ARCHIVED - An emerging Canadian industry comes out of its shell
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Atlantic Abalone Ltd
March 07, 2007— Halifax, Nova Scotia
Some of the Norse explorers who originally settled Iceland eventually made their way to the Maritimes. Today, about a thousand years later, Iceland is once again providing newcomers to Canada's east coast — this time in the form of shellfish known as Red Abalone (Haliotis rufescens).
A large greenhouse in southeastern Nova Scotia, has become home to some 800,000 of these sizable molluscs, which are finding a ready market in finer restaurants across the country. It is among the country's promising aquaculture operations, built on a Canadian entrepreneur's surplus of seaweed and the experience of a specialty Icelandic industry.
This joint venture between Canadian and Icelandic companies began with the help of the National Research Council Industrial Research Assistance Program (NRC-IRAP), which provides a range of both technical and business advisory services along with potential financial support to growth-oriented and innovative small and medium-sized Canadian enterprises. Delivered by an extensive integrated network of Industrial Technology Advisors (ITAs) — a group of some 260 professionals in 100 communities across the country — NRC-IRAP supports innovative research, development, and commercialization of new products and services.
The roots of this venture begin with two companies owned by Gerry O'Neill and Bruce Newell, who were growing seaweed in Nova Scotia greenhouses for the restaurant trade. By 1999 they had discovered that their crops did too well, outgrowing the market and creating losses when huge amounts of material had to be discarded every week. They needed an alternative use for the facilities and turned to ITA Andy Woyewoda of NRC-IRAP for help.
After a lot of brainstorming in a meeting with O'Neill and Newell that also included members of the Nova Scotia Department of Fisheries, scientists from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and from NRC's Institute for Marine Biosicences, Woyewoda brought the topic of abalone to the table – but only as a "long shot" idea. He was aware that abalone was being successfully grown in Iceland. In response to an enthusiastic "yes" from O'Neill, he began a dialog with Iceland to organize a visit. O'Neill and Newell began to prepare for a possible visit to Iceland, by forming Atlantic Abalone Limited.
With the support of NRC-IRAP and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, the two partners, with a small support group that included Woyewoda went to Iceland. Representatives from that country's abalone firm explained to the Canadians that the abalone thrived on the seaweed, dulse but had to be fed a substantial amount of kelp because it was easier to obtain. O'Neill and Newell then surprised their hosts by pointing out that they were already farm growing enough dulse to sustain a large population of abalone.
"Suddenly the Icelanders' eyes opened wide," recalls Woyewoda, "and Canada had some value through this unique technical ability."
Discussions continued and by 2003, Atlantic Abalone had partnered with Iceland to form "Atlantic Abalone 2002 Ltd," clearing all the necessary legal and financial hurdles to begin bringing the first batch of abalone brood stock from Iceland to Canada. With a product that is suitable for everything from cooking to canning, not to mention topping some of the world's most sophisticated sushi, O'Neill praises Woyewoda's valuable devotion to the project.
"Anytime he found a piece of information, he would shoot it to me," says O'Neill, who admits that it might have been easy to regard the venture as an unlikely dream. And he remains grateful to NRC-IRAP for enabling him to pursue that dream to an even more unlikely corner of the world.
"And if they hadn't supplied the funding, there was no way I was going to get to Iceland," he says.
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