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Thor Sigfusson
Founder & Chairman - Iceland Ocean Cluster

Iceland Ocean Cluster: Lessons For Canada

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Takeaways

  1. The fisheries sector in Canada needs to support its startup ecosystem and entrepreneurs to develop species-specific technologies and test new products.
  2. The Canadian fisheries industry needs to look at the whole fish and fish byproducts so that markets can develop from the 100% utilization of the resource.
  3. The largest benefit of the ocean supercluster is the collaborations that form across industries, sectors, and cities, and Canada would do well at fostering those collaborations.

Action

The Canadian ocean economy needs to focus on telling its success stories to help inspire new entrepreneurs, fishermen and regular Canadians. Canada’s Ocean Supercluster should engage with media and social media to inspire a movement around the fisheries industry.


From what you know of Canada’s fisheries and overall ocean economy, what do you identify as some of our strengths and weaknesses? What do you see as some of our biggest opportunities and threats?

That is a big question, but I will try to answer. Actually, Iceland has all kinds of connections with Canada for over nearly seven or eight years, and it has been absolutely great. Canada in many ways, when compared to Iceland, is a superpower. You are rich with resources and now, with the superclusters, the government is doing quite well with the strategy behind the innovative work ahead.

“There is probably a lack of leadership from the business side in the innovation needed for the seafood sector.”

What I am a little worried about is that in most cases, I meet great people at organizations and institutions, but I rarely meet fishermen or seafood people who are entrepreneurs in my sector which supports the seafood ocean space—and it worries me a bit. I am sometimes wondering if that is a weakness. There is probably a lack of leadership from the business side in the innovation needed for the seafood sector.

Once again, keep in mind that I am not talking about the whole ocean sector—I see you have so many interesting high-tech concepts there—but in terms of the seafood sector, this might be one of the weaknesses.


What do you think we have to prioritize right now and who has to take the lead to build on those strengths and weaknesses going forward?

What we did in the beginning with the Iceland Ocean Cluster (IOC), which is now nearly 10 years old, is basically start to tell stories. What is so amazing is that the ocean is so often forgotten that we feel there was this need to tell the success stories. As soon as we started to create our own success stories, we got the media and social media involved as well. That is a very big part of the whole thing—to inspire the whole nation—and allow me to be a little bit pompous, but I think we did it. Of course, we have a small country, but we were showing examples of what we were doing and how we could do it, and we were able to inspire people through that. I think that is one thing.

As I see it, Canada’s Ocean Supercluster is actually taking fairly sensible steps to begin with. They are emphasizing startups, which I like; they are emphasizing large collaboration projects, which I think is also very sensible. The good thing about the Iceland Ocean Cluster is that coming from a small country, we could also emphasize small, low hanging fruits in local areas and fishing villages, and I think it is very important that this sort of trickles down not only into these large, global or national themes, but rather try to find ways to do it more in the coastal areas.

“We need more trust especially in a natural resource industry like ours, where we tend to have people that are keeping these resources for themselves.”

Our success also comes partly from the fact that we have lots of government grants, competitive grants, and they in a sense have actually led to more collaborations between companies, startups and research and development (R&D). These collaborations have become similar to small clusters and people that I thought would never collaborate with others, as soon as the government said they are willing to grant you money if you collaborate with others and look at the bigger picture, they started to collaborate. It comes down to trust. The trust is the key here. We need more trust especially in a natural resource industry like ours, where we tend to have people that are keeping these resources for themselves.


What changes in thinking or in practice do you think should be implemented and what must a country like Canada do to achieve the goal of adding more value to its resources?

What has been very valuable for us at the Iceland Ocean Cluster is to start talking in the same terms as the business world. Sometimes I felt when we started the cluster there was researchers who were a bit separated from the industry and they were talking a bit differently, so we thought it was really important to bring out the message of how this could actually become a real business.

I often take the fish skin economy in Iceland as an example. This is an economy that did not exist 15 or 20 years ago; there was zero value from the fish skin. We are now at nearly $30 million in value just from the fish skin of the cod. It shows the value that we have in the proteins of the oceans, that sometimes we are kind of blind to ourselves.

“This is an economy that did not exist 15 or 20 years ago; there was zero value from the fish skin. We are now at nearly $30 million in value just from the fish skin of the cod.”

I have here just one example. This is basically fish leather. This has actually been developed in Iceland and now this fish skin is actually worth around $8 to $10 apiece, which is similar to the fillet. So suddenly, we have a leather piece of fish skin; it is actually creating similar value as the fillet itself.

Then we had other products that are coming from Iceland right now. This is basically the fish collagen. We are now setting up a factory that is going to do 3,000 metric tons of fish skin. Basically, collagen is just a powder, which is good for your joints, and this is actually going to be 300 metric tons made in Iceland worth around $20 per kilo in bulk and probably $70 to $100 in retail. Once again, remember this is a product that did not exist, and this was mostly used for dumpsites in Iceland in the past. It was waste. Now, actually, sadly, still in many countries including Canada, it is not used that much.

“We are not throwing this marvelous protein away; we are actually creating jobs and interesting products domestically.”

One of the most popular drinks in Iceland now is actually an alternative drink called Collab. It is a soda drink with fish in it. It may be that Iceland is weird with the whole fish thing, but it tastes great and the fact is we are creating jobs with it as well. We are not throwing this marvelous protein away; we are actually creating jobs and interesting products domestically.

Finally, I would like to touch on wound care. This is basically from the fish skin—it is wound care for the medical sector. The largest pieces of fish skin used for this wound care in hospitals are worth around $2,000 apiece. So suddenly we are realizing only with the fish skin that we can create jobs and value.

We have lots of research to be done in this area but at least we know there are opportunities and we should not forget that we are talking about the most sustainable, traceable and natural proteins in the world, and we are still putting them in large numbers in the dumpsites in these countries. That is the sad part. The great part is of course we can change this. It does take a lot of effort to use the whole value chain to do so, but we can do it.

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How can Canada think broader than just one species, usually cod, and think about species-specific technologies and applications to develop the various fisheries on all of our coasts?

This has to do very much with fisheries management, and I am not sure how to answer it with regards to Canada. But it is very important to keep in mind that there are new resources coming in—sometimes invasive species—so there needs to be a lot of research being done. I know research is heavy on this in Canada as well.

To follow that, we need the entrepreneurs to test new products and test new fisheries. Often, these are the small fisheries that are more hands on. In Iceland for instance, we have much fewer crustacean shells than you have, especially in the areas that entrepreneurs in small fisheries are entering.

“What we are seeing is that some species are now being caught due to the fact that when you look at the whole fish, there is more value in it than if you would just take the small fillet and throw out the rest.”

The other point that I want to make is actually the fact that as soon as you get more demand for the by-products of certain fish, you might actually see more interest in certain fish that are not being caught right now. It might be the roe of a certain species that has a very small fillet; it might actually be the fish skin as well. As soon as we emphasize further the 100% utilization, we get this movement going—and I think that is what has happened in Iceland. In some cases what we are seeing is that some species are now being caught due to the fact that when you look at the whole fish, there is more value in it than if you would just take the small fillet and throw out the rest.


What would be your recommendations to the leaders of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster in order to build a strong ocean economy in the short, medium- and in the long-term?

I would emphasize telling the stories. I would emphasize a good ecosystem. Take the whole ecosystem and look at it as a whole and try to work with that. It is important to understand that the fisherman will never become the pharmacists, so you need to bring in new people. The fisherman will love that because they sometimes worry that something like nutraceutical industry is a completely different cup of tea than fishing for years, which they have done really well at. You need to bring in new people.

“I would emphasize telling the stories. I would emphasize a good ecosystem.”

That is the beauty of the cluster as well, and I found that to be the most important part of the cluster: to nurture collaboration and being the matchmaker between different parts.

We need a dynamic startup community, and we are really pleased to see that in various cities now around Canada. I know mainly the East Coast where they have now started communities and startups are being created. I was in Halifax the other day, and I see a lot of dynamism in that area, and I could go further north, et cetera. You have so many of the elements that are needed, and you absolutely have to go out and tell people about the successes you are having and how this is changing the whole ocean economy.

Finally, never lose sight of the fact that the cluster will never be stronger than the leaders that are with you, and clusters will never become a government institution. They should never become one, because they need to have this urge to connect people. I have nothing against government institutions, but the fact is this is different. We need business leaders; we need leaders from the startup community to get together with research institutions and governments—but keep the leadership position of the cluster clear. If you do, you keep the dynamism.

“The cluster will never be stronger than the leaders that are with you, and clusters will never become a government institution.”

I am sometimes asked how my mission became what it is, and what we do on a daily basis. I do not come up with the ideas, they basically come from the grassroots ecosystem, from the business world and from the start-up community. It is very important that the cluster develop from the bottom up, rather than the top down.

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Thor Sigfusson
Founder & Chairman - Iceland Ocean Cluster

Bio: Thor Sigfusson is an Icelandic entrepreneur, author and speaker, and the Chairman and Founder of the Iceland Ocean Cluster. He is also the co-founder of Colland, Hlemmur Food Hall and Gradi Food Hall. He has written eight books on topics of international business, knowledge networks and salmon.

 

Organization Profile: The Iceland Ocean Cluster Is designed to create value by connecting entrepreneurs, businesses and knowledge in the marine industries. It provides a range of services and invests its resources in new marine spin-offs and projects.