- The innovation ecosystem in St. John’s is nurtured by government, academic and research institutions, and private companies all working together.
- With its small size, researchers and businesses in St. John’s ocean industries can quickly access resources and facilities for their work.
- With strong academic programs catering to the ocean industries, there is no shortage of talent in St. John’s.
St. John’s has set up an ideal ecosystem for innovation and research in the ocean industries. Local academic institutions play a significant role in supplying and attracting talent, and the ubiquity of research facilities allows both entrepreneurs and academics to create world-leading innovations in the field.
What does the NRC’s Ocean, Coastal, and River Engineering Research Centre seek to achieve in St. John’s?
Our research centre and what it delivers for Canada are very broad and important. It is going to be increasingly more important in the coming years. We are not just researchers that study water, we also study its impact on our lives, how we can protect ourselves against it, and how we can use it to our advantage. Flooding, erosion, storms, waves, infrastructure, ice, the Arctic, pollution, and microplastics are part of the world that we are playing in and that world is changing quickly. The effects of climate change are drastic for our water bodies. We need to find a sustainable way forward to build a resilient marine environment in Canada.
“The effects of climate change are drastic for our water bodies. We need to find a sustainable way forward to build a resilient marine environment in Canada.”
Our researchers are leaders in studying ships. In the Canadian context that would mean ships and icebreakers. We make ships more efficient, safer, and quieter. We are world leaders in navigation in harsh environments and we are working on ways to improve future ship designs and offshore autonomy. In a nutshell, you can think of us as Canada’s research centre of expertise in marine safety and performance. We are looking at the effects of ice and waves on ships, structures, and shorelines. We also develop and evaluate tools and technologies for harsh marine environments. We use numerical modelling tools, field investigation, and world-class model test facilities.
For example, we have tested the performance of every offshore platform in Canada in our facility and we work closely with the Coast Guard, Department of National Defence, Transport Canada, international companies, and local small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to make our offshore operations safe. That is what we are here for. We work with the fishing industry as well and I foresee us working on any technology that needs to brave Canada’s, and especially Newfoundland and Labrador’s, harsh marine environment.
What are St. John’s competitive advantages in the ocean economy and why did NRC choose to establish its centre there?
People in Newfoundland and Labrador have an intimate relationship and healthy respect for the ocean. Just about everything in our lives is affected by it, whether it is fog or supply chain issues. Many people earn their living from the ocean; it is just a part of who we are. In St. John’s, there is an ecosystem that nurtures the ocean economy. This includes things like training. Our university has the best ocean engineering program in North America. The Marine Institute is world-renowned for education and training in applied research and industrial support for the ocean industries. On top the training, within a two-minute drive of each other we have the most comprehensive and leading-edge ocean research facilities in the world. Most importantly, we have an emerging entrepreneurial spirit in the community. That community has access to the best expertise in ocean research in the world.
What differentiates St. John’s ocean tech ecosystem from others?
There has been a lot of ocean technology innovation in St. John’s over the years. This was propelled by the university and the National Research Council being here. In St. John’s, there are R&D requirements mandated into the Atlantic Accord for any offshore oil and gas platform. There was a consistent stream of research in offshore safety and oil and gas for a number of years. With new initiatives like the Ocean Supercluster and its focus on commercialization, we are starting to see companies and products emerge from some pretty great innovative companies. We have to keep in mind that there is a spectrum. It is important to nurture innovation right from training to early-stage R&D and then commercialization. What separates us from other jurisdictions is that St. John’s has a strong foundation with ocean technology, bolstered by our ecosystem of cradle-to-grave type expertise.
Which areas of the ocean economy is St. John’s particularly competitive in?
The thing that is getting a lot of media attention now is the great work that some of our local companies are doing in remote sensing. We also have companies that spun out of oil and gas and are now pivoting towards new markets as well as a number of companies working in more traditional fields like shipbuilding and fishing. They are moving those fields forward by creating innovative and niche areas of expertise. When it comes to anything to do with ice and icebergs, we are world leaders in that, and that has come from having to operate a lot of these big oil and gas fields in that environment. Because of that, a great set of companies and expertise has emerged in simulating, training, and testing sensor development and ocean observation.
What is the availability of talent for the ocean economy in St. John’s?
Fortunately, we have great training schools and a lot of people have chosen to stay in Newfoundland and Labrador to apply their knowledge and raise their families. There are a lot of advantages to living in Newfoundland and Labrador and that is one of our competitive advantages. We cannot rely on that though, so we also have to make sure that we continue to provide an environment where people have access to great facilities, minds, and opportunities. This comes down to the whole ecosystem. Someone not from here might not understand how all these pieces fit together. Sometimes, we do not do a great job in working together to show that we are so much greater than the sum of our parts. We need to work collaboratively to show this. The universities, NRC, and the local R&D community in St. John’s need to position ourselves as an accessible support system to help drive that innovation.
How do you see the ocean economy in St. John’s evolving in the coming years?
The big thing that we are hearing now is the green side of things. This means making ships greener and more efficient in general. The digitization piece is really starting to emerge and I do not just mean digitizing ships, but also digitizing ports and looking at intermodal transportation. This involves understanding how that works, how to work out the logistics of container ships when they come into a port, and how to connect them with the trucking industry. This will need an integration of all these industries but it can only happen through digitization.
There is also the idea of remote or autonomous operations. This will not happen in the next year but it is something we are working on. Just like Google cars and that sort of thing, we are starting to explore the idea of autonomous ships—how they look, how they work, and how they interact with ports. We are also trying to get people from offshore back to shore. We need to figure out if we will have control centres where workers operate these facilities remotely and how to achieve that. Those are the questions that we are tackling now and where the sector is going.
“St. John’s has an entire ecosystem from talent development right up to expertise, facilities, innovation, and a support structure that makes everything work.”
We have a very knowledgeable and educated workforce that has world-leading expertise. This can be extended to other industries as well. We have done it in oil and gas and been successful, but now we have to show that we are flexible in new ways of operating. Looking at remote operations and digitization, we have to ask how all that becomes an interesting place for someone to come and try something different. Maybe we can be a pilot or the first in the world at doing some of these things, but it will come down to how flexible we are. First, we must show that we are flexible but also that St. John’s has an entire ecosystem from talent development right up to expertise, facilities, innovation, and a support structure that makes everything work. We have a leg up on the rest of the world in terms of this ecosystem and so it is really important for us to promote it.