Roundtable on Innovation and Oceans


May 25, 2017 - St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador
Hosted by the Atlantic Growth Advisory Group

Area of Focus

To explore opportunities for the accelerated, collaborative and sustainable development of Atlantic Canada’s ocean resources, including the adoption of a more integrated cluster-oriented approach to the realization of the region’s broader ocean resource-related objectives.


Discussion focused on the strategic importance of AC’s ocean resources and their potential to enhance the region’s economic well-being. Participants reflected upon the recent collaborative success of key Atlantic institutions (Memorial University, Dalhousie University and UPEI) in leveraging significant public and private sector investment to support the work of the new Ocean Frontier Institute (OFI). They applauded the current private sector-led plan to advance a pan-Atlantic ocean industries-based proposal, under the Government of Canada’s (GoC’s) new Innovation Superclusters Initiative (ISI). They stressed the importance of industry and government working together to ensure the region’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are fully cognizant of the inherent opportunities associated with the ISI. Regardless of the outcome of the ISI process, participants stressed the need to address a number of key challenges and opportunities, including: the need for greater recognition of the ocean’s unique needs as a critical link in the global eco-system; the need for greater industry-relevant pan-Atlantic collaboration between institutions, governments and businesses; the need to address the lack of practical ocean industry experience among the region’s university graduates; the need to ensure the region’s youth (both indigenous and non-indigenous) are fully aware of the potential of their ocean resource to affect positive change for them and the communities in which they reside; and, the need for governments to do more to help ocean resource-based companies grow to scale, including the removal of any regulatory impediments to growth within the region and beyond.

Summary of Discussion & Considerations

The Importance of Ocean Resources: Ocean resources are central to Atlantic Canada’s future, and technology-driven innovation is critical to the success of the region’s ocean industries. Ocean mapping, remote sensing and robotics all represent key areas of strength, but data collection, analysis and dissemination may prove even more promising. Despite growing awareness of ocean resources as a key contributor to the Atlantic region’s Gross Domestic Product, data suggests young people have a relatively poor understanding of its full potential. Curriculum within the K-12 system and at the college and university level should address this imbalance.

Skills and Training: Colleges in the region have a good understanding of the needs of industry as it relates to skills and training. The region’s universities can learn from this experience, and both could benefit from a more cluster-based approach to industry needs. Hiring the next generation of ocean industry leaders can be particularly challenging. Companies are impressed by the intellect and professionalism of recent graduates, but note the lack of practical ocean industry experience. More cooperative educational programs would be beneficial.

The Link between Innovation, Growth and Exports: Some Atlantic Canadian ocean industries (e.g. renewable ocean energy) are already innovative by nature. If Atlantic Canada is to become globally competitive, however, more must be done to better refine systems and processes across a number of industry verticals. In the area of port infrastructure, for example, technology can help advance operational efficiencies and reduce costs (e.g. vessel fuel savings). Innovation is also critical to the development of a more vibrant and sustainable fishing industry. The fishing industry has typically relied upon Norway for its technology needs, but some integrated fish companies in the region are beginning to explore foreign markets for their own in-house innovations. Approached correctly, the region can be a technology provider to the international fishing community.

Getting Products to Market: Access to markets is directly linked to technology. The China market, for example, is focused on the direct-to-end user approach (rather than a regional distributor). Market success will increasingly depend on this capability. Less than container load (LCL) shipping capabilities is another problem. More should be done to facilitate consolidated shipments to ensure smaller SMEs have equitable access to container traffic, etc.

The Role of Start-ups: Atlantic Canada’s increasingly connected network of incubators, accelerators and innovation hubs, is becoming increasingly focused on Ocean Technology (OT). Toronto-based accelerators and venture capitalists are also looking east given the region’s increased emphasis on OT. This trend is expected to continue.

A More Cluster-driven Approach: Institutions, governments and businesses in Norway take a cluster-driven approach to the needs of their marine industry. Technological advances in one sector (e.g. oil and gas) are quickly applied to other sectors (e.g. aquaculture and transport). A downturn in one often results in a quick realignment to pursue opportunities in another.

An Emphasis on pan-Atlantic Institutional Collaboration: The region’s post-secondary institutions are aware of the need for greater pan-Atlantic collaboration. They feel, however, that government programs sometimes advocate a more competitive approach. Programs such as the GoC’s new ISI that incentivize collaboration are encouraging.

The Need for Scale: The market for ocean-related industries is not domestic, but international. In Atlantic Canada, there is too much separation between SMEs and the region’s major global companies and too much focus on “one-of” market applications. Efforts to mine post-secondary Intellectual Property or collaborate on research can be frustrating. A government program that helps companies manage these complex issues would be helpful. Enhanced industry-to-industry collaboration is also critical. For example, the PEI BioAlliance feels closer collaboration between the region’s biotech and fishing industries would help ensure fuller utilization of all marine resources (e.g. waste from shells, etc.).

A Role for Government: Government must be clear about its priorities. Jobs are important, but the emphasis should be on value creation and investment attraction. Also, the existence of four provincial regulatory regimes can be costly and impede business expansion. Greater alignment is needed.

A Holistic, Community Approach: A more business-like model for ocean industries cannot exclude communities. While communities work with ocean industry leaders to achieve what is needed, consideration must be paid to protecting what exists (e.g. community-based infrastructure, the skills and resourcefulness of the people, etc.). Indigenous communities are increasingly involved in OT (e.g. ice monitoring). They report increased interest among their youth in utilizing technology to address real-world issues (e.g. Arctic access and climate change). They can and do embrace technology (e.g. the use of drones to assess shoreline damage following a storm), but technology can never replace traditional knowledge. Native elders are storytellers. It is not just what they know, but how they know it. Firsthand observation is key to their “Indigenous knowledge system”.

The Bay of Fundy represents a microcosm of the region’s vast ocean resource, but the Bay’s limited footprint makes those who compete for its resources more mindful of the needs of others who live and work close by. By contrast, competing interests throughout the broader Atlantic region can sometimes fail to recognize that all parties are looking to the same ocean ecosystem.

Key Ideas

A cluster approach to greater pan-Atlantic collaboration: Greater engagement with the SME community is critical to ensuring the best possible result in the region’s pursuit of ocean-related supercluster status under the GoC’s ISI. An old-fashioned town hall could enhance awareness and understanding of the potential benefits of a pan-Atlantic, cluster-driven approach.

Awareness, Skills and Training: AC’s ocean resources are critical to the region’s future. More must be done to help the region’s youth (both Indigenous and non-Indigenous) recognize its full potential to facilitate positive change. More cooperative educational programs would help university graduates better prepare for the unique demands of an ocean-industries career.

A Role for Government: Regardless of the outcome of the region’s pending ocean resource-based ISI bid, government should work with industry and others to remove any existing impediments (e.g. regulatory and/or administrative) to enhanced innovation and growth, and incentivize greater pan-Atlantic collaboration and partnership between all stakeholders.

Date modified: