Into the blue: UGent launches ocean research unit by the sea


UGent has gathered all its marine and maritime research in one place in Ostend and launched an English-language programme targeting students from around the world

Growing concern

Ghent University (UGent) has brought together its marine and maritime research activities at its Ostend science park, GreenBridge, to get the most out of its expertise in oceans and seas. A two-week English-language programme should also attract more international attention.

The Blue Growth cluster is named after a long-term EU strategy in which seas and oceans are identified as key drivers for the economy because of their potential for sustainable innovation and growth. Around the world, governments and companies are increasingly looking to the water to find solutions for shortages in food, resources and energy.

“About 70% of the Earth’s surface consists of water, but humankind has mainly plundered and polluted the oceans,” says UGent professor Colin Janssen, scientific co-ordinator of the Blue Growth cluster. “Respect for this environment is essential in UGent’s long-term strategy to benefit from the opportunities it provides.”

Janssen was also the driving force behind the Marine@UGent consortium, in which research groups from six of the university’s 11 faculties work together on marine and maritime research. These groups are active in areas including aquaculture, marine biotechnology, seabed mining, coastal defence and offshore wind, wave and tidal power.

Close to the sea

“UGent is the most active university in these fields in Flanders,” Janssen says. “About half of the Flemish scientific publications on these topics are linked to UGent.”

The aim is that research at the new cluster will lead to solid technology and business activities. “The vicinity of the sea makes it easier for researchers to test their applications,” says GreenBridge CEO Marianne Martens. 

Flanders may only have about 60 kilometres of coastline, but it has a wealth of expertise in the marine and maritime domains

- Marianne Martens

Various partners plan to install a wave tank at GreenBridge , which will allow models of coastal engineering and offshore structures – such as breakwaters, energy converters and offshore wind turbines – to be subject to waves, tidal currents and wind. 

The proximity of research centres like the Flemish Marine Institute and relevant companies should be an advantage as well. “Flanders may only have about 60 kilometres of coastline, but it has a wealth of expertise in the marine and maritime domains,” says Martens. “We want to link all these centres of expertise and foster innovation through collaboration.”

GreenBridge also houses an incubator for new companies, which will help to turn research ideas into business initiatives. It currently has 20 projects, one of which is Laminaria, an Ostend company working on technology to harness energy from waves.

Subcon Europe – a company with Australian roots – chose Ostend as a base to explore the European market. It specialises in developing artificial reefs that form the basis for offshore energy applications without harming marine organisms.

While the incubator currently offers space to a variety of enterprises, the plan is to focus more and more on blue growth. “In five years’ time, our incubator should be known as Flanders’ blue growth incubator,” Martens says.

Theory into practice

GreenBridge is also reaching out to international students around the world with a new English-language programme for up to 20 participants, which will take place in September. It lasts two weeks, with one maritime module and one marine module. Students can also opt to take only one module.

The interdisciplinary programme consists of lectures and practical courses. “Participants will carry out exercises on marine spatial planning on the beach, perform tests on wave energy in a lab, visit an offshore wind farm and examine platforms that can be used at sea for multiple purposes,” explains Noémie Wouters, spokesperson for Blue Growth.

The courses on aquaculture and blue energy will also contain an element on business development. Participants will receive practical advice on how to establish a spin-off company and learn about the experiences of entrepreneurs like Laminaria CEO Steven Nauwelaerts.

From Africa to the North Sea

The lecturers will also share their experience concerning the valorisation of research through working with companies or the government. Wouters says this formula has already attracted students from as far afield as Sri Lanka, Madagascar and Kenya.

The summer school is partly delivered via an online portal, created by UGent to facilitate access to marine and maritime training initiatives all over Europe. The database contains about 900 initiatives from 40 countries.

Lecturers come from UGent, the Free University of Brussels (VUB), the University of Leuven, the Belgian technology industry’s knowledge centre, Sirris, and from abroad. The initiative is supported by Flanders Knowledge Area, the agency for mobility and co-operation in higher education in Flanders and  the Technical University Alliance for economic transformation in West Flanders. Dredging company Deme sponsors the programme.

Photo courtesy GreenBridge