An interview with …. Steve Cotter

This month we chat to new TMBC member, Steve Cotter – CEO of Xerra about why they joined the TMBC network and how they’re tackling complex challenges in the maritime domain.  

What made you want to become members of the TMBC network? 

We sent Moritz Lehmann, our Senior Scientist specialising in marine biosecurity issues, to attend the TMBC Excellence Symposium in November 2020. He reported back about the high-level of passion and engagement by network members from all walks of life — Māori and Pākehā, school children and university professors, business leaders and senior citizens. It became clear that this network is unified around passion for the environment and respectful communication. As these are some of our core values at Xerra, and we are working in the maritime biosecurity space, we actively pursued membership to TMBC. 

What do you think are the biggest biosecurity challenges for Tauranga Moana?

As the Port of Tauranga is the largest port in the country, it faces high risk of biosecurity incursions through shipping pathways, such as biofouling, ballast water and hitchhiker pests. While systems are in place to deal with this risk, the possibility of inoculation of Tauranga Moana by unwanted marine organisms is always present. 

You’ve got a varied background that includes helicopter pilot for the US Marines and serving as Google’s Network Development Manager for Europe, Africa and the Middle East – how did you end up in Aotearoa? 

 It’s an example of the positive power of social media. I was running the research network at Berkeley and tweeted a blog I had written about leadership. The person in the job I eventually filled reached out and suggested I apply. My wife and I were looking to move overseas. We wanted to broaden our boys’ perspectives in order to better understand the wider world and our individual ability to impact it. I have always been a bit of an idealist, so I strongly gravitated toward the lifestyle and values associated with Aotearoa. It was a very easy decision to move halfway across the world. Today, ten years later, and at this particular time in history, we feel incredibly grateful we were given the opportunity. Now my mission is to contribute to protecting this country, supporting the idea of kaitiakitanga, using technology to better protect our waters from various threats.

One of the major focus areas for Xerra is to build software and new methods to help tackle complex challenges in the maritime domain – can you give us some examples? 

 As we’ve grown as an organisation, it has become clear to us that Earth observation or satellite data, in our case, is particularly useful for monitoring large areas of the ocean surface. The oceans are seeing an ever increasing amount of activity, including illegal activity, which is particularly difficult to monitor with traditional means. So we have spent the past 18 months building our flagship product, Starboard Maritime Intelligence—a platform that helps maritime analysts know where to look and which vessels to focus on. The problems we are currently helping to solve include detecting illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing on the high seas, assessing arriving merchant vessels for risk of carrying Covid-19 on board, and assessing arriving vessels for biosecurity risks. 

Xerra has recently been involved in developing a tool which can predict the risk of COVID-19 being brought to New Zealand on board merchant vessels.  Tell us a bit about that work?

In August last year we were awarded $850,000 through the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s (MBIE’s) COVID-19 Innovation Acceleration Fund (CIAF) to support the pandemic response in Aotearoa New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. We’ve used the funding to accelerate the delivery of the Covid-19 risk model in our Starboard Maritime Intelligence platform. 

This work is based on an epidemiological model that looks at which ports a vessel has visited and the local Covid-19 infection rates for the days the vessel was in port. Using these inputs, the mathematical model predicts possible contagion scenarios, such as the risk of a vessel having infected crew on board. 

This work is being done in collaboration with epidemiologists Professor Nick Wilson and Professor Michael Baker from the University of Otago, who have recently done work estimating the risk of outbreaks of COVID-19 associated with shore leave by merchant ship crews (Wilson et al. 2020). 

How does this approach differ from the current system in place at maritime borders? 

 Currently, all arriving vessels, and their crew, are treated as high risk, regardless of the vessel’s travel history, time at sea and origin of the crew on board, in order to mitigate the risk of Covid-19 entering through the maritime border. 

The current approach is cautious, and provides everyone with the confidence needed to maintain the elimination strategy. However, the future might bring a ‘traffic light’ approach, which could be more nuanced where vessels are assessed upon arrival and control measures are adjusted to suit the risk. Automated risk assessments will be a key part of this.

We’re excited to be working with Customs, MIQ, Ministry of Health, MPI and other agencies to understand their requirements and how these Starboard risk assessments could integrate into their information-gathering and decision-making systems.

How do you think the TMBC network can be most effective? 

 As we are only just beginning our journey with TMBC, we are curious to learn more about your past and current activities. We are hoping to be part of regular foren connecting people, businesses, researchers and interest groups. We are also keen to hear from stakeholders whose voices may not often get heard on these matters.  

When you’re not working, how do you like to spend your time? 

My wife and I just built a solar home overlooking the Manukerekia River in Alexandra, where Xerra is based. Now, as empty nesters, we are enjoying it as well as our new life there together. We love the relaxed lifestyle in Central Otago, with so many opportunities to cycle, walk, and try all the fabulous regional wines and restaurants. We’ve also discovered a circle of interesting friends down here who are creative, curious and entrepreneurial. We spend quality time with them, and host many others who stop by while traveling through the region. Of course we are also taking every opportunity to travel and see more of New Zealand while we have it all to ourselves.

In what ways was Xerra prepared for the changes and challenges presented by the pandemic? 

The team at Xerra has been collaborating and working remotely for nearly four years now. Because we had connectivity issues when the regional research institute that was established in Central Otago, we decided to create a distributed, remote workforce years ago. That way we could hire not just the right talent, but also have a broader impact in various regions. Take Moritz for example: he is personally familiar with and connected to the waterways we are trying to protect in the Tauranga area. He is also a highly specialised researcher, one of the best qualified to create specific solutions our regions desperately need. When the pandemic hit, we found ourselves with long stretches of time to focus on beta testing our new product, and all the right systems already in place to manage remote work.