It was a meeting of minds, or more exactly a meeting of purpose. The senior bureaucrat and the entrepreneur had not co-ordinated their two presentations but their messages dovetailed nicely to underscore the opportunities and the talent in this province’s ocean technology cluster.
The event, Nov. 12, was the latest in OceansAdvance’s popular series of Breakfast Speakers in the Atlantic Room of the NRC building on Memorial University’s St. John’s Campus. This event with the theme “Opportunity and Talent,” featured presentations by Glenn Janes, CEO of the Research and Development Corp. the crown corporation responsible for improving research and development performance in the province, and by Adam Gobi, president and CEO of SULIS Subsea an applied ocean engineering company at the leading edge of subsea imaging and robotics.
Janes took the podium first. “RDC’s funding is largely for business,” he told the audience of more than 50 entrepreneurs, researchers and academics. He said that is a good model because, business is the engine of innovation, whether in ocean technology or other sectors of the economy. “We’ve invested $86 million to leverage investment of $200 million in 500 projects,” said Janes.
In identifying investment opportunities Janes said the quantity is important, but RDC in its project investment decisions, is guided by quality, focus, and relevance. “And the quality continues to go up,” said Janes, “something that is very relevant in the area of ocean technology.”
Janes said that, at RDC, they are constantly seeking ways to match the research and development opportunities with the talent available. In line with that objective, he took the opportunity to announce a new $1-million-a-year program branded EmployR&D. Janes explained that RDC’s program provides innovation companies with up to 75 per cent of the salary for a Ph.D. graduate in science or engineering to work on up to two company projects. Successful applicants can receive up to $150,000 over two years. “Through this support we are hoping to enhance private sector R&D. We want to see more PhD graduates in local industry, staying in the province.” Janes pointed out that this program builds upon previous programs but offers significantly more funding and has a reduced administrative burden for applicants.
Next up, Adam Gobi spoke in a soft voice that occasionally had audience members leaning forward to catch his words. Gobi is the personification of the kind of innovative entrepreneur that RDC has targeted for support. Gobi’s underwater imaging and robotics company is based in Mount Pearl but he has international experience, playing a lead role in the imaging technology for James Cameron’s Australian-based film expedition to the bottom of the Marianas Trench.
Gobi seems to be a lightning rod for his generation… one that grew up in the province during the cod moratorium and its aftermath. Although he lived in Grand Falls Windsor, Gobi says his peers felt a profound loss of opportunity. Watching the older generation in his town struggle to find work while he was in high school convinced Gobi he would have to leave the province when he grew up. And he did. Moving to Alberta to complete his master’s in computer engineering, he was planning to look west or into the US when something completely unexpected turned his head.
Then-premier Danny Williams’ move in 2004, to lower the flags to half-mast in frustration over negotiations with the federal government for offshore royalties, re-ignited Gobi’s pride and reminded him of what it meant to be a Newfoundlander. “That campaign happened mid-way through my program, causing me to pay close attention to Newfoundland and Labrador politics.” At the same time, he was trying to decide what to do when he finished the master’s. “So I turned my attention to the MUN Engineering department. I found a fledgling underwater robotics research program.” He applied and was accepted to the Ocean Engineering PhD program returning in late 2005. “Although I never finished the Ph.D., my progression through the program was vital to get where I am today,” he admits. “It provided a lot of opportunity for me, including the visiting research position in Australia, where I caught wind of the Deepsea Challenger project.”
The 18 months Gobi spent on Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger project in Australia was the longest he had ever been away from the island. “I started to get that burning desire to come home,” he said. He realized that was going against the grain of the his experience growing up in GFW. “My international experience gave me a fresh perspective on what the province has to offer. And I could build on my work and my graduate studies. It just felt like the perfect time to set out on my own and start my own company.”
When he did, he said, he found the situation in the province vastly improved and also, particularly for the ocean technology sector, found that opportunity for entrepreneurs with a vision seemed virtually unlimited. SULIS is among the companies that has received support from RDC. “Suddenly it’s the best place in the world to start an ocean technology company,” said Gobi. “That’s a complete 180 degree turn from what it was when I was growing up.”