The development of a maritime technology and blue innovation ecosystem in the Northern region of the country

Rui Azevedo

  (1)Fórum Oceano

The Sea and the new wave of deep innovation

The new European Innovation Agenda(1) sets an ambitious goal for the European Union: to lead the new wave of deep innovation, capable of presenting transformative solutions to address the challenges of digital transformation, decarbonisation, and circularity of the economy in favour of a more sustainable development model. To achieve this, it is necessary to combine scientific knowledge, technological development, and business capacity. Access to innovation infrastructures, the existence of testing and experimentation conditions, the ability to support and accelerate new startups, attract investment and endeavours are crucial conditions that need to be wisely combined to achieve the best possible results and address the different challenges posed by the demand for goods and services in the international market - in a sustainable manner.

The Sea is a strategic domain for Europe, and innovation in the maritime sector is a fundamental vector for achieving the goal of the New European Innovation Agenda. This path of innovation in the maritime sector has inspired strategies for smart specialisation at the national level (ENEI) and regional level (EREI).

In Portugal, the National Strategy for Smart Specialisation (ENEI)(2) features the Sea within a broad domain referred to as “Great Natural Resources - Sea, Forest, and Space" and highlights the potential of "Transformative Activities" related to "New Technologies for Ocean Exploration”, including blue biotechnology, and "Smart Navigation and Logistics."

This article refers to the main dynamics and technological and innovation capabilities in the maritime sector, both established and under development in the Northern region of the country; it also focuses on their development potential, and how they can contribute to establishing the North Atlantic region as an international reference in the field of oceanic technologies.

The Sea, a domain for the smart specialisation and development in the Northern region

The Northern region of Portugal has long been committed to the maritime sector, based on a vision established in 2007 with the Agenda for the Sea, developed by the Northern Region Coordination and Development Commission) (CCDR-N)(3). This strategic framework involved the collaboration of various agents in the scientific, technological, and business domains, with a particular focus on the University of Porto, the Polytechnic Institute of Porto, the Catholic University (School of Biotechnology), as well as several interface centres like the Institute for Systems and Computer Engineering, Technology and Science (INESC TEC), the Interdisciplinary Centre of Marine and Environmental Research (CIIMAR), the Institute of Science and Innovation in Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (INEGI), and Douro, Leixões and Viana do Castelo Port Administration (APDL).

The establishment of Oceano XXI (2009) - an associative entity managing the Sea Cluster (which later took on the current name, Fórum Oceano – Cluster of the Portuguese Sea, headquartered at UPTEC Mar, in Leça da Palmeira) - brought together a range of R&D entities and strengthened the connection between said entities and the business community.

The Cluster favoured the actions of various R&D organisations, higher education institutions, companies, business associations, and local authorities, creating positive contexts for the emergence and development of projects and the establishment of technological infrastructures in the maritime sector, with the support of European funds. The The Northern Regional Program 2007/2013 financed several introductory projects, such as the Leixões Cruise Terminal (the current CIIMAR headquarters), UPTEC Mar, and the Marine Centre in Viana do Castelo, among others. These investments continued within the scope of the period 2014/2020, thanks to the support of various R&D projects - and, more recently, with the creation of the Blue Hub in Leixões, and the Digital Innovation Hub for the blue economy, funded under the Recovery and Resilience Plan (PRR).

These projects and infrastructures, developed along an axis comprising Porto, Matosinhos, and Viana do Castelo, with a focus on areas such as marine renewable energies, blue biotechnology, robotics, materials, and digitalisation, showcase a significant potential for collaboration among themselves, and with other platforms and institutions operating in the region and the country: CEIIA, the University of Minho, the Polytechnic Institute of Viana do Castelo, and COLAB B2E, among others. In this sense, the North Atlantic territory is relevant in the wave of innovation in the maritime sector.

The Regional Smart Specialisation Strategy (EREI Norte 21-27)(4) comprehends the domain of specialisation referred to as "Marine Resources and Economy," which includes actions aimed at valuing the region's specific resources - particularly in the areas of marine renewable energies and marine biotechnologies -, leveraging natural assets, existing knowledge, technological capacity, and a solid business foundation.

Regarding marine renewable energies, these strategies cover the development of technologies for the installation and maintenance of offshore wind turbines, anchoring structures, mooring systems, grid connection, and wave energy harnessing. In the field of marine biotechnology, these strategies involve the development of technologies for the sustainable production of marine bioactive compounds for pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, and cosmetic industries, as well as to produce biofuels. Knowledge of marine organisms’ diversity, their biochemical processes, and marine ecosystems is essential for these purposes.

The blue economy strategy pursued in the Northern region is also aligned with various national strategic frameworks, such as the Thematic Agenda for Marine Research and Innovation(5) and the National Ocean Strategy (2021-30)(6). In terms of the Thematic Agenda for Marine Research and Innovation, it focuses on "systems for the production of marine renewable energies suitable for the characteristics of the Portuguese coastline”, which should be tested to assess and monitor prototype performance. Regarding the National Ocean Strategy, the plan established for the Northern region aligns with Strategic Objectives OE2 "Promote a circular and sustainable blue economy," OE3 "Decarbonise the economy and promote renewable energies and energy self-sufficiency," and OE7 "Stimulate scientific knowledge, technological development, and blue innovation."

The Atlantic North of Portugal, a potentially attractive location for ocean testing and trials

The quality of innovation is tested and demonstrated in the pre-commercial phase. Technological innovation in the maritime sector requires properly equipped testing and experimentation zones to meet the needs of companies, R&D centres, and/or anyone seeking to test new technologies for/in the ocean. The Northern region, between Porto, Matosinhos, and Viana do Castelo, concentrates a set of testing and trial infrastructures with the potential to attract tech experts who can benefit from the natural assets — marine and wind conditions — mobilising the existing knowledge potential in various areas e.g., polymers, materials, robotics, computer science, and marine biology. It also benefits from the existing industrial sector, especially in terms of metalworking, composite materials manufacturing, cable manufacturing, and naval industry, as well as the provision of services and logistics made available by the region's port infrastructures.

Noteworthy infrastructures include the testing and experimentation facilities at the University of Porto (wave tank at the Faculty of Engineering), the Porto School of Engineering (testing tank for underwater robotics), INESC TEC (TEC4SEA)(7), a modular platform for research, testing, and validation of technologies to support sustainable blue economy and human resources training), CIIMAR, as well as the Aguçadoura Companhia da Energia Oceânica SA, Leixões Blue Hub (under development), and the Technological Free Zone in Viana do Castelo (close to kick-off).

The availability of these testing infrastructures ensures, within a reduced territorial area, the adequate conditions to perform tests and trials, covering the full range of Technology Readiness Levels (TRL), from the lowest levels to the pre-commercial level. In this sense, recent dynamics associated with Leixões Blue Hub, Companhia de Energia Oceância, and the announced Technological Free Zone in Viana do Castelo (with the support of local municipalities i.e., Matosinhos, Póvoa de Varzim, and Viana do Castelo), bring new ambition to the region in terms of testing and trials in the maritime sector. We’d like to present some of the features of said infrastructures:

Leixões Blue Hub(8)

The Leixões Blue Hub (HAL) is a project promoted by a consortium led by INESC TEC, featuring CIIMAR, INEGI, APDL, Fórum Oceano, and the Matosinhos City Council. It is funded by the PRR (Recovery and Resilience Plan) and it aims to establish an infrastructure for testing technologies, products, and systems in the fields of ocean engineering, maritime logistics, and blue biotechnology (blue biobank of the North and scientific diving centre) - within the perimeter or the Leixões port, and featuring the expertise of the various partners. HAL will encompass a diverse range of complementary actions that will address the needs of different sectors within the blue economy, in a wide range of domains, including the following:

  • Research and Technological Development in smart energy management systems, renewable energy production at sea, port structures, new propulsion systems for vessels, automation, development of new materials, valorisation of marine bioresources, environmental sustainability, and the incorporation of waste and by-products from maritime industries into new products.
  • Prototyping and testing of solutions, by providing a set of equipment and conditions that enable the testing and trials of prototypes developed by the partnership’s entities and third parties.
  • Innovation and technology transfer, applying innovative solutions to companies, which is crucial to boost competitiveness and strengthen the value chains of the blue economy.
  • Provision of technological services, training, and information on financial instruments, both public and private, available to support the blue economy.
  • Promotion and support for ideation and business acceleration programmes that contribute to generating new products and services in the areas covered by HAL, adding value and consolidating different sectors of the blue economy.
  • HAL stands out due to a set of features that address the challenges set forth by the PRR, particularly in terms of multidisciplinarity (combining biology and engineering), collaborative approach (involving multiple promoters gathered in a consortium), and vertical integration (encompassing research, technological development, testing, technology validation, innovation, training, and entrepreneurship). HAL is expected to be completed by the end of 2025.

    Companhia de Energias Oceânicas - Aguçadoura Test Zone(9)

    In 2022, INESCTEC and WAVEC acquired a majority stake in Companhia de Energia Oceânica SA by purchasing a significant percentage of shares previously held by EDP Inovação SA. This acquisition reflects the shared understanding between INESCTEC and WAVEC regarding the transformation of the Aguçadoura infrastructure into a reference test and demonstration centre for ocean technologies at the European level. This infrastructure focuses on renewable energy technologies, as well as underwater robotics, ocean digitalisation, and offshore aquaculture.

    The Aguçadoura Test Zone, located in an environment with abundant renewable resources, in proximity to Viana do Castelo and the port of Póvoa de Varzim, features relevant assets. These include associated usage licenses (TUPEM - Permits for Private Use of the National Maritime Space and TRC - Grid Capacity Reservation Title, which enable the connection of devices under test to the power grid), available equipment (electric substation with a 4 MW connection capacity and offshore power cable with a 3.2 MW export capacity), a wealth of oceanographic and oceanic data accumulated over the infrastructure's history - where wave energy technologies such as AWS (2000-2004) and Pelamis (2007-2008) were tested, as well as the floating wind energy technology WindFloat (2011-2016). To these success cases, we can add a promising near future, with the testing of the wave technology CorPower Ocean AB (CPO) scheduled to start during the first semester of 2023 and extend for another six years. This will simultaneously contribute to initiating operations in the infrastructure and placing it on the map of European test facilities.

    The Aguçadoura Test Zone can benefit from the development of floating offshore wind power, which is expected to become a reality during this decade - both in terms of commercial projects and innovative technological advancements. This includes the development of 15 MW and 20 MW turbines, the creation of cheaper and more flexible floating platforms in terms of mooring requirements, the integration with other economic activities in the same space (e.g., aquaculture), the development of Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) based technologies to support Operations and Maintenance (O&M), and the creation of new dynamic power cables and modular submerged electrical substations.

    Viana do Castelo Technological Free Zone

    Within the organisation and operation of the National Electrical System, a Technological Free Zone (TFZ) for offshore and nearshore(10) renewable energies was created in Viana do Castelo. It aims to carry out research, demonstration, and testing activities in a real environment for technologies, processes, products, and services related to electricity production and storage.

    The public discussion on the delimitation of the Viana do Castelo TFZ ended recently, and further development of the process is expected. The Viana do Castelo TFZ presents significant potential for synergy with the Aguçadoura Test Zone. It is considered essential that both infrastructures are managed by the same set of entities to leverage said synergies.


    The ocean represents a relevant domain for the development of the new wave of deep innovation; in this sense, the country, particularly the Northern region, along its coastal stretch between Porto and Viana do Castelo, has the potential to become internationally attractive for testing, technology development, and prototyping activities, as explained above. The points discussed earlier highlight the existing potential, the progress made so far, and the determination of regional stakeholders to work collaboratively and engage in cooperative projects. However, there are certain conditions to fulfil and challenges to overcome to reach this potential, including:

  • The challenge of network governance, strategic and coherent, namely in terms of managing the set of testing infrastructures and support services, to ensure a high-quality service and meet demand.
  • The challenge of investment and financing, as some of the infrastructures still require investment - for which financing is not yet secured (as is the case with HAL). It is expected that such financing will be possible with continued support within the framework of the new period of EU funding programming.
  • The challenge of developing an innovation ecosystem focusing on marine renewable energies and the blue bioeconomy, particularly regarding the improvement of conditions for hosting, incubating, and accelerating companies that provide technological services.
  • The challenge of concerted and strategic international promotion of the set of infrastructures and their capabilities, to attract companies and tech experts and let them test their products, services, and technologies.
  • The challenge of attracting public and private capital to support the financing of new companies operating in these areas.
  • Finally, but not least, the challenge of training, attracting, and retaining talented and human resources to meet the demand for new skills that these projects will certainly require.

    COM (2022) 332 from the EC, 05/07/2022

    (2) ENEI 2030, ANI, October 2021

    (3) Regional Agenda for the Sea – Action Plan for the Sea, CCDR-N, 2009

    (4) S3 Norte 2027, CCDR-N, January 2023

    (5) Thematic Agenda for Marine Research and Innovtion, FCT, March 2019

    (6) National Ocean Strategy 2021-2030, DGPM, 2020

    (7) TEC4SEA, infrastructure created by INESC TEC and CINTAL

    (8) Adapted from an application submitted and approved within the scope of the PRR

    (9) Adapted from the 2023 Plan and Budget, Companhia de Energias Oceânicas

    (10) Decree-law 15/2022, January 14