Victoria wants to lead the blue economy — can a new accelerator help do so?
Leaders from the region’s oceantech ecosystem dig into what it takes to cultivate a world-class hub, including the launch of a new accelerator by COAST.
Good news: the value of the world’s ocean economy is set to reach three trillion dollars by 2030. Even better news: British Columbia borders the world’s largest ocean. The best news? For decades, innovation in the blue economy was led by Nordic countries, particularly Norway — but trailblazers in Victoria are working hard to develop B.C. into a world-class oceantech hub.
The province has been innovating in the oceans for a long time. “The very first electronic monitoring of a fishery, globally, happened here in British Columbia, in Prince Rupert, where they put cameras on board fishing vessels,” said Eric Enno Tamm, founder of This.Fish, a software company that automates supply-chain traceability for seafood processors. But despite this legacy of innovation, the community has continued to work in many silos while investors have perceived oceantech as risky, preventing accelerated development.
Leave it to the pandemic to drive forward changes already brewing under the surface, particularly in Victoria, where the economy, rooted in tourism, swiftly needed alternatives. “We were looking at — what are ways to accelerate our recovery? To move from relief, to recovery, and resilience,” said Emilie de Rosenroll, CEO of the South Island Prosperity Partnership and the Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies (COAST). In mulling over this question, de Rosenroll tapped into the local oceantech ecosystem and its strong historical presence in the region.
“What came to the front is that we really need a hub or a cluster kind of organization to be able to move things forward for the whole of British Columbia,” she said. This led to the launch of the COAST Venture Acceleration Program, in partnership with national leaders advancing ocean innovation across the country, such as the Ocean Supercluster and Ocean Networks Canada. “There's a lot of different innovators and cool companies out there, amazing research and development, but everyone was somewhat [...] spread out and in some silos, and so there's a clear kind of critical mass that could use some sort of centralized galvanizing force.”
Changing perceptions about the ocean industry
A number of local partners were interested in developing this central hub. Large companies and anchor institutions were looking for new innovation, while small companies and startups were looking for access to customers, resources, and investors. For the latter, aspiring oceantech ventures in B.C. were finding it difficult to scale their businesses, especially when it came to industry-specific support. While many oceantech founders have developed deep knowledge and passion for the oceans, the same can’t be said for investors and accelerators in the space.
Tamm, who was born and raised in Ucluelet and descended from generations of fishermen, found “a real misunderstanding about the ocean industries” among investors. “A lot of people just aren't that familiar with ocean-based industries [...] It appears to be a risky and scary place,” he said. He also expressed difficulty in finding appropriate spaces to build his oceantech company. “People have tried to recruit me into agtech accelerators — it's like, ‘Yeah, come to California, and we can hook you up with 50 potential farmers in the Salinas Valley.’ And I [thought] — well, to be honest with you, what's 50 farmers in the Salinas Valley going to do for me?”
Alexander Dungate, founder of OnDeck Fisheries AI, a startup that automates fishery monitoring, echoed these sentiments. “The world in general isn't exposed to the fishing industry and where their fish comes from,” he said. Dungate, who grew up boating between the Gulf Islands and Vancouver, recognizes that he has a different relationship with the oceans than his ecosystem of support does. “[It] has become kind of a pain for us when we're pitching and talking to investors or anything – we have to explain everything from ground zero.”
De Rosenroll reiterated this public perception of ocean industries. Ultimately, she hopes for the accelerator to change the narrative from one of a risky and uncertain industry to one that is a sound investment, even despite the macroeconomic trends. “It's actually a really good time for participating in the ocean economy,” she said. “The market might be looking like it's becoming recessionary: access to capital in some parts of the tech sector is harder than others. But in the ESG space, there's still tremendous opportunity [...] [The ocean sector] is a really good ESG investment, the returns on average are very good. The sector is growing way faster than most other sectors in the OECD.”
Labour is expensive, but innovation is priceless
Nonetheless, when it comes to bringing technology to a traditionally non-tech-savvy industry, the labour and talent to do so can be costly. According to WorkBC, the median salary for a software engineer in B.C. is just over $100K, while the median salary for a fisher hovers around $62K. So when many more millions of dollars in the sector are being raised elsewhere in the world — where labour is much cheaper, particularly in Asia — how can B.C. remain competitive?
One answer may be discovered in the areas of innovation that local founders are increasingly leaning into. Dungate, who is incorporating the use of AI into his company’s software, believes these advanced technology approaches are what sets his startup apart from others. “We're approaching the space like a fast and lean software startup,” he said, “which the industry has never seen.”
And even for companies that didn’t start out using advanced software tools, there still lies opportunity to transform. Tamm, for instance, saw a similar opportunity to keep his company competitive by growing from a “traditional SAAS company” to being “a data and AI company. “We're selling SAAS software and we're digitizing the global supply chain,” he said. “But, that's not going to be our long-term competitive advantage. I think it's really [about] extracting more value and more insights out of that data. “
The COAST accelerator doesn’t have a specific focus to scaling AI technologies in oceans, but de Rosenroll instead acknowledges and hopes to support the “two streams” of ocean innovation in B.C.: one working on light manufacturing and hardware, and the other on software and data. She believes the common, physical space that the accelerator can provide will be valuable for both streams — particularly when the need emerges to connect the remote world of technology with on-the-ground infrastructure.
For example, access to water is particularly important for hardware ventures. “They need abilities to have bay areas where they can bring in their sensor equipment or boats, and be able to get into the water quickly and test their products,” she said. Meanwhile, more software-focused ventures can benefit from direct access to markets and customers in the region. “The [COAST accelerator] hub itself is really going to form around physical space [...] we're able to really unlock a lot of potential value for companies by just bringing it all together into an ecosystem.”
For de Rosenroll, the accelerator could kick-start the long-brewing innovation in the sector. “We're just going to see the awakening of sleeping giants,” she said.