In the spring of 2010, Kate Moran had a front-row view of the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, as one of the top science advisers who helped direct the emergency response to the disaster.
What she learned there – about the arrogance of industry, the gaps in monitoring and the power of innovation – has shaped her goal to protect the pristine coast of British Columbia in her current job as head of Ocean Networks Canada.
Dr. Moran was lured to the University of Victoria – from her position as assistant director for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy – because of its world-leading ocean science programs, which put a network of undersea observatories off the B.C. coast at her fingertips.
Leveraging Ocean Networks' technology, Dr. Moran, who also serves as chair of the Vancouver-based Centre of Excellence for Marine Transportation, hopes to expand the marine safety network on the West Coast, using real-time data measuring waves and currents to provide ships with better intelligence about the sea state, marine life and other traffic around them.
Over the past two weeks, The Globe and Mail's B.C. bureau has focused on innovation in all its stripes, from urban design to biodiversity, from indigenous health to the business of fish waste.
But to keep programs like Ocean Networks afloat, B.C. needs to nurture its innovators and attract the talent that will produce the next big ideas.
KPMG's 2014 report card on B.C.'s technology industry concludes the province is not doing enough. Using business metrics such as the rate of investment in research and development, and the number of patent applications granted, the province scores poorly against other Canadian jurisdictions, and in some cases is on a downward trend.
The tech sector is not the only measure of innovation, but it can serve as a bellwether. And while British Columbia has many of the ingredients to be a lively incubator, by the cold accounting of business it falls below its potential.
Glen Clark is president of Canada's largest privately held company, the Jim Pattison Group. He believes the need for innovation is growing.
"The disruption caused by the speed of technological change and the elimination of global barriers accelerates the need for innovation," he said. "I think that the pace of innovation, generally, is faster than at any time in the past. Companies that fail to invest in innovation quickly disappear. British Columbia has some real advantages – excellent education system, superb quality of life, to name two, that equip our people to innovate and compete."
But David Castle, UVic's head of research, says there is something missing.
To nurture greater innovation, he said, government and industry need to trust that research is an investment, not an expense, and that the benefits, sometimes, cannot be measured in sales. In those terms, improving the safety of marine traffic off the B.C. coast does not require a business case, but an understanding that it is of benefit to British Columbia.
"When we talk about innovation we are talking about new products, new services, new ways of doing things," he said. "That shows up in stark terms in terms of how productive we are, and that shows up in GDP. But there are also intangibles, how do we handle political or legal matters. Social innovation can have direct impacts on our lives. It makes us wealthier, more prosperous not only as a province but as a country."
Dr. Castle believes British Columbia lags because it is trapped by its long-standing reliance on resource extraction.
"Your economy, your government and its policies are all structured around fish, water, forestry, mining. There is nothing wrong with those, but the key for me is that we need diversity in the economy so we are not whipped around by ebbs and flows in commodity prices."
There are encouraging signs. In the past two years, the province's tech sector has outperformed other industry sectors, in revenue, wages and economic growth. It is responsible for 7.6 per cent of the provincial economy, and employs more people than the forestry, mining, oil and gas, and utilities industries combined.
To address the shortage of skilled workers, Vancouver will host the second annual HTML 500 on Jan. 24, a free learn-to-code event that brings 50 of the city's top tech companies together to feed their growing tech hub. Last year's event was so popular, organizers are hosting it in four Canadian cities this year.
Last month, the BC Technology Industry Association opened a new "accelerator space" dedicated to helping entrepreneurs and tech companies grow. The operation is funded in part by a $10-million grant from the Canada Accelerator and Incubator Program.
Innovation doesn't always have to come with a business angle. It can be about building better public spaces, developing medical breakthroughs in the treatment of HIV/AIDS and it can mean renewing the traditions of aboriginal potlatch songs or growing a better sunflower.
But to secure those research dollars, it helps to have a good story to tell.
Dr. Moran joined Ocean Networks Canada, one of the University of Victoria's top research arms, because she saw the potential to avert disaster – both manmade ones and natural catastrophes such as the 2004 tsunami that killed 226,000 people in Asia.
One of the fiercest debates in B.C. over the past year – and it will continue in the coming year – is whether the province should embrace new and expanded oil pipelines that would dramatically increase oil tanker traffic along the coast.
A key question in that debate is, can a supertanker laden with heavy oil safely navigate the Douglas Channel out of Kitimat, if the Northern Gateway pipeline is built?
"No one has an answer to that question at the moment," Dr. Moran said. The monitoring system she hopes will be installed over the next two years would be essential to gathering the data necessary to answer it.
The "Smart Oceans" project proposes to connect subsea pressure recorders and radar to monitor – and provide warnings employing existing technology, the automatic identification system used by commercial marine vessels – in the shipping lanes in and out of Vancouver, Prince Rupert, Kitimat, Campbell River, Port Alberni and other vulnerable marine routes.
Dr. Moran is agnostic about the question of more oil tanker traffic, but she has, thanks to her experience with the Gulf cleanup, a strong conviction that industry shouldn't be left to manage risk.
She recalled how the owners of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, even as the well was leaking at a rate of more than 60,000 barrels a day, maintained that they were good at deep-sea oil drilling. "Certain industries have evolved with too much hubris," she said. "Maybe they have to be to make the case for the investors, but it really hurts on the side of mitigating risk. It's clear we need science and technology and innovation to reduce the risks in these kinds of systems."
A list of The Globe's Innovators:
Nominator: Brent Toderian, urban planner and consultant; chief planner with the City of Vancouver from 2006 to 2012.
Innovator: Andrew Pask, founder of Vancouver Public Space Network, a non-profit group that wants to maintain, build and enhance public spaces in the city; and planner with City of Vancouver.
"Building better public spaces takes passion and advocacy, and our city needs much more of that. Andrew shows that kind of passion." - Brent Toderian
Nominator: Bing Thom, architect, is known for the airy, modern Sunset Community Centre on Main Street; the angular Surrey City Centre Library, with its sleek, spiral interior; Richmond's Aberdeen Mall, with its curves of milky, coloured glass.
Innovator: Designer Stephanie Forsythe, who co-founded molo, an award-winning, Vancouver-based design and manufacturing studio, with her husband, Todd MacAllen.
"People are living with less space all the time now, and [Ms. Forsythe and Mr. MacAllen] have come up with this idea of movable, collapsible furniture … [Ms. Forsythe] is very current; she's right there at the edge, pushing the boundaries." - Bing Thom
Nominator: Wade Davis, author, renowned anthropologist, UBC professor and long-standing explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.
Innovator: Ashli Akins, founder and executive director of the charity Mosqoy and a PhD student at the University of British Columbia.
"In her vision, intellectual passion, intense focus and ambition, not to mention her deep commitment to social justice and the rights of indigenous peoples, Ashli personifies the values and qualities that anthropology needs to celebrate and support." - Wade Davis
Nominator: Glen Clark, former premier of British Columbia, now president of the Jim Pattison Group.
Innovator: Jason Connors, manager, Great Pacific BioProducts in Delta, which makes fresh fish fertilizer.
"Jason is doing something we need more of in B.C, namely, extracting more value from our natural resources, reducing our ecological footprint and growing a brand-new business in B.C." - Glen Clark
Nominator: Dr. Julio Montaner, director of the B.C. Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS and past president of the International AIDS Society. He pioneered the highly active anti-retroviral therapy (HAART) that has become the international standard of care.
Innovation: Dr. Montaner said one area he is watching is treatment of hepatitis C.
"I think one of the most exciting developments that is happening is the emergence of new treatment – highly effective, very simple, extremely well tolerated, but unfortunately very expensive – for hepatitis C." - Julio Montaner
Nominator: Bill Millerd, artistic managing director of the Arts Club Theatre Company for more than 40 years.
Innovator: Chelsea Haberlin, co-founder, general manager and co-artistic producer of Itsazoo Productions
"When I think about the future of theatre, I'm often asked: 'Where do you think theatre will be in 20 years?' It's people like [Ms. Haberlin] who really encourage me. [Her company is] looking at theatre in different ways; they're not venue-bound." - Bill Millerd
Nominator: Grand Chief Ed John, lawyer serving his ninth term on the First Nations Summit.
Innovator: Nadine Caron, the first female First Nations student to graduate from the University of B.C.'s medical school. She is a surgeon, an associate professor at the University of Northern B.C. and co-director of the Centre for Excellence in Indigenous Health at the University of British Columbia.
"The trend is to be strong in the 'modern' world skills and knowledge while deeply rooted in the 'traditional' world with its incredible beliefs, teachings and practices." - Ed John
Nominator: Ryan Holmes, chief executive officer of social media firm Hootsuite.
Innovator: Daniel Dubois, founder of the soon-to-launch startup ShareShed and entrepreneur in residence at The Next Big Thing, a foundation launched by Hootsuite.
"Vancouver has a solid cluster of new and legacy tech companies … all doing really cool stuff … So what's standing in the way of a building a massive technology economy? Talent! Universities and government need to both be working to ensure that we're nurturing a crop of innovators and technologists." - Ryan Holmes
Nominator: Sarah Otto, evolutionary geneticist, professor and director of the University of British Columbia's Biodiversity Research Centre, 2011 winner of the prestigious MacArthur Foundation's "genius grant."
Innovator: Loren Rieseberg, the founder of the Rieseberg Lab at UBC's Biodiversity Research Centre, where he is also a professor of botany.
"He sees a problem – whether it be as basic as how do species form or as pervasive as how do we feed a burgeoning human population without expanding our ecological footprint – and tackles it." - Sarah Otto
Nominator: Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia.
Innovator: Austen Thomas, one of Dr. Trites's PhD students.
"He has been developing DNA techniques to determine proportions of prey consumed by seals, and he has also developed a head-mounted tag that can record the numbers of tagged salmon that seals swallow." - Andrew Trites