It started as a Coast Guard facility, two aging brick buildings on the Dartmouth side of Halifax Harbour.

Today, they've been updated with modern steel-grey siding, a nod to the nearby sea and the site's new purpose as the Centre for Ocean Ventures and Entrepreneurship, or COVE.

Along a wharf that once moored federal patrol ships, research vessels with ocean monitoring equipment now rent berths.

The inside is also unrecognizable from its Coast Guard origins: machine shops whir with the sound of high-tech equipment, engineers tweak the latest prototypes, entrepreneurs work in a startup yard, and office and meeting spaces are filled with some of the greatest minds in the field of ocean technology.

"People from the Coast Guard come here and say, 'I worked here 15 years ago, and I never imagined this is what it could be,'" said COVE chief executive Melanie Nadeau during a wide-ranging interview.

"It shows how we've repurposed this site to create a cluster of innovators around marine technologies."

After an extensive renovation, the former federal facility reopened in 2018 as a hub for Canada’s marine technology sector. In five short years — much of it in the depths of a global pandemic — COVE has landed on the international stage as one of the most cutting-edge marine innovation ecosystems in the world.

It's now home to 65 local and international businesses — with a waiting list for its workshops and office space.

The companies are involved in research ranging from sea level rise and ocean floor mapping to offshore energy and ocean shipping sustainability.

Halifax ocean tech hub buoys firms tackling everything from #ClimateChange to #Defence. #COVE

"There's a big misconception this is just a Nova Scotia thing," Nadeau said. "The research being done at COVE on climate change and defence and security affect our entire country."

She added: "These aren't regional issues — these are national issues. It's a Canadian imperative."

One of the resident businesses, Kraken Robotics, has developed unmanned underwater vehicles with subsea sonar and laser sensors.

Precise Design, which also operates out of COVE, engineers and manufactures custom casings that enable scientific equipment to withstand some of the ocean's deepest depths.

Merinov does applied research in fisheries, aquaculture and food processing sector.

"We're creating and testing tools to improve the sustainability of the fisheries and shellfish and seaweed farming sectors," said Flora Salvo, a project manager with Merinov. "At COVE, we have access to everything we need for research and development. It's the centre of the blue economy in Canada."

The innovation happening at COVE has helped attract the attention of leaders in the marine technology and defence sectors.

"Now we're global. Our brand is known all over the world," Nadeau said. "In a span of six weeks, we had 22 VIP visits from places like the Middle East, the U.K., France and Europe."

Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston has also been met with broad interest in COVE when overseas.

"We have many gems in Nova Scotia and COVE is certainly an exciting one," he said. "More and more, the world is realizing Nova Scotia's potential."

It's that reputation and innovative capabilities that has spurred NATO's interest in Halifax as it rolls out a new program.

The Nova Scotia capital is in the running to be the North American home for the Defence Innovation Accelerator for the North Atlantic, or DIANA. Halifax would complement the European office in London, England.

The DIANA program would come with dozens of new NATO jobs, funding for research and the chance for local companies to commercialize so-called dual-use technology for both civilian and military purposes.

"The DIANA program taps into the expertise of our resident companies and gives them access to 30-plus countries looking for a solution to answer a problem that they have," Nadeau said.

"It can be anything from quantum computing and surveillance to clean technologies, artificial intelligence and biotech."

The program dovetails with COVE's focus on commercialization — one of the tech hub's key goals.

"We're really good at creating (intellectual property), and then the IP either gets sold to the U.S. or other places," she said. "We're not well versed on commercialization. It's a big gap in the market and that's where the value is."

COVE is also focused on sustainability, climate change and the decarbonization of marine-based industries.

"We're transforming legacy industries," Nadeau said. "We're really pushing forward on what the world will look like in 20 years."

While COVE works with researchers and government and has an incubation facility, its primary focus is industry.

One of the major issues for the marine technology industry is finding workers, Nadeau said.

"There's a big labour gap," she said. "It's not a two-year labour challenge, it's a decade long labour challenge."

The shortage of workers spans multiple disciplines — not just ocean science, Nadeau said.

"People think of the ocean and they think about ocean science, but we need people in commerce, engineering, computer science, marketing ... it's quite multi-disciplinary," she said.

There are also efforts to diversify the sector as well as improve retention, Nadeau said.

Meanwhile, one of COVE's main areas of expertise is robotics and the use of marine observation tools to collect ocean data.

"We want to improve existing data but then also automate the collection of data and create real time data," she said. "Under 10 per cent of the ocean has actually been explored."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 7, 2023.

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