CEO, Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre
Jeanette Jackson, CEO of Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre, discusses Canada’s position to become a worldwide leader in cleantech and where we can go from here.
What sparked your interest in the cleantech industry?
I knew at a young age that I would be an entrepreneur. I’ve always been inspired by people who had an idea for something and then just went out and made it happen. One of the companies I founded and grew through to the scale-up phase was a cleantech company that delivered an energy-efficient control and power electronics platform. This experience and an interest in sustainability inspired me to look to cleantech more broadly.
It was clear to me that this industry was going places fast — all the pieces fit together and were showing a promising future. Innovations that a few years prior people were predicting would be decades away were starting to gain traction in the market, from electric vehicles to zero-emission buildings to renewable energy and low-carbon fuels. I knew that in order to achieve our climate goals, cleantech, and in particular, new cleantech innovation, was going to play a pivotal role.
The opportunity to drive a cleantech future through the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre is where this vision came together. Although I feel we’re just getting started, we’ve been on a remarkable growth and vitalization pathway over the last several years and have delivered programs and completed advisory work that have now helped over 500 entrepreneurial companies.
Can Canada become a worldwide leader in cleantech?
Canada’s in a very good position to become a world leader in cleantech, but not in a perfect position. There is a strong innovation ecosystem in Canada, with a solid underpinning of academic and technical institutions, favourable government innovation programming and strong research and development activities. This had led to leading companies and research institutes spinning out new cleantech ventures, attracting international and Canadian public sector capital.
A talented and educated workforce, proximity to the U.S., and relatively easy trade links and relationships with Asian countries are also strengths. This is bolstered by the Cleantech Economic Strategy Table recommendation for the government to support the cleantech industry in meeting 20 billion in cleantech exports by 2025.
But in order to become a global leader, we have to look at export markets. Often research and development, technology validation and early-stage growth of a cleantech company takes place in Canada but scales elsewhere as sometimes the demand for solutions in Canada isn’t mature or strong enough to become a core market, and there’s no supportive infrastructure such as testing centres or labs.
For example, one of our clients is Project Greenlight, a collaborative industry demonstration project initiated by the Vancouver Economic Commission. The project brings together key asset owners in the Metro Vancouver region (including TransLink, City of Vancouver, City of New Westminster, Quadreal, and FortisBC), to identify and adopt solutions that meet their sustainability objectives. By allowing emerging cleantech companies access to assets and infrastructure (like buildings, streets, vehicles, and digital infrastructure) for product testing and showcase opportunities, it helps accelerate the commercialization of their technology, attract investment and gain traction and sales in the marketplace. I believe Canada needs to invest more in these types of industrial challenge programs.
Why is strategic collaboration so important in the cleantech industry?
Canada can be very regionally focused. This means that innovation and communication silos exist in the cleantech industry, in-province, interprovincially and internationally.
These silos are stifling the scaling up and deployment of cleantech innovation. While networks of activity are forming to support the cleantech industry, since they are all at different stages, there is a lack of information sharing occurring between sectors (and in some cases within sectors). As a result, opportunities are missed, and time for effective collaboration and market intelligence sharing is not prioritized.
Collaboration is the key to closing these gaps — we have to work together, share resources and information within a carefully constructed strategic framework that encourages innovation. This is one of the key recommendations in our recently published CORE Cleantech Strategy — we want to avoid situations where a promising cleantech company relocates to the U.S. or Europe because they couldn’t find a customer or partner in Canada, when there was an opportunity in the next province over that they just didn’t know about. Part of encouraging collaboration is communication — making sure we know of opportunities for partnerships and sales opportunities across the whole country.
What must the Government of Canada do in order to ensure Canada’s cleantech industry thrives?
Governments at all levels have a vital part to play in ensuring this industry thrives. I see three main areas.
- First, government procurement policies should pivot to promote the low carbon economy. This should happen at all levels of government, but particularly federal and provincial governments could de-risk technology adaptation by becoming customers for novel cleantech solutions and products. (For example, all government funded buildings could be constructed using mass timber.)
- Second, progressive carbon taxation and carbon markets. Carbon pricing is a key tool for stimulating clean innovation. Putting a cost on carbon and developing standardized mechanisms for accounting for and certifying carbon sequestration could be a game-changer in multiple sectors.
For example, regenerative farming, which has remarkable potential as a method to sequester carbon, is hindered as there is no mechanism for monetizing carbon sequestration at the farm level. With carbon markets and accounting mechanisms in place, regenerative farming would become more profitable, more carbon would be removed from our atmosphere, and innovation would increase in the agriculture and food sector.
- Finally, there’s an opportunity for government participation in funded industrial challenges that focus on a specific emission reduction categories and project-focused investment for scaling up of solutions into higher TRL and manufacturing.
How can cleantech companies in Canada learn to cope in the time of COVID-19?
The Foresight community of cleantech companies are the backbone of what we do and the reason that we do it. So, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and client after client started to reach out and tell us about the devastating impact that the canceling of major industry events, and withdrawing of deal flow and financial opportunities was to their business, (especially the most vulnerable, cash-strapped startups), it not only hit us hard, we also realized we had to move into action on behalf of our client companies.
One of the core values at Foresight is to support the cleantech industry through fostering a sense of community and collaboration. We really rolled-up our sleeves to do whatever we could as an organization to mitigate the effects of those lost opportunities and called upon a number of our strategic partners to work with us on it. This is where our core value of collaboration came into play. I think in times of crisis, yes, you may have to pivot and make difficult decisions, but if you do it with an eye to your core values, it will be easier to rebound from the crisis.
I would also advise Canadian cleantech companies to reach out for direct help from your network. In times of crisis your relationships become paramount. They will make or break an emerging company. Ask for what you need. That’s one of the reasons we emphasize mentorship and relationship building in our accelerator programs. Foresight mentors and executives-in-residence (EIRs) are seasoned veterans in business and have been through crises before — they know how to steer a titling ship into a safe harbour when needed.