Sea cucumber conundrum: Processing machine receives second patent, solid reviews from industry
June 2 was an exciting day for the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI), a not-for-profit corporation established by Memorial to work with industry and academia to identify opportunities and bring them to market.
That’s the day the Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office (TTCO) presented inventors of a sea cucumber-processing machine with their second U.S. patent.
Difficult to process
Sea cucumbers, a valued food source in Asia, are harvested in their natural environment in Canada and some other nations or raised in aquaculture farms in Asia.
Their soft, cylindrical bodies and leather-like skin can be tightened or loosened allowing them to take the form of whatever container they occupy or to slip through small spaces making them a difficult animal to process.
“Processing sea cucumbers is a very demanding, labour-intensive process and leads to both repetitive strain injuries and sea cucumber asthma,” said Robert Verge, managing director, CCFI, which helps make the capabilities of Memorial and other academic institutions available to the aquaculture, fishing, and fish processing industries.
The centre, which has its own board of directors, is located at the Marine Institute (MI) on Ridge Road.
“The machine cuts the sea cucumbers and removes the gut material,” said Joe Singleton, a mechanical engineer who worked on the original design and is now the co-ordinator of programs with MI’s School of Ocean Technology.
“The problem is (sea cucumbers) have no hard parts and are able to change shape at will. Our machine allows us to control the sea cucumber as we feed it into the machine. They have no skeletal structure. They’re the Barbapapas of the ocean.”
The engineers behind the invention
To deal with the challenges of shape shifting, several prototypes were developed by Mr. Singleton, and Stephen King, another mechanical engineer with 20 years’ experience in equipment design.
Both were employees of the Centre for Aquaculture and Seafood Development (CASD) at the Marine Institute at the time working under a contract between CASD and CCFI.
“We have done everything to try and flatten out (the sea cucumbers),” said Mr. Singleton, who explained that no matter what you do with them, they return to a ball shape. “You have to appreciate that challenge in order to appreciate the machine.”
Once they figured out how the machine could keep the sea cucumbers in the required flattened state, Mark Ingerman, a technician with CASD, sourced parts and assembled the first machine, which was tested at the Fogo Island Co-operative Society Ltd. with positive results.
“The conveyor feeds the sea cucumber into the machine,” explained Mr. King. “It gets split end to end, then flattened. Next, it gets cleaned with rotating brushes before the guts are suctioned out through holes.”
Sea cucumber asthma
It wasn’t only the shape shifting that the engineers had to deal with.
Certain sea cucumber species have a defence mechanism allowing them to discharge toxic chemicals resulting in what is known in the industry as sea cucumber asthma. The engineers had to come up with a way to reduce plant workers’ exposure to the particles.
“We are able to channel air flow to capture released particles to avoid the asthma problem,” said Mr. Verge, explaining that the cover has a vent pipe, which can be connected to an air handling system to take away the volatile particles released through the evisceration process.
The development of the sea cucumber processing machine increases employee retention, as processors do not suffer from as many asthma incidents and repetitive strain injuries. One machine can do the job of 20 plant workers.
Patenting and commercialization
In 2013 CCFI assigned the intellectual property rights of the machine to what is now Technology Transfer and Commercialization Office, a unit within the Vice-President (Research) portfolio.
“Memorial has a system in place to support researchers as they navigate the commercialization process and engage with industry partners,” said Tim Avis, director, TTCO, who was on hand on June 2 to present members of the development team with their second U.S. patent.
“We ensure that the intellectual property of researchers at Memorial is protected.”
Mr. Avis added that not only has the sea cucumber eviscerating machine received two patent approvals in the U.S., it also has two other patents in Canada and Europe pending approval.
“Without funding from Springboard and the Atlantic Canadian Opportunities Agency, this patent application would not have been possible,” he said. “Memorial, with the help of these funders, was able to successfully respond to an industry need. This sea cucumber processing machine is the first of its kind in the world.”
Put through their paces
The machines would not have come to fruition without C&W Industrial Fabrication & Marine Equipment Ltd., a fabrication company in Bay Bulls that was licensed to build, market and sell the machines worldwide in 2013.
“We are proud of our contribution to the sea cucumber industry,” said Dennis Crane, operations manager at C&W.
“We have sold sea cucumber eviscerating machines for plants around the province, including Quin-Sea Fisheries Ltd., Change Islands; Cape Broyle Sea Products, Fogo Island Co-op Ltd.; and Ocean Choice International, St. Lawrence location. We are continuing to pursue the patent process in Europe which will hopefully expand our sales territory.”
Impact on industry
“(Here at CCFI) our mandate is to help the industry and this is a tangible example of it,” said Mr. Verge. “Apart from developing the machine, we played a lead role developing the sea cucumber fishery. We were involved in delineating the resource, figuring out how to catch it, and how to process it. We believe that fishery can be bigger than it is today.”
“The gut material is currently treated as waste,” Mr. Verge continued. “But we know it has value. We know it has an analgesic in it and research shows that the gut material is capable of killing cancer cells.”