Ocean Supercluster drawing attention as more projects revealed

Ocean Supercluster drawing attention as more projects revealed

Corvus Energy‘s all-electric “blue whale” power system for large ships is on its way to sea trials. The essential step is being helped along by funding from the Government of Canada’s supercluster program.

“There’s been a lot of interest from ship owners around the globe,” said Corvus executive vice-president Sean Puchalski, in the latest ocean supercluster announcement video.

The estimated $4.15 million “field validation” work for Corvus, to prove out the battery system and show its ability to offer longer durations of zero-emissions transit, is receiving $2 million from the federal supercluster program with the rest being private funding.

Corvus works on solutions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from marine traffic. The company was founded in Vancouver, but with a corporate office in Norway as of 2019. Its more recent work in British Columbia isn’t just around R&D. The battery system is being built in Richmond, B.C. and the project is advancing in partnership with naval architecture and engineering company Vard Marine and with Seaspan Ferries, operating service between Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s southern mainland. The University of British Columbia is supporting the work by offering specific methodologies for measuring emissions, and BC Hydro is monitoring dockside electricity charges.

The Corvus battery system will be installed on the cargo vessel Seaspan Reliant this summer and the trial is scheduled to be complete in spring 2022.

The project is one of 49 industry-led projects to date to have funding committed from the ocean supercluster pot. Only 24 projects have been revealed to the public so far, but it has been enough to draw international attention, including from the producers of Amazon Prime’s The Future Code (see video at the end of this story) where the ocean supercluster program was recently featured.

The Corvus Blue Whale power system is designed to reduce GHG emissions from marine traffic.

Supercluster slow start

Budget 2017 earmarked $918 million over five years for the Government of Canada’s Innovation Superclusters Initiative (ISI). It was to be split between five “superclusters” across Canada, with the federal money expected to be matched by contributions from non-federal entities, including the private sector, universities and other levels of government.

The “superclusters” weren’t mentioned in the speech when the idea was first introduced, but there was some description in associated documents. The “cluster” idea suggested a physical boundary, being described as “dense areas of business activity that contain large and small companies, post-secondary institutions and specialized talent and infrastructure.” Examples offered were, “like the ones In Silicon Valley, Berlin, Tel Aviv and the Toronto-Waterloo corridor.”

But the new “superclusters” were also described as innovation hubs, “home to a strong industrial cluster or clusters, linked through their shared reliance on specialized inputs, including technologies, talent and infrastructure.” And the reach of the ocean supercluster has been pan-Canadian.

A public competition decided the different supercluster focus areas. The ocean supercluster is one of five established by the end of 2018. The others were: the digital technology supercluster in British Columbia, the protein industry supercluster in the Prairies, the “next generation manufacturing” supercluster in Ontario and the artificial intelligence supercluster in Montreal.

Overall, the supercluster program had a slower-than-planned start. In October 2020, a report from Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO) Yves Giroux – titled “The Innovation Superclusters Initiative: A Preliminary Analysis” – looked at spending to March 6, 2020. It indicated, “actual spending is lagging the original budget” plan of the federal government and warned the “rate of project selection and implementation will need to materially increase” if the multi-year funding program was to meet its timelines. The report stated it was “highly unlikely” the program’s goal of increasing GDP by $50 billion over 10 years would be met.

For the ocean supercluster, only two projects had been announced by that report’s cutoff. Out of the $277 million total on actual (spent) and committed funding for all superclusters to that point, the ocean supercluster accounted for just $26 million.

The report more generally threw a shot of cold water on the superclusters program and became a centrepiece of discussions about its efficacy.

Seaspan Ferries is testing the Corvus power system

Ocean supercluster hits full speed

Ocean Supercluster CEO Kendra MacDonald saw timing as an issue for the PBO report, as there was still ramp-up on her end. She told Atlantic Business Magazine of the commitments made since and noted a significant amount of contracting was completed in 2020 by companies with supercluster commitments, allowing more money to roll out into wide-ranging activities.

“I’d say we are still behind on dispersed funds, but we’re fairly close on getting all the funds committed,” MacDonald said this month.

She said the gap between commitments and dispersed funds has also been closing, but also that some gap will always exist there just by the nature of the projects.

The essential bottom line: the rollout is happening.

Funding from the ocean supercluster is, as MacDonald described it, “region agnostic,” with the supercluster rooted in Atlantic Canada while recognizing work tied to the oceans isn’t all happening here. And projects receiving support haven’t all been what was imagined from the start line.

“Maybe one area that we’re seeing emerge that had not been as much of a focus at the beginning is on the sustainability side. We’re seeing more projects in alternative energy and alternative fuel and I think that’s really exciting. Just that move to emissions reductions and decarbonization and then really seeing — because we’re industry led — really seeing industry stepping up and making investments in those areas, and we’re seeing more and more of that type of project,” MacDonald said.

The idea of an “ocean” supercluster may be difficult to wrap your mind around, but MacDonald said it’s actually been easier to explain as membership has grown, new collaborations have happened and projects have come together.

There are projects in data collection, in new technology, crossing over with the ambitions of private companies operating in the fishery, energy, environmental monitoring and other space. Project proposals have come with academic partnerships and new interactions between public and private entities trying to solve particular problems.

“We’re really trying to change culture and change behaviour in terms of companies that hadn’t worked together before, sectors that hadn’t worked together before. We’re seeing pan-Atlantic, we’re seeing pan-Canadian, we’re seeing an increase in East Coast-West Coast collaboration which is exciting and increasingly collaboration in the Arctic,” MacDonald said.

“We’re really trying to change Canada’s reputation as an ocean nation but also as an innovation nation,” she said.

COVID-19 had the potential to bring the program to a crawl, but an effort was made to keep things rolling. As there were new challenges in demand from the fisheries, on the timing of companies getting research vessels out, or a drop in offshore oil and gas activity, other items were advanced without delay.

“We really wanted to do something to continue to encourage innovation spending and continue to build momentum in the ocean economy despite what was happening with the pandemic. So we actually released our ‘accelerated ocean solutions program’ that launched in early May and that program really focused on smaller scale, shorter timeline projects,” MacDonald said. She explained that some of the projects identified through that rush of new proposals seeking funding, to early July 2020, are now public spending announcements, all under the supercluster umbrella.

The federal supercluster initiative, as it’s generally called, was a five-year funding program. The mandate is scheduled to end March 31, 2023.

MacDonald said her expectation is all government funds for the ocean supercluster will be committed, “most likely,” by the end of this summer, 2021.

Thereafter comes the meaty work of keeping track of projects where public money has been directed, dispersing funds as companies contract and reach milestones. In some cases, commitments were made for financial support over multiple years of work, for example, and it isn’t all handed over up front. 

A call for proposals has just closed on a one-time “Ocean Supercluster Resilience” program. It is aimed at proposals supporting “strong collaborations.” Responses to applicants are expected to start to go out around mid-March.

There is still time for companies to draw benefits from the supercluster program. A membership in the supercluster doesn’t actually require a company to be successful with a funding application. The ocean supercluster has over 380 active members now, with companies making connections through a member portal.

“We’ve seen examples of companies that have come together and they haven’t necessarily been successful with the supercluster project but they’ve been successful in collaborating on some other opportunity as a result of connecting through the supercluster. And that, for us, is equally powerful — if not more so — in terms of being able to grow the ocean economy,” MacDonald said.

If nothing else, the ocean supercluster has been successful in injecting new energy into the idea of “ocean” as an area of innovation and of new business — as surely as agri-foods, or healthcare. And the expectation is new companies and new products will rise, in part, as a result of the effort.

In a recent event hosted by Newfoundland and Labrador’s technology and innovation sector association, techNL, there were mentions of the supercluster, including by angel investor John Phillips.

“The ocean supercluster is going to be successful,” he said. “It’s taken a long time to get off the ground, but it will be important to our ocean technology.”

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