A hub for ocean innovation pitched for Victoria

A business hub for the marine sector could be the anchor property in an under-used part of downtown Victoria that the city’s mayor says is the perfect location for an innovation district.

The Ocean Futures Innovation Hub would allow marine companies large and small to share resources, provide mentorship to marine start-ups and act as an incubator for growth, according to proponents of the project. The hub would help put the West Coast on the map as a place where the marine sector can thrive, said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps.

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The project is a partnership between the City of Victoria, South Island Prosperity Partnership and marine sector companies, which have issued a request for proposals on the development of the plan.

Halifax is currently Canada’s major player when it comes to the ocean and marine industry, Helps said, but the innovation hub could change that.

“We want to say: ‘Hey, here on this coast, right in the downtown, there’s a ton of ocean and marine work going on as well,’ ” she said. “It will be a physical space for marine and ocean innovation with a focus on low-carbon solutions.”

Victoria is home to major marine companies, including Point Hope Maritime and Victoria Shipyards, but the innovation hub would create “an ecosystem development process to make sure the small companies get an opportunity to develop solutions and create products and services for the large companies,” Helps said.

The innovation hub could be the anchor for a section of downtown north of Herald Street, which is currently populated by one-storey buildings and parking lots. The building would be the first step in Victoria 3.0, the city’s long-term economic action plan, which aims to encourage sustainable businesses that can recover and adapt following the COVID-19 pandemic.

SIPPS and the City of Victoria accelerated the request-for-proposals process because they believe the innovation hub could attract federal and provincial government funding as part of the post-pandemic stimulus plan, Helps said.

The innovation hub could diversify Victoria’s economy, which is currently heavily dependent on tourism, she said.

Julie Angus, the CEO of Open Ocean Robotics, a year-and-a-half-old Victoria-based company, said the company’s solar-powered autonomous boat has collected oceanographic or environmental data that has been key for research projects by the Canadian Coast Guard and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.

She said an innovation hub would be a key incubator to link small startups such as hers with larger, more established firms.

During a recent trip to Halifax, Angus saw the success of that city’s marine innovation hub, the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship, located in a former Canadian Coast Guard facility.

Helps said the project will work closely with Indigenous groups who have 12,000 years of knowledge with respect to the ocean.

Dallas Gislason, director of economic development for the South Island Prosperity Partnership, said Canada has the longest coastline in the world, yet its marine industry drastically underperforms compared with smaller countries.

The oceans innovation hub could attract marine companies from all over the world, bringing high-paying jobs to Victoria, Gislason said.

With many industries suffering due to COVID-19, it’s critically important to boost other sectors to spur the economic recovery, Gislason said.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

Online: southislandprosperity.ca

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