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NOWNS: Mapping Project Eyes Coastal Waters

Nova Scotia’s coastline is 7,500 kilometres long.

That’s a big number — equivalent, by my calculations, to driving from Halifax to Vancouver, then turning right around and driving back to Lloydminster, on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, before parking the car.

What’s odd is we don’t know as much as we’d like about the waters near our shore, which experts call the littoral zone.

“We call it the white ribbon,” says Tim Webster, a research scientist with the Applied Geomatics Research Group at Nova Scotia Community College’s Middleton campus.

Webster says there are good maps of the sea bottom in deeper waters further from shore, and we pretty much know the topography of the land. The area between, oddly enough, can be more of a mystery, in part because it’s too shallow for vessels to come in to map what’s below the water surface near shore.

Now, thanks to something called the topo-bathymetric light detection and ranging system, which makes it possible to map seabed topography by air, Webster is helping to fill in our gaps in knowledge.

He is also illustrating what is possible in that sweet spot where research and commerce meet.

A slew of companies — McGregor GeoScience Ltd., Acadian Seaplants Ltd., Leading Edge Geomatics Ltd., GeoNet Technologies Inc. and Nova Scotia Power Inc. — are investing in the research project.

Everyone benefits. The college gains new expertise; the partners, if all goes well, gain a competitive edge in their businesses.

No wonder commercialization is all the rage on campuses, where it’s not enough to just come up with an idea, you must now find a way to transfer it to the marketplace.

It makes perfect sense. Innovation is the key to competitiveness and the kind of smart, new, forward-looking jobs that keep the young here.

No wonder the Ivany report called not just for universities and community colleges to double research funding in the years ahead but also for the number of research and development partnerships with businesses to double from an average of 1,000 per year to 2,000.

We’ve got a ways to go when it comes to R&D spending, which dipped from $536 million in 2012 to $531 million for 2013, the last year for which credible figures are available.

In fairness, comparably sized New Brunswick’s spending also fell during the same period. On the other hand, Saskatchewan, which has a population similar in size to Nova Scotia but a zippier economy, saw its spending rise about two per cent, to $715 million, in the same years.

The business sector funds most of the research spending there, as it does in the majority of Canada. Nova Scotia, with its disproportionately high number of post-secondary educational institutes, depends upon universities and colleges for most of its R&D.

The picture looks a little brighter when it comes to meeting the Ivany report’s lofty commercialization goals, according to figures from Springboard Atlantic Inc., the publicly funded body designed to help businesses and universities and colleges in Atlantic Canada share knowledge and technology.

Springboard keeps track of the agreements, awards and contracts between industry and the 18 educational institutions it represents in the region.

Christopher Mathis, the organization’s CEO, cautions that the size and types of deals can vary widely, and the overall numbers depend upon how rigorously they are reported.

Nevertheless, in the last three years, nearly 65 per cent of the 2,932 research and commercialization agreements, contracts and student placements within Atlantic Canada occurred in Nova Scotia.

The trend is moving in the right direction, says Mathis, who points out that the province has been the site of some notable educational institute and industry collaborations of late. Last June, for example, Tesla Motors announced a five-year research partnership with Dalhousie University to develop better lithium-ion battery technology.

That was a big deal because it was the electric car maker’s first research agreement with a Canadian university. In Dal’s case, it just happens to be the home of Jeff Dahn, who has been working on lithium-ion battery technology for 19 years.

Forging a long-term relationship with an innovative company like Elon Musk’s Tesla could bring endless economic benefits to Nova Scotia.

But so, for example, do startups like Halifax’s ABK Biomedical, launched in 2012 by a trio of Dalhousie scientists, which has developed OccluRad — tiny biocompatible glass beads used to treat uterine fibroids, or benign tumours, in the uterus.

Who knows? In time, maybe NSCC’s project could have the same kind of impact.

Being able to map the near-shore seabed helps companies like seaweed processor Acadian Seaplants in obvious ways, but it makes it easier for the federal government to regulate the fast-growing aquaculture industry.

Webster’s team is also working with a company looking at one day building a liquefied natural gas plant at Goldboro, as well as with a property investment company worried about what storm surges could do to its buildings.

Webster calls the possibilities “endless.” It sounds optimistic, but there’s really nothing wrong with that, is there?