B.C.’s marine tech sector is riding a wave of innovation

The world will keep demanding more from its oceans—for food, energy, shipping lanes and the ecological systems that sustain life on the planet—driving the need for new and better solutions.

Credit: Nik West

Cascadia Seaweed CEO Mike Williamson has found a business among the waves in Barkley Sound

But our growing ocean economy faces stiff competition from overseas

Barkley Sound is no Silicon Valley. These are wild ocean waters on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Humpbacks, grey whales and orcas migrate through each year, dining on a rich soup of krill, plankton, capelin and salmon. Most human visitors come to watch the majestic marine life or to catch chinook and coho. So when startup co-founders Mike Williamson, Bill Collins and Tony Ethier arrived in 2019 to plant the seeds for their company, their venture stood out from the fishing charters and eco-lodges in the local business community.

Cascadia Seaweed isn’t what most people imagine when they think of disruptive tech or the economy of the future. When Williamson, the CEO, first heard the idea of growing kelp, he asked, Seaweed? Is that even a business? But the world is increasingly turning to the oceans for food, energy, transport and other resources—and as a driver of innovation.

Williamson, a former naval officer and base commander at CFB Esquimalt, saw the World Bank Group reporting that 10 percent of the world’s food mass should come from seaweed aquaculture in the next 25 years. The industry has potential to become a significant, sustainable source of food for people, animal feed, bioenergy and plastics. Williamson looked at the state of seaweed production in the province and saw vast opportunity.

“It was typically a cottage industry or moms-and-pops—very small-scale,” he recalls. “Or they were harvesters. They would get a licence to responsibly cut down growing seaweed and then let it regrow. But that’s very limited.”

Cascadia started small, with two one-hectare pilot farms in Barkley Sound, south of Ucluelet, that first season in 2019. The company is aiming for exponential growth. “We have a near-term target of 1,000 hectares under cultivation in the next three-ish years,” Williamson says. “We’re on the cusp of being North America’s largest cultivator of ocean seaweed already, and scale matters.”

Scale will let the company drive down costs, sell more and earn the revenue needed to explore several verticals. Cascadia is starting by making plant-based foods, including vegan jerky and two types of crackers that will launch this year. Its next vertical: cattle feed that reduces the amount of climate-warming methane the animals release, and cuts down the fertilizer and irrigation needed to grow what they eat. Eventually, the company plans to develop bioplastics and nutraceuticals from some of the 630 seaweed species endemic to B.C.

Cascadia’s ambitions are just part of a tsunami of innovation emerging from ocean industries around the world, including from companies in B.C. Robotics, sensors, data analytics, advanced materials, autonomous vessels and communications technologies are just some of the marine sectors poised to disrupt and accelerate over the next decade and beyond. The world will keep demanding more from its oceans—for food, energy, shipping lanes and the ecological systems that sustain life on the planet—driving the need for new and better solutions.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development projects that the ocean economy will grow to US$3 trillion by 2030—double its size in 2010, and outpacing the broader global economy by about 20 percent. Canada and B.C. are racing to grab slices of that pie, but they’re starting with crumbs.

Kendra MacDonald is the St. John’s–based CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, which helps marine technology companies, governments and academic institutions across the country collaborate to develop the industry. She says it contributes more than $30 billion to the economy, or about 1.6 percent of national gross domestic product. “That’s about half of the average contribution from the ocean economy to countries around the world.”

It’s a modest stake for a nation with the world’s longest coastline, but MacDonald sees a long runway for growth: “That presents a tremendous opportunity for us when you look at our natural geographic advantage and a lot of our technological competencies.”

In this province, the Association of British Columbia Marine Industries (ABCMI) estimates that the ocean science and technology sector directly employs more than 1,200 workers and generates $150 million in GDP annually.

B.C. is a longtime leader in environmental expertise, MacDonald says when asked about how it will move forward. The United Nations has proclaimed 2021-30 a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development, illustrating the global importance of careful marine stewardship. Climate change, overfishing and pollution pose dire threats to world’s waters.

“The ocean is under pressure,” MacDonald explains. “If we have healthier oceans, we also have more productive oceans. So there’s a real connection between objectives in sustainability and our objectives in terms of growth.”

Credit: Novarc Technologies

A spool welding robot from Novarc Technologies

All hands on deck

Countries around the world are combining economic and environmental ambitions to build what’s known as a blue economy. B.C. companies like Cascadia Seaweed are working toward that long-term goal, but a resurgent shipbuilding industry is the primary force propelling the province’s marine technology sector today.

This renaissance began in 2010, when Canada’s National Shipbuilding Strategy (NSS) launched, awarding North Vancouver–based Seaspan Shipyards contracts to build non-combat ships for the Navy and Coast Guard. That includes fisheries and oceanographic science vessels, a polar icebreaker and a naval support ship.

Shipbuilding had fallen dormant for many years before then, recalls Amy MacLeod, Seaspan’s vice-president for corporate affairs and external communications. Industry skills had drained out of the country, and technology fell behind the times. “The ability to build needed to be completely rebuilt,” MacLeod explains. Today, Seaspan directly employs some 2,300 people and anchors a still-growing web of 670 suppliers across Canada. More than 400 of those companies are based in B.C.

“We had to go out and source and find and build,” MacLeod says of Seaspan’s decade of work to reach this point, “and get those folks to start investing in their companies so that they can deliver now.” Seaspan invested more than $200 million to modernize its shipyards in North Vancouver, where NSS-related work is underway, and in Victoria. MacLeod details how far the North Vancouver facility has come: “It is capable of building multiple ships concurrently and working on multiple programs. It is one of the most modern shipyards in North America.”

Seaspan Drydock, meanwhile, repairs, refits and maintains all manner of ships near North Vancouver’s Lonsdale Quay. “Pretty much anything that floats” is how Vancouver Drydock vice-president and general manager Paul Hebson describes the vessels that come in. “We generally do about 50 ship repair projects a year.” Customers include British Columbia Ferry Services, the Canadian Coast Guard and commercial operators from Canada, the U.S. and farther abroad.

The dock’s parent company, Seaspan, went a few blocks down the road in March 2017 to lead a $1-million investment in Novarc Technologies, a designer and maker of robotic welding systems, and one of Seaspan’s most important suppliers. Just two months later, Seaspan used Novarc’s spool welding robot (SWR) to complete a five-week refit of a French cable-laying vessel, Louis Dreyfus Armateurs’ Île de Batz, that included installing a water ballast treatment system.

Such systems are mandatory for ships sailing internationally, to prevent the discharge of invasive aquatic species into foreign ecosystems. Some 60,000 ships worldwide need to be retrofitted with them by next year. Welding pipe spools takes up about 80 percent of the installation work, Hebson says. That’s where Novarc’s robots step in.

Novarc CEO Soroush Karimzadeh co-founded the company in 2013 to develop the world’s first welding “cobots,” or collaborative robots. The machines work with junior welders and together they can do the work of several skilled welders. “A challenge that our customers are facing is that, for the most part, pipe welding is still being done manually,” Karimzadeh explains. “And there’s a huge shortage of welders in industry, exacerbated by the fact that baby boomers are retiring and younger workers don’t necessarily want to start careers in trades.”

For Seaspan, the main benefit of Novarc’s technology wasn’t filling a shortage in skilled labour—it made the company much more productive. Hebson considered other solutions that might have brought a 10- or 15-percent upgrade, but none came close to the step change Novarc delivered. “This is a several-hundred-percent improvement in terms of productivity,” he marvels.

Hebson describes the changes that has brought to his business: “We’ve been able to walk prospective customers past the machine and show them the quality that comes out. It’s also allowed us to be able to be more competitive in terms of the price and schedules for customers with large pipe installation jobs. So that certainly helped us to secure a number of jobs over the last two years.”

Novarc continues to improve its machines by making them smarter. Its current welding robot records and stores video and data for shop analysis and quality control. Future upgrades will include artificial intelligence–enabled vision systems that will gather information from fleets of robots so the machines themselves detect errors, learn to make better decisions and learn how to learn better.

“When you have this kind of computational power, and with the right algorithms, you can actually exceed the capabilities of humans,” Karimzadeh predicts. “They can learn many times as much as one human could have learned in one lifetime—in a span of days.”

Charting our own course

This province’s ocean industries likewise need to keep growing smarter to build on the progress started over the past decade. Almost every jurisdiction with a seashore aims to build an ocean or blue economy cluster, with government, academia and businesses of all sizes working together for greater effect. MacDonald of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster sees Iceland, Germany and several U.S. states charging forward.

Norway, however, is the blue economy whale—an economic and technological leader. The Nordic country’s ocean industries created 680 billion Norwegian krone, or some $100 billion, in value in 2017. Offshore oil and gas production generated most of that, while the maritime transport and seafood industries contributed 200 billion kr, or about $30 billion.

Those foundational sectors fuel innovation in areas like green shipping, offshore wind power and sustainable aquaculture. “They’ve had a very clear ocean strategy that they consistently deliver on, and that drives their investment decisions and innovation activities,” MacDonald explains.

North Vancouver–based International Submarine Engineering (ISE) helps illustrate how history and culture might steer different clusters to different outcomes. ISE has been designing and manufacturing autonomous and remote-controlled submarines (AUVs and ROVs), along with other subsea tools and technologies, for four decades. Its early customers included navies from Canada, the U.S., France and Japan, which bought the ROVs for salvage, recovery and survey work. Canada’s Department of Defence used one to recover human remains and hardware from Swissair Flight 111 after it crashed off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1998.

Norway’s Kongsberg Maritime is one of ISE‘s biggest competitors. Its parent, Kongsberg Gruppen, founded in 1814, also has roots in the defence industry, having made rifles for the Norwegian Armed Forces in the 1800s. During the 1970s, though, the company began developing technology to tap the newly discovered North Sea oil fields.

Luke Alden, a mechanical designer for ISE, estimates that Kongsberg sells three or four times as many AUVs as his company does. Most of those carry sensors for survey work in the offshore petroleum sector—a large, lucrative niche that ISE rarely taps. Instead, its subs often work on scientific projects, for institutions like Memorial University of Newfoundland and the University of Southern Mississippi. 

“Our subs tend to do the cooler stuff,” Alden says proudly. “Like, we’ve sent two to the Arctic with the Canadian government. We built one that went to Antarctica.”

Alden explains why the two businesses hook different customers: “They knew exactly what the oil and gas companies are looking for, right? And that’s what’s been harder for us to get. Whereas understanding what scientists want, it’s a lot easier for us.”

So B.C.’s marine technology companies won’t look like those from Norway, Japan or even Newfoundland, despite many shared ambitions. They’ll each have to build on their own strengths and find their own lanes to success, whether they’re starting from a shipyard in Burrard Inlet or a kelp bed in Barkley Sound. 

Great Big Sea

40 million
Projected full-time equivalent jobs in the global ocean economy by 2030, up 29% from 2010

Share of the world’s population that lives in coastal regions, which make up 10% of total land

International trade in goods carried by sea

3 billion
People worldwide who depend on marine and coastal diversity for their livelihoods

4 kg
Amount of gold per person in the world that sits on the seabed

Estimated share of the world’s minerals that will be sourced from the ocean floor by 2030, versus almost none today

Sources: The Ocean Economy in 2030, OECD; You Can’t Go Green Without Blue, KPMG International; Global Marine Technology Trends 2030, Lloyd’s Register, Qinetiq and University of Southampton

Credit: Seaspan

In North Vancouver, Seaspan runs one of the continent’s most advanced shipyards

Worth Its Salt

In a business-as-usual scenario, the global ocean economy will double in size to some $US3 trillion in value by 2030, according to one forecast

Maritime and coastal tourism 26%

Offshore oil and gas 21%

Port activities 16%

Marine equipment 10%

Fish processing 9%

Offshore wind power 8%

Water transport 4%

Shipbuilding and repair 3%

Industrial capture fisheries 2%

Industrial marine aquaculture <1%

Source: The Ocean Economy in 2030, OECD