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Left: Erin O'Keefe Graham, Director, Emera ideaHUB Right: Barrinique Griffin, Program Manager, Dalhousie Emera ideaHUB

By Peter Moreira, Entrevestor

Erin O’Keefe Graham likes to use the term “tough tech” when describing what takes place at the Emera IdeaHUB at Dalhousie University’s Sexton Campus.

When the facility opened in 2018, the organizers described it as a place for companies that were working on physical products or hardware. O’Keefe Graham, the centre’s Director, wouldn’t disagree with that description, but often refers to tough tech to convey how difficult it is to bring a piece of hardware to the market.

Tough tech, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology investment group The Engine, is “transformative technology that solves the world's most important challenges through the convergence of breakthrough science, engineering and leadership.” It’s what the Emera IdeaHUB aspires to.

“Hardware needs a space where iterations can go on for months or years, and it also needs patient capital,” said O’Keefe Graham in an interview. “We need more patient capital in Atlantic Canada. A medtech device, for example, may need years of iterations before it can come to market.”

Dal opened the IdeaHUB four years ago on the Sexton Campus, the home of the university’s Engineering Faculty, located behind the city’s new Central Library. The goal was to help entrepreneurs – whether or not they’re part of Dalhousie – who had chosen the challenging task of developing a physical product.

Hardware entrepreneurs face a range of challenges that SaaS entrepreneurs usually don’t have to consider, such as design, safety, certifications, testing, supply chains, packaging, regulatory clearance and logistics. The Emera IdeaHUB is a space where as many as 12 teams can converge to develop their products. They have access to a range of tools needed to build prototypes, including 3D printers, and to the expertise of the Engineering faculty.

One company now benefiting from the facility is OceanSync Data Solutions, which was accepted into the Emera IdeaHUB last summer, first as a resident then in the facility’s Design2Build program. The Dartmouth-based startup is commercializing automated weather station units that are deployed on seafaring ships. They collect and relay in real-time environmental data like wind, barometric pressure and the like to improve weather forecasting in the vast expanse of ocean where there is no infrastructure collecting data.

On joining the Emera IdeaHUB, OceanSync stationed one of its staff in the facility – Fernando Saenz, a mechanical engineer, who had recently joined the company from Memorial University of Newfoundland. At the time, the company had a working prototype and Saenz was able to work on a full commercial product, going through several iterations and receiving help from the staff and other startups.

That’s helped OceanSync to produce a full product that is now installed in nine ocean-going vessels. A 10th will be installed this month. OceanSync Founder Sebastiaan Ambtman said the other benefit was that Saenz, who was new to the startup world, learned the commercial and other aspects of growing a young company.

“What’s been amazing, especially for Fernando, is we’re part of the BUILD Program and that has been great because there’s a lot of workshops that Fernando has participated in,” said Ambtman. “He’s been taught everything from product development to fundraising to staffing – everything you need to know about startups.”

OceanSync has been tapping several programs in the local ecosystem, as well as raising private capital. The company, which now has a staff of eight people, has twice gone through Innovacorp’s Accelerate program, and last year received funding from the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.

“This is going to be the most exciting year yet for OceanSync because we have capital, both private and government funding,” said Ambtman. “We are getting close to finalizing our first full commercial product so this is the first year we can really go to market. Our target for the next 12 months is to get into at least 100 vessels and really get into the data science side.”

The OceanSync experience shows that the Emera IdeaHUB offers more than a machine shop and exposes participants to a range of programs, peers and instructors, said O’Keefe Graham. The goal is to develop what she calls “applied leadership” – the ability to bring engineering talents to a range of disciplines across a business.

The programing includes access to the IDEA sandbox, a provincially funded program that offers instruction in the fundamentals of product design. O’Keefe Graham said the Design2Build participants take ideas through to prototype, as well as learning what scaled manufacturing requires.

As society emerges from the pandemic, O’Keefe Graham said founders are anxious to get together to collaborate and learn from their peers. The founders tend to learn from one another, often in chance encounters, even though their startups may be targeting wildly different markets. For example, the current residents include an oceantech company like OceanSync, as well as Zen Electric Bikes, and Axtion Independence Mobility, which is developing a device that helps seniors stand from any seated or prostrate position.

To help with the mission of developing these companies, O’Keefe Graham is building up her team. Bringing consulting experience from Toronto and New York, she is new to Atlantic Canada and started at the Emera IdeaHUB last summer. Program Manager Barrinique Griffin joined from the Centre for Entrepreneurship Education and Development in March 2022, and they have just signed up a community engagement manager.

“We’re just becoming ever more founder-centric,” O’Keefe Graham said. “We look at our founders as our customers. We want to make it easier for them to get into the program and connect with the right people so that we can become the most collaborative part of the ecosystem across the region.”