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Exporting Canada's expertise in ocean science

First, Canada built the world’s most advanced subsea cabled observatories, resulting in an unprecedented flow of real-time data and images from the ocean floor. Then other coastal countries came calling to see how we did it. Ocean Networks Canada Innovation Centre (ONCIC) not only fields those calls, it is also assembling consortia of Canadian companies with the expertise and experience needed to build and maintain similar systems for a $3-billion global market projected to double in size in just a few years.

Canadian firms have already demonstrated their expertise in this field with the construction of the VENUS and NEPTUNE observatories, operated by Ocean Networks Canada (ONC), a consortium of universities and partners led by the University of Victoria. Turning these national facilities into global business opportunities for Canada is the job of ONCIC, an NCE Centre of Excellence for Commercialization and Research which was awarded a five-year $4.4 million funding extension in late 2013.

One of the ONC’s main equipment suppliers is among the firms poised to share in a round of international contracts currently being negotiated by ONCIC.

“ONCIC is helping us and other Canadian companies secure contracts in Canada and around the world,” says Derek White, General Manager of OceanWorks International, which employs about 75 people in Burnaby BC. “They qualify potential sales leads by working with groups to understand their timelines, budget constraints and technical requirements.”

In Canada, for example, ONCIC developed business plans, held a workshop to engage industry, and contributed to a proposal that secured $10 million in public and private sector funding for the Fundy Ocean Research Centre for Energy (FORCE), a not-for-profit Nova Scotia company that is studying the potential for tidal turbines in the Bay of Fundy and throughout the world. ONCIC also helped FORCE develop a sensor platform testbed for the Bay of Fundy in partnership with Canadian companies.

Connecting research with business

A recent report by the Council of Canadian Academies found Canada’s ocean technology sector has ample capacity to develop tools and technologies for advancing ocean science globally. The challenge, it notes, is for “ocean science to better align the research-driven technology development in the science sector with opportunities for commercial technology development, and to improve access to international markets for science instruments.”

This is exactly what ONCIC is doing, says centre director Scott McLean. The centre is working with some 30 Canadian companies to assemble a portfolio of sensors, infrastructure and analytics, branded Smart Ocean SystemsTM, that enable real-time detection of hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, storm surges, waves or currents. This one-stop shop approach reduces the cost and time required to build new ocean monitoring systems.

“Our extensive experience with established observatories allows us to bring immediate value to similar projects internationally, from initial feasibility through to design, installation and ongoing operation,” says McLean. “We set the stage for Canadian companies to work as a consortium to participate in projects that they would be unlikely to do on their own.”

The new contracts being finalized are just the beginning. ONCIC is setting its sights on over 33 projects internationally worth more than $3 billion, including systems used for research as well as shipping, and oil and gas exploration. Its goal over the next seven years is to ensure that at least $270 million of that business goes to Canadian companies.

“Their recent trade missions to Brazil, China, Europe and England have given us an opportunity to meet with a host of potential clients, which gives Canadian companies a real competitive advantage,” says White. “It is lead generation and marketing on a scale we could never do on our own.”

The 2013 visit with China resulted in an agreement to conduct collaborative research between ONC and China’s National Ocean Technology Centre and State Oceanic Administration. A joint science and technology workshop with Brazil in 2012 led to a follow up networking event in June 2013 in Victoria to establish a roadmap for further joint R&D and sharing of technologies and expertise. ONCIC is working with a number of groups in Brazil to develop research and industrial programs using Smart Ocean SystemsTM technologies.

“These are not just one-time missions,” says McLean. “We follow up with additional visits, qualify leads, establish collaborative projects and create long-term relationships. The client gets advanced technology and expert consulting from us, technology from our industry partners, and a project that saves their country millions of dollars. It’s a low risk solution for them.”