Opinion: The community wins at Tech Venture Challenge

In many respects, the Turnbull family represents the perfect microcosm of the local entrepreneurial scene.

At least as far as science and technology entrepreneurship goes in this town, anyhow.

Want the extremely science-oriented Turnbulls to produce state-of-the-art water quality sensoring technology? Not a problem.

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How about a string of networked microprocessors? Again, bring it on.

But ask them to build a successful business around the above, and the three unanimously concur it’s likely not in the cards. At least, they say, in terms of going it alone.

“We have the ability to produce a product, but not the business skills and, to a degree, the money to make this into more than just a cottage industry,” explains patriarch John Turnbull, who only recently joined his sons’ startup company, Aurora Corals – a firm still in the pre-pubescent stage – after it had won the top $10,000 prize at the recent Technology Venture Challenge.

His son Stephen puts things more bluntly. “This experience has been akin to learning a new language – I probably could have picked up Klingon easier than picking up the business language,” he laughs. “There are so many processes and thoughts that as scientists, we hadn’t encountered.”

But the family says its victory at the challenge was just the beginning of what, they hope, will indeed become a thriving business. Aurora Corals’ technology is meant to supply the saltwater aquarium industry with inexpensive and healthy coral.

Essentially, the brothers from Carleton University have designed a system making it cheaper and more efficient to run a large-scale coral grow-op.

That’s no doubt a welcome alternative to what often currently passes as coral farming in much of the world: dynamiting live coral reefs in the wild, then gathering the smouldering chunks to be sold.

Thanks to the above practices the world’s coral reefs, which offer some of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, are in steep decline. A recent report from the Australia-based Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network estimates that 25 per cent of the world’s coral reefs are either destroyed or in serious trouble. Another third, the report says, are threatened.

That, if I’m not mistaken, is called a market opportunity. Chalk one up for the Turnbulls.

They say their technology will usurp traditional harvesting methods – and other competitors in the coral-growing marketplace – by allowing fast, quality coral growth of many different species within self-contained facilities.

The company will target wholesalers, they say, in the Canadian market. Due to international law, coral can’t be grown in Canada and sold in another country – all production must occur in the country in which the sale will take place. Fittingly, Aurora has plans to build facilities to be able to sell into the U.S. and Europe down the line.

And while a typical unit of sale in the coral business – called a “frag” – takes around 10 weeks to grow, the Turnbulls say their technology can do it in six or less.

So what’s next for Aurora? While it hasn’t made a sale just yet – though agreements are in place, the stock slated for monetization is still growing, they say – the three are now weighing various business plans. They say that through the great connections they’ve made through the TVC, they’re likely to create an advisory board soon comprised of local businesspeople.

Kevin and Stephen were mentored during the challenge by Andrew Moffatt, CEO of Keshet Technologies.

The Technology Venture Challenge, in its 10th year this year, featured 22 teams from Carleton University, the University of Ottawa and Queen’s University. Of those, three finalist teams were chosen to compete in a recent finale event.

“These fellows demonstrated that vital entrepreneurial passion and spirit – like turning their bedrooms into an aquarium to prove their process,” said Andrew Foti, a partner at Gowlings Lafleur Henderson LLP and a member of the TVC board of directors, in a statement. “They had really taken the time to think this through and see if this was something the channel would want. The combination of these two things was crucial to selecting them as the winner.”

The company is also looking for startup funding, they say – $300,000 to $500,000 for the first one or two years.

“We could do this at the cottage level and generate an income, but we think this idea deserves better than that,” says John.  “And these contacts we’ve made may well allow us to go ahead on a scale that we couldn’t have possibly done on our own.”

That’s not just a win for the Turnbulls. It’s a win for the entire local technology and business communities.

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