N.L. Innovation Centre coming with focus on remote operations
Posted on December 20, 2022 | By Ashley Fitzpatrick | 0 Comments
Years under early discussion and development, a new Newfoundland and Labrador Innovation Centre now has a fixed location, soon to be ready home, in the former Rona building off Torbay Road in St. John’s. Heading into the new year, as announced this week, the funding is in place to renovate and finally get the centre off the ground.
It is imagined as a space where companies can collaborate, develop new technologies, showcase tech and even avail of training programs, to be developed collaboratively with organizations and companies across multiple different industries.
The federal government, through the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, has committed to $2.5 million to the centre, distributed over the next three years. The provincial government, under the Department of Industry, Energy & Technology, has committed $7.1 million over six years, through the province’s Innovation and Business Development Fund. Private-sector partnerships are expected atop that.
At this point, the Rona signs have long since come down and the former retail space has been cleared out, although a “Paint” wall display of shelves remains, a final remnant of where do-it-yourselfers in the capital would have picked out wall colours. But with funds for a proper refit, an overhaul will soon get underway, with a rough capital cost of $2.8 million. First, there will be completion of design work, according to project leaders, before getting into further contracting really kicking off early in the new year.
“It’s more than a space. It’s actually programming, training, communication and we’re going to start that in the next few months as well,” said CEO of techNL Florian Villaumé.
TechNL is the lead agency on the Innovation Centre project, working with others, including member-based sector organization Energy NL and the oil and gas industry not-for-profit, research and development agency Energy Research & Innovation Newfoundland and Labrador.
Once the physical space is ready, with an official opening tentatively planned for October, the funds as announced ($9.6 million in public funding in total) will also cover a start on operations and programming. There is already a fairly specific idea of direction, with industry consultations showing interest from agencies and individual companies in making it a new home for fostering all things remote — an umbrella that could include anything from remote health services and related tech, to ship-to-shore communications and mechanics in the aquaculture sector or long-distance controls and data transfer for deep water offshore oil and gas. The centre was actually formally announced as the Innovation Centre for Remote Operations and the general consensus in the room seemed to be this is how it will stand apart from other innovation centres in the region and in Canada.
“An investment in technology is an investment in every industry,” Premier Andrew Furey said, speaking to reporters about the provincial funds following a formal announcement.
“I think there’s a misconception amongst some of us in society that technology is just computer programming and it’s a guy with a hoodie and headphones in some dark room (…) this is not what it is at all. Technology advances every industry, whether it is fishing, mining, healthcare. All of those creative and disruptive ideas can come from here and develop into sustainable solutions for multiple industries. So when you ask who benefits, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians benefit,” he said.
Before leading the work at Canada’s Ocean Supercluster, Kendra MacDonald was chair of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Technology and Innovation (NATI being predecessor to techNL, with the name changed in 2020) and the first of four chairs with the organization to work on development of the centre. She called the announcement this week “a very significant, very exciting moment” from even just a personal perspective. From her point of view, now as the supercluster lead, MacDonald said there are several projects developing with the supercluster program in the remote operations space already interested in making use of the new innovation space and collaboration opportunities.
“We see this as, from a Newfoundland and Labrador perspective, a place where we can see world-class remote operations solutions that will connect to the supercluster,” she said.
The remote operations focus does position it differently from places like the Nova Scotia Innovation Hub, centred on the bioeconomy, the Dartmouth-based Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship (COVE), or the new Health and Social Innovation Centre coming together in New Brunswick (funding for the latter was also announced Monday, with a $15.2 million federal commitment, $12 million from the Government of New Brunswick and $10.8 million from the University of New Brunswick).
The Innovation Centre for Remote Operations is not fixed in terms of final design or booked up altogether, when it comes to the over 45,000 square feet of space and potential opportunities in programming. Even prior to renovations, offshore training company Virtual Marine has been making use of the raw square footage (with an equipment area fenced off ahead of the press and industry event). Other companies including Atlantic XL have lined up to participate in development of the centre, with Atlantic XL COO Karen Winsor encouraging more companies to reach out and connect with techNL about the new centre and potential development partnerships and programming.
Federal Minister of Labour Seamus O’Regan spoke at the event in Newfoundland and Labrador and harkened back to his experience years ago, studying the Celtic Tiger in Ireland and thinking about economic transformations, and what’s possible in the provinces, particularly Newfoundland and Labrador, where people will need to believe in positive change and localized opportunity.
“We’ve got an incredibly high education level here, we have people who want to work here, we have people who do support one another, in more of a way than I see in other jurisdictions. Verafin wouldn’t happen if the people behind Verafin didn’t want and insist and fight to stay here, and they did,” he said.
How does techNL see the centre after it officially launches in 2023 and finds its feet? “I would love to see many companies from here collaborating together so that the space will be full, there will be activities, talking about new ideas, new technologies being developed. That’s what I want to see. And I also want to see partners, companies from outside of Newfoundland (and Labrador) to come to (the province) to see it and be part of it,” Villaumé said.
The general plan going forward will see techNL hire a small team of a few people for the management and operations and, Villaumé said, potentially spinning off the centre as a standalone operation.
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