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‘There's definitely a lot of momentum and we're running with it.’ - How COAST seeks to take oceantech to the next level

The Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies is building an innovation hub on Vancouver Island to support B.C.’s burgeoning bluetech businesses.

Picture this. After you get dressed in the latest styles from an outfit-as-a-service startup, you take a fresh loaf of bread out of the oven you rented. Over lunch, you purchase a replacement solar panel, read about an influx of CEOs from Syria, and check Craigslist for apartments on Mars. After lunch, you hop on a virtual call with a doctor so they can answer a few questions you had about your new, bioprinted kidney.

If this all sounds a bit science fiction, that’s because it is. These concepts were taken from a series of predictions that World Economic Forum experts made for our world in 2030. If you were to do the same exercise for the oceantech space, that year in the future might look like a thriving, physical space for the Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies, or COAST: a burgeoning innovation hub on Vancouver Island that seeks to empower innovators in the space.

COAST continues to ask itself that very question. “What will Pacific Canada’s ocean economy look like in 2030?” has prime real estate near the “become a member” call-to-action button on the organization’s landing page. So, when 2030 finally arrives, what will the year bring? A multi-trillion dollar industry, if you ask the organization’s CEO Emilie de Rosenroll. “The blue economy has this massive global opportunity. We’re going to $3 trillion by 2030. So doubling from 2010, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s data. It's huge,” she details.

After a decade-and-a half in business and economic development, de Rosenroll would know. She was born in Victoria but moved away from the city with her family when she was two weeks old. In a full-circle moment, she returned to B.C.’s capital when her first child was three weeks old. De Rosenroll didn’t think that she would get another job in her field after working in economic development on Canada’s opposite coast in Nova Scotia. It turned out that a local organization was recruiting for a similar position to her previous role, this one with the South Island Prosperity Partnership. She was hired as founding CEO. In the position, de Rosenroll oversaw the development of COAST and now acts in a double role as CEO of both organizations.

Emilie de Rosenroll

COAST CEO Emilie de Rosenroll

Personally, I first became aware of COAST this time last year. Setting off to write one feature for World Oceans Day, I accidentally (on purpose) wrote four. One was on Open Ocean Robotics, a Victoria company that — simply put — is crafting ocean drones. Julie Angus, the company’s co-founder and CEO, told me of the origins and her early involvement with COAST.

Angus attributes the vision for an ocean hub to Victoria mayor, Lisa Helps. After receiving an invite to the first stakeholder meeting for the potential organization, Angus was hooked. She joined the initial advisory board for what would become COAST, and is still there today. Angus, like de Rosenroll, had spent time in Atlantic Canada, when Open Ocean Robotics featured in the ocean stream of accelerator Creative Destruction Labs in Nova Scotia.

“We're at a stage right now where there's much more focus on oceans than there has been historically,” Angus says. “We want to take advantage of that awareness and the opportunity to drive growth. And to get people excited. We want to have more people enter the ocean economy, we want to have more diversity, we want to have people look at this as a great career for them. There's so much opportunity here. We want to be able to maximize that for our community, for our country, and for the environment.”

For her, the experience highlighted that Pacific Canada should have similar initiatives, citing the profound ocean ecosystem of B.C. As the existence of COAST indicates, Angus was not alone in this thinking. The organization was driven by industry demand. When the pandemic hit, an economic-recovery strategy led to the development of an industry working group: the Ocean Marine Committee. They found that out of its top objectives, the key piece was the development of an innovation hub. A feeling emerged amongst various groups — oceantech innovators, academics, traditional industry leaders — that they all felt siloed. A central, galvanizing force was needed.

De Rosenroll also experienced that disparity between the east and west coasts of Canada. “It's funny — in British Columbia, we don't really have the mindset of oceans being a huge part of our economy the way that they do in Atlantic Canada. It’s ironic because we actually have the longest coastline in the country and [the sector] is actually close to 10 percent of our economy by GDP. Also, Vancouver Island itself has about 75 percent of the marine industry for the whole of British Columbia. It’s something right underneath our noses that we probably take for granted,” she says.

De Rosenroll compares Canada to another country defined by its coastlines: Norway. The Scandinavian nation has a massive ocean economy that makes up about 25 percent of its GDP, de Rosenroll tells me. In addition, the Norwegians have also crafted dozens of clusters that are focused on areas of innovation like oceantech and cleantech. And specifically, how those innovation sectors can advance their predecessors of the marine and energy sectors respectively. “In B.C., we're definitely well-poised to, I think, leapfrog ahead once we understand the market opportunities for a lot of our existing technologies, but in the ocean space,” de Rosenroll notes.

To facilitate the growth of COAST, a host of areas are needed for support. The groups both Angus and De Rosenroll cited stretch from government — Environment Canada, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Ocean Networks Canada — to academic institutions like the University of Victoria and Indigenous communities. Major industrial players like Babcock Canada or Seaspan are in that same boat for COAST. All must come together to power the space.

“The ocean economy has tremendous potential and will play an important role in protecting our oceans and combat a lot of the challenges associated with climate change,” Angus says. “Canada should be a global leader. We have innovative companies, we have incredible government institutions, and we have the business acumen. The future is very exciting.”

Bringing together people from different areas to a common goal is in the DNA of both organizations de Rosenroll helms. South Island Prosperity Partnership, for example, has over 70 members from varying sectors: post-secondary, municipal governments, the provincial government, industry, and non-profits.

“Innovation is something that is often thought of as technology, but it's really not only technology,” de Rosenroll points out. “You can think about innovation as something that you need across all sectors of your economy. We need to see more across everything from ocean conservation, to the pandemic, to traditional brick-and-mortar industries. For us, it’s natural to be able to promote ecosystems, develop ecosystems, bring together partners, and show where there's alignment — particularly public-sector and private-sector alignment.”

One such area where there’s alignment? B.C.’s new economic plan. The economic roadmap was released last February and drew acclaim from COAST. The organization issued a statement to that effect later that month.

When chatting with de Rosenroll about this, she affirmed her organization’s support of the plan, while also conceding that the roadmap had the energy of a TV show that concluded a thrilling episode with a screen reading “to be continued.” “What we're doing is 100 percent aligned to the B.C. economic plan. Their focus on oceans is emerging with a new department under [minister of land, water and resource stewardship, and minister responsible for fisheries] Josie Osborne. It'll be interesting to see innovation as a focal area for economic development. But, they're sort of discovering right now what the strategy will be. It’s left in the plan like a dot, dot, dot — to be determined,” she says.

In the meantime, COAST is looking to the future. And that future is physical. While innovation hubs that are sector-agnostic could play an important role in allowing innovators to rub shoulders and make connections, COAST’s vision for their space could serve as a model for sector-specific spaces. Bluetech. Aquatech. Watertech. Oceantech. No matter what you call it, they all need a place to converge. Enter a physical space for COAST.

In clamouring for that location, COAST has a unique shopping list straight out of an episode of House Hunters: waterfront real estate. To truly support the innovators in their sphere, the organization seeks to offer a locale that allows for testing. Since space is always at a premium, this is an added wrinkle and an opportunity.

“A big part of what we're doing is bringing together the ecosystem,” de Rosenroll says. “There’s a lot of demand for finding a home for COAST where we can put together a sort of makerspace with water and deep water access. We want companies, for whom it might be very expensive or very difficult, to gain access to the water and test their products. In the next 12 months that’ll be big — finding a home for COAST. There's definitely a lot of momentum and we're running with it.”