Bring on the narwhals, Canada!

Technology innovators and investors are no strangers to the label unicorn, which is what Silicon Valley calls small, high-growth tech companies when they reach $1-billion valuations. In Canada, those same high-growth firms are dubbed narwhals—after our ocean-dwelling unicorns.

I see much enthusiasm and tremendous potential for narwhals in Canada’s ocean economy. Even with economic uncertainties from the global pandemic, the ocean economy remains a sector with massive opportunities for startups to influence the transformation of traditional ocean-related industries like fisheries and transportation, while finding more sustainable and healthier ways to provide energy, food, therapeutics, and other in-demand products.

When I say that Canada has the potential to be the best place in the world for startups in ocean technology, that is not misplaced enthusiasm. We already have startups leading the way and we have countless generations of experience in ocean industries. Plus, every year our universities and colleges turn out new talent to bring fresh approaches to long-standing challenges, to create startups that develop and apply new technologies, and to disrupt traditional ways of doing business. We have a renewed focus on the ocean.

But not at any cost. As a Maritimer, I know that having three oceans bordering our nation presents us with both great opportunities and equally important responsibilities. For the sake of our planet and a healthy future for today’s youth, I am pleased to see a surge of ocean startups on the horizon, many of them with an appetite to help businesses be better stewards through sustainable practices.

And increasingly investors want to invest in businesses with a sustainability focus. In the shipping industry, global banks and lending institutions are using their money to show they are on board. In what they call the Poseidon Principles, the banks are tying investments and loans directly to their clients’ decarbonization activities and environmental stewardship. And in a summer 2020 peer-reviewed report, economists and analysts presented the benefits and costs of ocean sustainability for 2020 to 2050, calculating that investors will see 5-to-1 returns for dollars spent on the sustainable ocean economy.* Philanthropic organizations are also creating impact funds to grow commercial ventures that improve ocean heath and sustainability. The triple bottom line is an appreciated concept by investors and customers alike in the ocean industry.

Through our recent Ocean Startup Challenge, we received three times more applications than we had anticipated receiving from innovators located across Canada and around the world. It was inspiring to see how many of those applicants proposed solutions to issues threatening healthy oceans and to our fisheries and aquaculture industries. Not surprisingly, another popular category involved leveraging enabling technologies like artificial intelligence, sensors, and data analytics for outcomes like achieving efficiencies, safer work environments and more-informed decision-making.

Here at the Ocean Startup Project, I am truly fortunate to interact with diverse innovators who are focused on ocean technologies, including those who are looking to pivot proven land-based technologies over to ocean applications. This includes highly qualified, mid-career professionals from large companies re-evaluating their options in light of the pandemic and choosing to start new companies. I am already seeing partnerships start to form between talented Millennials and open-minded Gen Xers and Boomers, groups with decades of knowledge and extensive networks.

Canada’s ocean ecosystem has much to offer and now is the time to take risks, collaborate and explore opportunities. Ocean tech startups are well served by Canada’s abundance of incubators and accelerators, engaged mentors who have founded and scaled companies, research teams at post-secondary institutions, and economic and technology development support organizations from municipal through to federal levels.

Consider Canada a nursery for narwhals that can be nurtured by Canada’s Ocean Supercluster and collaborative regional ecosystems like we have here in Atlantic Canada and in pockets across the country. I want to see pods of narwhals.

Donald Grant
Executive Director
Ocean Startup Project

*A Sustainable Ocean Economy for 2050. Secretariat of the High Level Panel on Ocean Sustainability. World Resources Institute. July 2020

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