies across various sectors operating in the ocean can collaborate and co-invest in developing new capabilities for shared challenges. Given the nature of the ocean environment, doing innovation is costly, complex and risky, Hebb says. “By creating a cross-sectoral model for the distribution of risk and benefit in addressing those (challenges), the supercluster will hopefully create a climate where we can accelerate innovation.”

Many clusters in the world organize around a single sector or value chain, he notes. But Canada’s Ocean Supercluster is designed to eliminate sector silos and promote co-investment in solutions with multiple applications. “When you have downturns in particular markets, opportunities for lateral, cross-sectoral movement . . . create new opportunities that might otherwise be restricted in the economic cycles of a single value chain,” Hebb says.

The supercluster has secured Treasury Board approval for its operating framework. But like the country’s other four superclusters that will share up to $950 million over five years, a final contribution agreement with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada is still being negotiated. “We’re certainly going to push hard to try and get things concluded within this calendar (year),” Hebb says.

The supercluster’s top priority – which Hebb says is already starting to happen – is “to bring together leading industries within the major sectors of Canada’s ocean economy, to be increasing investment and co-investment in R&D to increase competitiveness and enhance productivity in these sectors.” They include ocean frontier oil and gas, marine renewable energy, capture fisheries, ocean aquaculture and marine bio-resources.

Digitalizing the ocean ecosystem

Canada’s Ocean Supercluster aims to create a digitalized ocean ecosystem, to shift from traditional “brawn-based industries to knowledge-based industries,” Hebb says. Partners have identified several areas of common interest, including “digital twin” technology (digital replicas of physical systems, processes, people and places that can be used for various purposes), genomics, unmanned vehicles, and environmental sensing and characterization. “Those will become pillars of a shared innovation roadmap which will advance specific project ideas,” he says.

Other plans include: encouraging more startups and scale-ups by creating a technology broker service linking small and medium-sized enterprises to larger anchor firms; forming a “global technical alliance” with international clusters; and establishing a “global talent fund” to attract the world’s best engineers, scientists and ocean executives.

Another important lesson learned from Norway, Hebb says, is that “it is absolutely critical” that innovation clusters be business-led and not encumbered by political forces. “Unless you’re able to make decisions that are driven by real market conditions, you’ll end up replicating other impulses toward technology push rather than market pull, and that will end up being a limiter on commercialization.”

At the end of the five-year funding agreement, Hebb wants the supercluster to have created real value for companies in the ocean sectors, and “to have demonstrated to Canada the genuine promise of the ocean economy for greater growth, sustainability and prosperity for the country.”

As interim CEO, Hebb was seconded from Dalhousie University where he is assistant vice-president, government relations. He returned to Dalhousie in November, now that inaugural CEO Kendra MacDonald has started in her role.

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