Atlantic Canada’s Ocean Tech Startup Scene

By 19 November 2019 No Comments

Another sensor, another lobster’s life saved.

Written by Faun Rice, Research and Policy Analyst, ICTC

Increasingly, Atlantic Canada is becoming known for work in its technology sector. Among other indicators, the region beats the Canadian average for STEM-field post-secondary enrollment, and Halifax and Fredericton are both home to high percentages of tech-sector employees. While Atlantic Canada’s tech sector is a leader in R&D in new areas – such as cybersecurity – it also frequently intersects with traditional areas of interest, such as ocean technology. Oceanic remote sensing and deep-sea robotics are only a few of the new areas being explored by coastal startups; another increasing area of R&D is the digitization of one of the region’s biggest assets: seafood.

In October 2019, ICTC’s Faun Rice interviewed Aleksandr Stabenow, CTO of Sedna, the first start-up in ICTC’s Q&A series with subject experts (following previous interviews with municipalities, researchers, and SMEs). Sedna works on digitizing the seafood supply chain in Atlantic Canada and is one of the startups inhabiting Halifax’s Centre for Ocean Ventures & Entrepreneurship (COVE), following a successful run at seed funding from Innovacorp. The company has been around for two years from concept and is closing in on one year of client service, with approximately 60 clients now signed on globally. During the chat, Aleksandr gave his perspective on opportunities for modernizing the seafood supply chain as well as alternate uses for oceanic IoT sensors, from auditing, to predictive analytics, to monitoring the impacts of climate change.

Thanks for joining us today. Can you begin by giving us the elevator-pitch version of your services?

Absolutely. We track, trace, and monitor seafood from catch to plate. I’m from Nova Scotia – I grew up in the seafood industry, and my partner is a commercial fisherman, so we saw an opportunity to help the industry modernize. We use a combination of autonomous sensors that monitor environmental conditions like water quality and temperature, and easy-to-use software applications for everyone on the supply chain to reduce waste and increase efficiencies. We work mostly with lobster but also other seafood products.

Why is it important to digitize the seafood supply chain?

There’s a lot of existing waste in terms of both time and resources [in the seafood industry] right now. Harvested out of the ocean, the product is accounted for at the dock level, all by pen and paper. Down the supply chain that’s the case until you get to the enterprise level—the majority of players in the fisheries industry currently record on paper first and then manually enter that information into a spreadsheet. This can create a lot of room for error or loss of information.

The other benefit of digitization is tied to alleviating product waste. I’ll use live lobster as an example because that’s what we do a lot of work with—it’s the biggest industry on the east coast for small craft fisheries. Our sensors monitor a lot of things like the ammonia levels, NH3. Sometimes what will happen is that a crate of dead lobsters is stored with the live ones. Companies go through millions of pounds in a week, making it difficult to track and inspect each crate in detail. So maybe they don’t always notice instances like this but, if a crate of dead lobsters gets in there, it can create high ammonia levels and kill other [healthy] lobsters. Our sensors will send an alert if ammonia levels are higher than average.

You’re reminding me of a point I heard recently about IoT sensors, that the data they collect is usually only used for real-time detection of discrepancies but not stored or used for long-term analysis. Could you talk a bit about the types of data your sensors collect and other uses it might have?

For sure. One example is accountability throughout the supply chain. A lot of our clients use third-party shipping companies that might claim to have their refrigeration systems on all the time, but our data gives clients a way to audit those third-party companies. You can check it in real-time, so you’ll see if a truck driver pulls over for lunch and shuts off the refrigeration system sensors, but you can also do a retrospective audit of the whole process. The other way it has been used is to identify issues in cold-chain storage. If you take a product like scallops, for example, they’re supposed to be frozen at sea and then all the way through the supply chain. One of our clients was having an issue with what we call “clustering”—scallops were thawing at some point and then refreezing as one solid mass. They used the sensor to figure out where the temperature issues were happening.

Do clients retain and store data and then use that for analysis?  

Some do. Clients differ, they may go more or less deep into the data. We’ve started to plan for a new service related to this because the European market is starting to request information on all the energy and fuel used when catching, holding, and transporting products. This can be referred to as “bioeconomic” modeling for the fisheries industry.

Why are European clients requesting that as opposed to other markets?

In general, we’re living in a world of connectivity where information is valuable, so a lot of clients are making requests like these. The main difference between countries rests with who is willing to pay a premium for the additional data. Right now, from what I see, only European customers will pay that premium. Other markets will request it as a personal want but they’re not yet willing to pay for or invest in it. I don’t know why that is. I’m just listening to what our clients are saying.

Talk a little about the environment of Atlantic Canada – is it easy to market your tech there, do you have to sell elsewhere, and are there any key infrastructure challenges you face?

A big issue in rural Canada is connectivity, but our entire system operates and logs offline, so we’ve been able to overcome and work around that issue by uploading data to the cloud when there is a Wi-Fi signal. For example, harvesters can still monitor the conditions of their holding tanks in real-time, and then they upload that documentation when they return to the shore. It seems like there’s a big push from the government of Canada to fix that [connectivity infrastructure] though. We’ve seen fiberoptic reach places we didn’t think it would reach for another five years, so it’s going in the right direction. We designed our system initially starting off with a pure cloud, all online, and then we had to make some customizations to better address some of these connectivity challenges in rural Canada.

In Halifax, it seems like there is a strong “startup scene,” so to speak. There are a lot of companies—we’re going in the right direction but we’re also far behind our competition. Countries like Norway, Iceland, Australia are our biggest competition in ocean technologies. If you look at Iceland, they have a population of about 300 000, which is less than Halifax, but about 300 ocean-tech startups. Canada, both on the east and on the west coast, is just starting to scratch the surface of ocean technology.

Why is that?

I think there’s very little known about the ocean, and little activity in the space of “ocean business,” generally.  Even in the fisheries industry, we are seeing a decline in people who decide to become fishermen. They had to have grown up with it and inherited it, but increasingly it’s not an occupation that’s being passed on to the next generation. Harvesting licenses and quota are being bought up by larger entities, smaller entities are selling their businesses as they retire if they don’t have a family member to take it over. And because fewer and fewer people are comfortable working on and around the ocean, that extends to ocean tech. In Iceland they don’t have a choice to focus on anything but the ocean, but here we have a pretty big landmass to support Nova Scotia in other ways.

What do you see as some of the most promising or exciting avenues for ocean technologies in Canada?

Supply chain efficiency is a big one, and remote or underwater data collection will be big too. If you look at climate change and how that’s going to effect ocean resource management, real-time data collection will become really important. Old fishery stocks are going to move away from our area and new fishery stocks are going to come in, so we need to be able to identify what’s going to be sustainable to harvest and commercialize and what’s not.

That’s really interesting: Could you expand on the new needs that climate change might create in ocean technologies?

Right now, people are really focused on auditing after something has already happened, but I think the focus needs to be on predictive analytics, on figuring out what’s going on to take place in the future. For example, if there is a big ocean-farmed salmon die-off, it’s easy for a company to blame climate change, but if they don’t have sensors, they can’t know for sure. More, if they had both sensors and predictive analytics, they could have adjusted their practices to avoid that die-off.

The other thing is predicting changes in stock. If you look at industry research right now for live lobster, the prediction is that the biomass is moving north. Catches are down in areas like Maine and up in Newfoundland. That is going to change things drastically for a lot of people in the coastal regions who make their living off of lobster.

One model that we’re working on, and there’s obviously endless work that can be done for other species in the ocean, is one that predicts lobster prices based on thousands of different inputs in real time. Some of those inputs include change in water temperature over time, which can affect catch rates, but we also look at historic lobster rates, supplementary goods like salmon and crab that affect lobster rates, holidays like Christmas and Chinese New Year, and others. All of these inputs will help with predictive applications.

Could you apply a similar concept to ocean-related disaster prevention and remediation?

Yeah, same idea, you’d be able to predict weather in advance and map its impact afterwards. When a hurricane is going to hit shore, that doesn’t just effect fisheries—it really impacts every industry. We work in the oyster industry as well, and we just had a hurricane. Afterwards you get a lot of rain and debris in the water, and that can directly change whether you’re able to harvest your oysters. It can really shut down the local industry until it’s cleared up. A hurricane could bring in anything, plastics, pollution, fishing gear, as well as large amounts of runoff from the land, any buildup or debris that might be on the roads from vehicle traffic, carbon from emissions that settle on the ground. All of that is being washed into the ocean at an alarming rate in a short time period, making the ability to track these instances appropriately that much more important.

How do ocean technologies help solve problems like these?

Being able to use sensors to map water quality and recovery is a space where ocean-tech startups in the Atlantic region can really develop their services. I think that’s an important place we can contribute. Atlantic Canada may be a small player in the global ocean tech landscape but we are growing fast. Our ocean is one of the largest resources on the planet, and it’s critical for the Atlantic region to continue to grow and support the ocean-tech sector.

Aleksandr Stabenow is the CTO and Co-founder of Sedna Technologies. Aleksandr graduated from St. Francis Xavier University with a Business Administration degree and a major in Leadership Management. Since then, he has honed his passion for international product development, product diversification, sales, and marketing. In addition to digital strategy and software programming, Aleksandr specializes in custom technologies to automate processes and identify weaknesses. Currently, his main focus is on fisheries and agriculture to increase traceability and marketability of naturally harvested products for local and world markets.

Faun Rice is a Research and Policy Analyst with the Information and Communications Technology Council (ICTC). As an experienced social researcher, Faun is passionate about high-quality, interdisciplinary work, disseminated in a way that maximizes accessibility and impact. Following an MA in Anthropology from the University of Alberta, Faun has worked in the fields of museum research, language & publishing, and technology research and policy.