Optimism in Ocean: climate solutions leader sees green future in blue tech

Canada's ocean economy offers a myriad of opportunities in blue tech.

There are some big numbers bandied about when it comes to the projected value of the global ocean economy by 2030: three trillion US dollars to be exact, outpacing the growth of the broader economy by about 20%.

Thirty-one billion, meanwhile, is the current contribution of Canadian ocean and marine sectors to the national economy each year, with an expected five-to-one ROI to be made in the sustainable ocean economy for the next three decades.

That’s a key word when it comes to taking advantage of opportunities the ocean economy: sustainable. Add another: tech. There’s an ever-increasing interest in leveraging technology to advance climate change solutions while providing a new source of prosperity for business.

Vancouver Island’s tendency to grow innovation and innovators, particularly when it comes to technological advancements in climate change mitigation and solutions, stands it in good stead to capitalize on the potential, especially when combined with the province’s leadership in clean tech. In fact, 75% of B.C.’s ocean tech businesses are located here, according to the Association of BC Marine Industries (ABCMI).

Greater Victoria’s Centre for Ocean Applied Sustainable Technologies (COAST) recognizes the potential and hopes to harness it. The non-profit, a branch of South Island Prosperity Partnership, is an innovation hub and cluster model to nurture entrepreneurs and companies across the Pacific Canada region.

The organization recently launched the COAST Venture Acceleration Program (CVAP), which is funded by Innovate BC and will be delivered in partnership with VIATEC. The program will help ocean-impact technology companies accelerate the process of defining, launching or scaling a proven business model for sustained profitability.

Executive In Residence Shannon Bard will lead participating ventures through the program. A marine biologist, oceanographer and ecological toxicologist and the Lead Climate Venture Studio and Entrepreneur in Residence at The University of British Columbia, she is known for her advocacy work and lauded for her extensive experience in corporate innovation, cleantech and sustainability.

“I’ve always working to see how we can take research and get it in the hands of decision makers to change behavior and create new solutions and methodologies and technologies that protect the ocean and [promote] sustainable economies for our coastal communities,” says Bard.

In a Q&A with Douglas, Bard discusses her work supporting startups amidst a shift from ‘dirty’ to ‘clean’ industry and a transition from an exploitative approach to a regenerative one.

Shannon Bard, Executive in Residence for the COAST Venture Acceleration Program and Lead Climate Solutions at UBC.
Shannon Bard, Executive in Residence for the COAST Venture Acceleration Program and Lead Climate Solutions at UBC. Photo supplied.

Where are entrepreneurs in the ocean economy – particularly those focused on green solutions – coming from?

They tend to be scientists and engineers, many coming straight from university. And of course, the challenge for them is understanding the market demand. For scientist entrepreneurs, when you’re in the discovery part of your journey, you may have found an impactful solution, but if nobody’s interested in purchasing that solution, or there’s no regulatory carrot or stick to create a market for that solution, it makes it very challenging.

So that’s part of my role, is to look at how you can get a pathway to market. Is that engagement with regulators, is that engaging with First Nations communities to understand what would be a pathway to social license? Is it understanding how you change people’s behavior and get adoption of new approaches and new methodology methodologies?

It can be quite complex to get adoption. It’s quite a difficult pathway – the traditional timeline from invention to from a university to adoption and society is 30 years. Wow. Since we’re in a climate emergency, it behooves us to act with urgency, so if we can decrease that timeframe to five or 10 years, then we have a better chance of actually meeting our targets for net zero with our 2030 and 2050 targets for B.C. and Canada and, and globally, if we can, if we can find ways to do things differently, to actually get adoption to happen at a much more rapid pace.

Do you also find entrepreneurs from non-marine industries pivoting to the ocean economy, or adapting their technologies for it?

There’s the way of taking a solution from another field and applying it towards problems in the ocean. There’s also the opportunity for someone who’s already within that sector, a fisherman, a marine engineer who’ve identified a problem within their field, and then creating a team to solve that. They’re already halfway there because they’ve already identified a problem that plagues them within their field, and that others that they work with are complaining about this problem.

That’s often the hardest part when you’re coming from the science side is to confirm that the problem that you think exists, exists for others too. But if you’re already starting with the problem, it can be easier to find the solution.

How is the province positioned within the broader opportunities of the global ocean economy?

The good news is the provincial government is really positioning B.C. to be a world leader in sustainability. If we can have green solutions that are made in B.C., we can export that around the world. For example, one of the biggest problems in the marine sector is transportation; we’re using unsustainable sources of energy for shipping. If we can solve that here, that solution can be exported to other countries.

There are all sorts of opportunities for increasing efficiencies, for finding ways of monitoring what the impacts of human activity are in the ocean, finding ways to mitigate that. We are also, with the number of climate change impacts we’ve had in B.C. in the last 12 months with the atmospheric river and flooding with wildfires, very cognizant of what the risks are.

Another example: sea levels rising. That’s a risk we have here but is being felt across the globe too. There are ways that we can look at habitat enhancement as protection of our coasts to make them more resilient. We can ask: what are the adaptation and mitigation strategies we can use to mitigate and lower the risks of climate change?

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs and startups entering the world of blue tech?

The most important thing to keep in mind when creating or describing your business to others (funders and customers) is the value proposition. Who is it that you’re helping? Why is this problem important to solve? And how are you solving it better than anybody else? The other is the environmental and social impact of your work. How can you describe it? What are the stories that you can tell around how much energy you’re saving, how much water you’re saving, how many acres of habitat or hectares of habitat have been restored?

And what kinds of people will be successful in this field?

There’s a real superpower in having people from diverse backgrounds coming to this field, especially fields that are quite conservative and have been historically resistant to change, because you’re looking at the problem in a different way. If we want new solutions, we need people who are looking at problems in different ways – either because they’re coming from different fields or they’re coming from different socioeconomic or ethnic backgrounds – so that they have a different lens that they’re looking at that problem, and that’s how we will see different outcomes and new solutions.

Are you hopeful we can effect any kind of impact on climate change? Are you hopeful for our future?

I am. I know there is the phenomenon of climate anxiety but it doesn’t plague me, because I feel like every day what I’m doing is helping people to find ways to maximize their opportunities to solve the climate emergency.