How to Start your own Ocean Tech Business: What I Learned from Innovation Week 2018

This past May, I had the pleasure of attending and being engaged in six events during Newfoundland and Labrador’s annual Innovation Week, such as the exhilarating Youth In Tech Conference and the excellent NEIA Cleantech Innovation Connector event. While many of these events, such as Genesis’ own Debate NYYT and NATI’s Knowledge Summit, have received media attention already, there’s one event that I think was painfully underreported.

That event was much smaller than the others listed above, and was hosted in the wonderful working space at the Memorial Centre for Entrepreneurship. Today I want to share the lessons I learned from MCE and Ocean Advance’sevent entitled, From Student to Entrepreneur: How I started an Ocean Tech Business.

How I Started and Ocean Tech Business- photo via  MCE

How I Started and Ocean Tech Business- photo via MCE

This event featured two fantastic entrepreneurs, Andrew Cook, CEO and Co-founder of Seaformatics, and Ali Modir, Co-founder of Intelligent Materials and Monitoring Inc., with one thing in common; they both were in the process of spinning an ocean tech business out of a university research project (also of note: they’re both Genesis Enterprise portfolio companies!). Both entrepreneurs provided valuable advice to the students and innovators in attendance. Listed are the top three learnings I gained from this session:

1. How to avoid the “funding chasm”

When asked what he would have done differently with Seaformatics were he to start the company again with the knowledge he has now, Andrew mentioned specifically the difficulties he faced with the “funding chasm”. This is a gap that exists for almost all start-ups, but is especially relevant for university-based spin-outs.

There are lots of funding opportunities for companies completing research, through universities and organizations such as the National Research Council, and lots of funding opportunities for companies that are making sales, through organizations like ACOA and TCII, but there are not nearly as many opportunities in the middle area between research and sales; the funding chasm. This chasm can be the death of a spin-out, as it has focused solely on tech research and hasn’t spent time on the business side of the equation.

Andrew’s advice in this situation? “Get a customer.” Getting a first customer can help you to find what is actually valuable in your business, and what customers are actually looking for. This can then be leveraged for greater public or private funding opportuntiies.

2. How to find opportunities in ocean tech

Ali recommended “engagement” as the number one way to find a research or business idea in the oceantech space. By getting engaged with people already working in the ocean tech space, you can learn what problems and desires exist for the industry right now, and potentially in the future. Doing customer interviews will show you that everyone sees things differently, and what you maybe thought wasn’t a good idea actually has potential.

Andrew also chimed in on this question, and recommended that interested entrepreneurs and researchers check out the Ocean Supercluster for potential ideas and funding opportunities.

3. How to stay motivated

Being an entrepreneur is never* easy. And that is equally true for researchers spinning out an idea. Andrew with Seaformatics spoke about the research he did related to the company’s first main product, the SeaLily, a large turbine designed to charge equipment on the ocean floor. Through a whole lot of work, including over 500 (!) customer interviews, Andrew and the team learned that the market for this product wasn’t actually ocean tech companies, the tech could be scaled down and sold on the consumer market to charge USB devices while hiking or camping. On this note Andrew said, “You may start off in ocean tech, and your product takes a turn and you end up in a different market.” Your reason for pivoting can be anything, but Andrew also recommended setting milestones and goals, and if you don’t have a good reason for not reaching them, then consider stopping your operation, revaluating, and potentially pivoting.

This is important because it shows a willingness to stick with an idea even when it might seem like there is no market for it. Ali, who is a few years behind Andrew in terms of product development, said he has had major learnings from the Seaformatics team about next steps. Having another entrepreneur who can help mentor and motivate you is also paramount to staying motivated in a start-up’s early days.

This event gave everyone in attendance crucial advice on how to spin out a research project, find opportunities for businesses, and stay focused on your business and the goals ahead. This event would not have been possible without the fantastic ecosystem here in Newfoundland and Labrador and all the supporters in it. I had a fantastic time, and I cannot wait to write another article like this next year.

By: Liam Flanagan| Start-Up Development Coordinator