Canada’s Ocean Supercluster: Building the Ocean Economy


Matt Hebb

Among the five winners of the Trudeau government’s supercluster competition announced in February was an Oceans Supercluster. The Atlantic Canada-based consortium will use innovation to improve competitiveness in Canada’s ocean-based industries, including fisheries, oil and gas, and clean energy. 

Canada has more ocean resources than most countries. We have the longest coastline, the fourth largest ocean territory—including some of the world’s most productive waters—and the largest Arctic Ocean territory in the world. There are “built” advantages, too: global corporations operating in all major sectors of the ocean economy, ocean tech companies who are selling to the world, some of the world’s best ocean research universities, a modern navy, and substantial capabilities in federal departments and agencies.

The ocean economy comprises the combined activities in traditional sectors including conventional offshore oil and gas, shipping and port activities, capture fisheries and fish processing, inshore aquaculture, defense, shipbuilding and marine equipment, and marine tourism. It also includes activity in ocean science and technology, as well as emerging sectors like marine renewable energy, marine bio-products, offshore aquaculture, deep sea oil and gas, and ocean seafloor minerals. 

Demand for ocean resources and ocean know-how is growing all around the world. The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) projects that the world’s ocean economy will more than double in size by 2030 as a result of mega-trends like population growth, increased life expectancy, rising incomes and an increase in global trade. The impact of this growth on ocean value chains will be profound. Marine renewable energy is proliferating; deep and ultra-deep water oil and gas will grow from 3 per cent to 12 per cent of the global supply of crude within 20 years; already more than 90 per cent of all goods travel by water; and aquaculture—the fastest growing animal food-producing sector in the world—will surpass the global value of wild fisheries within five years.

One might reasonably assume, given all of this, that Canada enjoys great benefit from its ocean assets. But the truth is, we derive less value from the ocean than other nations. We’re not living up to our ocean-economy potential.

Norway has an economy that is about five times smaller than Canada’s, but its ocean economy is nearly seven times more valuable. Norway’s current national strategy suggests that some 25 per cent of its economy is connected to ocean activity. With per-capita GDP more than 50 per cent higher than Canada’s, it makes clear the ocean is capable of supporting high-value jobs and standards of living.

Only about 1 per cent of Canada’s economy is linked to ocean activity. True, Canada’s economy is more diversified than Norway’s, and also true that Norway has amassed the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund from its oil and gas resources. Nonetheless, it is evident that our ocean capacity is significantly under-valued. This presents an important opportunity that Canada can respond to through innovation, entrepreneurship, and collaboration.

Canada’s Ocean Supercluster (OSC) addresses this opportunity by doing two important things. First, it creates a platform for collaborative R&D based on shared industry challenges, which will result in the commercialization of innovative capabilities across different sectors of the ocean economy. This establishes market “pull” for ocean innovation. Second, it sets collaborations up for greater success by expanding the connections between ocean companies and the providers of innovative solutions. The aim is to foster innovation that responds to market demands but also pushes the limits of what is possible, or even imaginable.

There are at least two reasons why a cluster-based approach is particularly promising for Canada’s ocean industries. The first is that it is costly and complex to do anything in the ocean. Second, there is significantly less public investment in ocean infrastructure than there is in industries on land (e.g. roads, power grids, pipelines, fibre optic cable networks, cell towers, rail lines, etc.). The sharing of cost, experience and expertise, as well as the distribution of risk that comes from cluster-based partnerships, can significantly reduce barriers to innovation in ocean settings.

To give an example, all sectors in the ocean are united by the need for accurate, timely ocean ecosystem data. Marine weather, waves, current, temperature, the presence of animal life, and other key parameters are needed to predict working conditions, plan marine operations, and maintain the safety of personnel. Conversely, uncertainty about the ocean’s physical, chemical and biological parameters translates into increased operational costs and risks for ocean industries. 

Improving the ability to characterize and monitor the environment in a cost-effective, real-time manner will enable ocean industries to operate more productively and to better protect and sustain ocean resources. An objective of the Ocean Supercluster technology strategy will be to lower the cost of data acquisition while improving data access, timeliness, and quality. Reliable, cost-effective and scalable technologies for short- and long-range ocean monitoring, connected to real-time data integration and analysis, will provide a base of support for greater productivity and innovation across multiple sectors. 

Commercialization of these capabilities is expected to reflect the unique operating conditions of different sectors. The tidal energy sector, for example, must gather environment data through novel methods that account for unique site characteristics, such as poor visibility, very high currents, and environmental noise. For industries undertaking bioprospecting and sampling activity, challenging undersea terrain and difficult environmental conditions can affect access, sample and data quality, and confidence in results. 

Technology is necessary to develop modern, forward-thinking ocean policy and regulatory frameworks. The OSC will contribute to innovation on this front, for example, by advancing the ocean monitoring capability needed to enable ecosystem-based management approaches characterized by superior evidence-based decision making.

Ocean industry challenges will be tackled by innovation providers in areas including: environmental genomics, sensors, underwater communications, robotics and untethered maritime vehicles (UMVs), artificial intelligence, and data analytics. This will leverage the cutting-edge capabilities of Canada’s existing ocean tech SMEs, and also present opportunities for high-impact collaborations with other superclusters across the country.

In addition to a technology strategy, OSC also has a strategy to build the strength of the cluster itself—measured, broadly speaking, in terms of its capacity for innovation and for entrepreneurship. Perhaps nothing is more critical to that capacity than the ability of the OSC to develop and attract the world-leading talent needed to establish Canada’s smart ocean advantage. 

Cluster-building strategy will focus on the requirements of a modern, highly-skilled ocean workforce that is diverse and inclusive. For example, a global talent fund will support the collaborative efforts of industry members to attract the world’s best engineers, scientists, and ocean executives, while a program to extend work-integrated learning opportunities will connect ocean industries with students studying in Canadian universities and colleges. 

A key OSC objective is to create the conditions for more start-ups and scale-ups in the ocean economy. The OSC will work with partners, including incubators, accelerators, and venture capitalists, to support growth opportunities emerging from the technology program. In addition, an open-call program will provide seed funding for early stage development of potentially disruptive innovations that might not otherwise emerge within existing industries. 

Access to specialized design and fabrication equipment is a constraint facing smaller companies innovating in any sector. Ocean innovators of all sizes face increased cost and complexity trying to access ships, UMVs, marine heavy-lift equipment, computer lab infrastructure/computing resources, and waterfront facilities as they undertake technology demonstration and commercialization activity. The Ocean Supercluster will establish programs to support the costs of commercialization and technology transfer between sectors. It will also leverage significant assets like the Centre for Ocean Venture and Entrepreneurship (COVE) in Halifax, the Marine Institute in St. John’s, and National Research Council (NRC) facilities across Atlantic Canada, to provide waterfront access, specialized equipment, and the ecosystem benefits of co-locating with a critical mass of ocean innovators. 

The Ocean Supercluster will enable Canada to make better use of its considerable and currently under-valued, ocean assets. It positions our country to join the ranks of global leadership in ocean innovation and sustainable ocean industry. We think of this as a strategy to move ourselves to a technology-enabled, knowledge-based ocean economy, with the advantages and benefits associated with that—greater productivity and sustainable profitability, higher value employment, expanded global markets for both valued resources and IP-based products and services, and higher overall economic output, supporting higher standards of living.  


Matt Hebb is CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster. He is currently on a secondment from his role as AVP Government Relations & Economic Development at Dalhousie University.