Engineering students flip oyster problem into a business opportunity
PEI oysters are popular worldwide and harvested year-round. But, what only insiders know is that hard labour is essential for growing healthy oysters.
Farmed oysters, which are grown in cages weighing up to 200 pounds each, need to be turned once to twice per week during the growing months for an average of five years. Oyster farms vary in size, from a couple of hundred cages up to thousands of them.
Growers need employees who are physically strong enough to turn these heavy, awkward cages for up to 10 hours a day. Their cage-turning efforts discourage mussels, barnacles and algae build-up, which lets water circulate better and more food reach the oysters. This results in more appealing oysters that can garner higher prices.
As part of their studies at the University of Prince Edward Island, a team of students has engineered a solution for oyster growers and producers. Jordan Sampson, Brett McDermott and Dylan MacIsaac designed the answer: specially designed equipment that gently guides the oyster cages in a rollercoaster-like flip.
Their invention removes back-breaking labour from the equation. This is welcome news for the oyster industry, not only to save time and money, but also to address staff shortages by opening the labour pool to applicants who are less suited to physically demanding work.
As of winter 2017, Synapse Inc.—which turns UPEI ideas into solutions for real-world problems—stepped up to help the students. Synapse evaluated the team’s technology, and having determined its merit, Synapse has worked closely with the team ever since. This included filing for a patent, and applying for and securing proof-of-concept and patent funding from Springboard Atlantic as well as startup funds from Innovation PEI’s Ignition Fund. Synapse will continue to support the team’s startup business, Island AquaTech, providing advice and mentorship as the business is formed and grows.
Dr. Alaa Abd-El-Aziz, UPEI President and Vice-Chancellor, said, “Synapse has been instrumental in protecting and advancing this Atlantic Canadian innovation. By supporting these students and the UPEI School of Sustainable Design Engineering, Synapse increases the likelihood that this engineering design will move into production to meet the needs of the economically important oyster industry.”
The team created a true Maritimes solution. For the prototype, the team worked with numerous Island and Atlantic Canadian businesses, and intends to continue this approach as they move into production.
Next, the students plan to incorporate their company and refine their design for a production version. At this rate, the students will graduate with a degree, an invention to their name and a ready-made business. The world is their oyster.