Canada’s Cleantech Opportunity: Disrupting the Traditional Economy

At an iPolitics Live event on Thursday morning, a panel of industry stakeholders spoke about the federal government’s significant commitments to the cleantech sector, with a $2.2 billion commitment in the 2017 budget, and whether they could realistically keep up with the pace of change.

“It’s absolutely clear that change and disruption is happening more quickly, and to be successful, companies and government agencies really do need to accelerate their ability to adapt to this environment,” said Steve MacDonald, CEO of Emissions Reduction Alberta. “We need to accelerate technology validation and adoption.”

MacDonald said that some of the challenges they have in Alberta deal with the scale and the capital complexity of some of their large industries, but those industries to understand the need to adapting their speed and risk metrics to meet the challenge.

MacDonald said that the government needs to take a portfolio approach, looking at all sectors involved and at multiple timescales that would include incremental changes, and that it’s not just about money, but it involves regulatory and financing innovation and intellectual property ownership and sharing.

“We also need to create the sandboxes to allow innovators to be successful – sandboxes that allow them to de-risk their technologies in a real-world situation without jeopardizing the ongoing operations of large corporations.”

Susan Rohac, vice-president of growth & transition capital of Business Development Canada, said that the last federal budget has tasked BDC to further support the cleantech sector, and that they have been making large investments that include scaling up projects.

“The federal government, through consultation with industry experts and companies, recognized that there is still a gap for companies and they need capital to continue to grow and scale.” Said Rohac. “The money that we were given in the budget, $600 million, is going to be used towards that, and we spent the last year in consultation with the various industries and partners to see how we can best make sure that that money gets as much usage and gets as much impact as we want.”

Rohac said that they need to partner with other federal agencies and the provinces to ensure that the cleantech sector in Canada gets the financing it needs to become global players, but that also means convincing the private sector that this is something that they should be investing in.

Hamid Arabzadeh, chairman and CEO of RANOVUS, recounted the process that his company had undertaken with their Quantum Dot Multi-Wavelength Laser technology, which started under Nortel but was picked up by the government when the company went bankrupt. Much of that process involved raising the necessary capital to develop the technology.

“We have had a nuclear winter in hardware and core technology development in Canada that has lasted a very long time, and the tail of that winter still has many people afraid of investing in foundational technology,” said Arabzadeh. “They know that it takes a lot of money.”

In particular, developing breakthrough technology can take years with not results, unlike software development. Breakthrough technology can take four to five years just to make a first pass, and it needs a lot of support because it means doing things that won’t work. Arabzadeh pointed to the government’s systematic way to help start-ups to get from proof-of-concept, through alpha and beta tests, and getting to the stage of transferring to manufacturing.

“This piece of technology by itself would never be commercialized,” said Arabzadeh of the lasers. “We’ve put around $45 million of additional funding to create technologies around this technology to make it marketable. We’ve invested millions of dollars with NRC for them to advance this technology to a level where we could use it commercially, and now we’re in the scaling phase.”

One of those funding partners is Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), which has five key factors that they use to determine if a project is worth funding to its next steps – whether the technology has economic and environmental potential, whether it has a management team capable of delivering, if they have an IP or freedom-to-operate strategy that will allow them to export, and whether they have a sales and manufacturing strategy.

“You don’t necessarily have to have it completely correct when you come in the door, but you need to have thought it through, and be thinking about those issues,” said Leah Lawrence, president & CEO of SDTC, adding that they are looking for more sophisticated partners rather than concepts that are fresh out of the lab.

MacDonald added that the problems faced by the oil and gas sector in Alberta are the same as those faced by municipalities and other sectors, such as water management, or reducing energy use.

“Cleantech is enabler – it’s not industry-specific,” said MacDonald. “The solutions around using waste heat are applicable in our buildings as much as they are at a SAGD site for an oilsands project. Alberta very much gets it. We’ve had a challenge in terms of our reputation and access to markets – Alberta has the conditions for success.”

Watch the entire show here.

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