Over the (sea) wall

Over the (sea) wall

Nova Scotia’s Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship is a safe harbour for people, ideas, industry and research. Prepared to be wowed.

On a grey and blustery late-October afternoon on the Dartmouth waterfront, the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE) is uncharacteristically quiet. Spread over two buildings and eight acres in a former federal Coast Guard facility on Halifax Harbour, COVE’s 26,000 square feet of office, meeting and incubation space, as well as its 16,500 square feet of machine shop and laboratory facilities, are empty save for a few tinkerers. Its waterfront, equipped with two finger piers, and typically humming with small craft and R&D work, is also still.

It’s not the ideal way to get a feel for the facility, but there’s a good reason for the subdued atmosphere: many of the facility’s 60 tenants are in Seattle for the OCEANS conference, a bi-annual gathering of entrepreneurs, engineers, students, government officials and others in the ocean-tech universe, held by the Washington, D.C.-based Marine Technology Society (MTS). A few days later, COVE’s tenants returned home bearing the MTS Compass International Award for “outstanding contributions to the advancement of marine science and technology”—a nice feather in COVE’s cap after only a year-and-a-half in operation. It was also a vote of confidence in the vision put forth by Jim Hanlon, COVE’s CEO: to build in Nova Scotia the kind of ocean economy found in other coastal jurisdictions, from California to Norway, where incubators and accelerators such as Oslo’s Katapult Ocean are actively laying the groundwork for the next generation of ocean-tech giants.

According to chief operating officer Sheila Paterson, however, COVE isn’t exactly an incubator or accelerator—it’s a not-for-profit research hub housing businesses ranging from startups to multinationals like IBM and Lockheed Martin. The idea is to create a place where businesses and researchers involved in the ocean sector can strike up new ideas and collaborate to commercialize existing and new technologies.

The resource sector is especially well-represented here, from offshore oil and gas to fisheries to wind energy, as well as companies providing support services such as acoustic monitoring, marine robotics and marine-safety services. The majority of its 60 tenants are involved in some way with the resource sector—some tangentially, some first-and-foremost.

Hanlon, formerly CEO of the Institute for Ocean Research Enterprise, was one of the project’s first proponents, along with Waterfront Development Corp. CEO Colin MacLean. The Waterfront Development Corp. (since renamed Develop Nova Scotia) purchased the land and buildings in 2015, and the provincial and federal governments announced joint funding in 2016, worth $19.7 million, to refurbish the 60-year-old former Coast Guard facility, while leaving intact a few bits of old character hearkening to its original use, like a winch hanging from a stairwell ceiling.

Subsequent funding has come from Irving Shipbuilding, in the form of a five-year, $4.52 million commitment announced in 2017. The investment was part of a stipulation under the National Shipbuilding Strategy requiring Irving to reinvest some of its contractual revenues, but Irving Shipbuilding president Kevin McCoy predicted at the time that the centre would become “one of the world’s most innovative ocean-technology incubators”—no small thing for Irving to have in its backyard.

“I wish we could replicate this where I am in Newfoundland and Labrador,” says Shelly Petten, marketing and communications manager with PanGeo Subsea, a COVE tenant. Founded in 2006 in St. John’s, PanGeo specializes in high-resolution 3D-acoustic imaging to help clients see underneath the seabed to identify hazards that would interfere with infrastructure.

“It’s having an amplifying effect for the whole ocean tech sector in the region,” says Petten. “You may live in the same town and operate the same industry, but very often you won’t know what people are really doing unless you go looking for them. Here that becomes effortless.”

PanGeo became involved with COVE after Petten attended a meeting related to the federal government’s Ocean Supercluster, one of Canada’s five federally supported “innovation superclusters”, launched in 2018 to bring together private, public and academic partners. She went for a 90-minute tour, and recalls a tangible sense of camaraderie and collaboration. Not long after, an employee in St. John’s told Petten that he was thinking about moving to Nova Scotia. He soon became PanGeo’s representative at COVE.

Ashored is focused on improving the sustainability of the commercial fishery through the development of user-friendly and purpose-built innovations. They are currently developing a bottom-bound ropeless fishing system to minimize the risk of whale entanglements and trap loss/damage, while allowing fishers to fish in zones closed to fixed fishing gear.

While most competitors merely image the seafloor, PanGeo images what lies beneath, from geological hazards to buried objects. Originally developed for oil-and-gas, PanGeo broadened its focus after 2014’s oil-price crash to find new markets in offshore wind, working with companies looking to site offshore turbines—their recent work has included identifying some of the 50 million unexploded, second-world-war-era mines in the North Sea off the coast of Scotland.

Offshore wind is the bulk of the company’s business right now, and the vast majority is export-driven, making COVE’s coastal Nova Scotia location all the more valuable.

“Our products are large, and getting access to supply chains is difficult in a small province like Newfoundland up in the middle of the North Atlantic,” says Petten. “And we’re doing an expansion in the U.S. now, so having that presence in Halifax gives us an ability to lower transportation costs, and we get better mainland access to the U.S. too.”

PanGeo has also struck up collaborations with COVE neighbours, including Dartmouth Ocean Tech and MacArtney Underwater Technology, both of whom worked on servicing and repairing PanGeo’s machinery. “The access to these companies, we couldn’t put a price on,” says Petten. “And there’s no need to force them, they just happen naturally.”

For XEOS Technologies Inc., based largely in Dartmouth’s Burnside Industrial Park but with an office at COVE, one of the main attractions was the latter’s pre-confederation water lot—an oddly shaped 13 acres extending from the surface to the seabed. (Prior to confederation, some water lots were granted to property owners, and were grandfathered in post-confederation. That means COVE tenants can, subject to safety and environmental regulations, put whatever they want into the water for R & D purposes.)

“That’s definitely in our top-five reasons for getting to COVE,” says XEOS president and CEO Derek Inglis. “You can put things in the water here you wouldn’t elsewhere.”

XEOS company creates telemetry and tracking systems used by scientists and private companies, including oil-and-gas companies. “Anybody puts an asset into the water like a buoy or an above-water asset, they want a tracker to see if it’s drifting away or lost or stolen,” says Inglis. That product line has grown to include trackers that can drift on the ocean’s surface to monitor currents and oil spills, as well as sensors used by offshore oil and gas companies to measure wave heights to ensure their platforms and various vessels can interact safely. “As waves get larger and larger, you can’t climb on other vessels or aboard your platforms, so waves and weather are on these folks’ minds constantly,” says Inglis.

As is the wellbeing of assets such as pipelines. Another COVE tenant, Turbulent Research, has recently made a name for itself with a unique product line for the oil and gas sector called “Trident.” It includes devices that can be embedded in a pipeline inspection gauge, or PIG, as it moves through and cleans a pipeline. “They’re loaded with sensors and data-logging devices,” says Turbulent president Chris Loadman. “They’re used to determine defects in pipelines, obstructions and how well they clean and that. We also make a whole list of products like receivers that sit on the seabed and monitor whatever passes by the pipeline.”

The products were unique enough that its largest customer, UK-based Propipe, last year acquired a majority of Turbulent’s shares. And this year, Turbulent began taking part in the first project approved by Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, called OceanVision, a three-year, $20 million project intended to developed underwear data acquisition and analytics, including seafloor imaging and mapping. That project is led by Kraken Robotics, a Newfoundland and Labrador-based company (and another COVE tenant) for which Turbulent is a supplier.

Turbulent’s presence at COVE is in part thanks to Jim Hanlon’s proselytizing—both he and Loadman worked together years ago. “He did a good job of selling us on the value of this place, the synergy with other companies orthogonal to what we’re doing. And there are lots of young people here, especially, from NSCC or new grads from Dal constantly, and we’ve hired some of them.”

This August, NSCC (Nova Scotia Community College) launched its Sensing, Engineering and Analytics-Technology Access Centre (SEA-TAC), co-located both at its waterfront Ivany campus and at COVE—which happen to be essentially next door to one another. The idea is to provide companies at COVE with access to the technology and applied research underway at NSCC, and get students in front of those same companies.

Fisheries and aquaculture are well-represented here as well. Ashored is a small startup designing ropeless fishing systems, to help the fishing industry reduce gear loss and prevent wildlife entanglement. Sedna Technologies, founded by former fisherman Sheamus MacDonald, has developed a data-management and traceability system providing “catch-to-plate” accountability which allows buyers to track exactly where products were caught and how. It tracks the length of time a product is in transit, its condition and temperature and “assures buyers they have a quality and ethically-sourced product,” according to MacDonald. For fishermen, Sedna also produces a mobile inventory-management app as an alternative to paper logbooks.

“As a startup,” says MacDonald, “being part of COVE has really given clients trust that we have a value proposition to offer. It’s been invaluable.”

According to Sheila Paterson, COVE has already become a go-to spot in Nova Scotia for those who want to touch base with the local ocean-tech sector, a sort of one-stop shop that simply didn’t exist until last year. The Ocean Supercluster opened an office at COVE late last year to exploit that advantage, and the facility has begun to earn notice outside of Canada.

“This summer, we had a research vessel from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Okeanos Explorer, in Halifax,” says Paterson. “They pulled up to one of our wharves here, and the captain and crew disembarked, came to a networking event and then spent half a day touring the facility talking to tenants about seabed exploration, ecology, deepwater work.”

Before COVE, there would have been nowhere for out-of-town researchers, government agencies and resource companies to drop into to get a sense of the breadth and diversity of the region’s ocean-tech companies, she says. “It really drove home what a magnet this can be, and the opportunities it can open up.” •

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