If Canada is going to be competitive through the clean technology revolution, we will need to empower our innovative small and medium enterprises. Initiatives at the grassroots level will plant the seeds for success on the global stage.
The cleantech revolution is coming, whether Canada’s ready for it or not. It’s a transition that we should all be eager and grateful for, because future generations of Canadians are depending on it. But we also need to recognize the incredible realignment this reality will require for Canadian businesses, and we need to chart a course that provides burgeoning businesses in the field with the funding and expertise they need to prosper and grow in the green economy.
Big cleantech ambition built on small and medium enterprise success
With international leaders the world over, including here at home, setting ambitious net-zero carbon goals for 2050, cleantech is going to be the sector that shapes tomorrow’s global economy. In many ways, it already is. For Canada to avoid being left behind, we must dramatically increase our domestic clean technology base and adoption of these technologies, as well as our cleantech exports. The challenge is that most of the companies that are poised to make this happen are largely small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and startups, that don’t have the size or reach to achieve these goals on a short timeline without support.
“Cleantech startups face enormous challenges,” says Ivette Vera-Perez, Team Lead at Mitacs, a leading national not-for-profit organization focused on increasing productivity, innovation, and economic growth through research and training programs. “In general, SMEs in cleantech often lack the critical access to public and private capital. Many clean technologies are capital intensive, but this capital also needs to be patient, as investments take time to reveal their true potential.”
However, the challenges don’t begin and end with funding. Ensuring that companies can rely on talent with the right combination of skills, expertise, innovative spirit, and domain-specific knowledge can also present difficulties.
“Startups are often founded by tech entrepreneurs with vision and expertise, but a lack of knowledge of the regulatory and policy environment results in some of these companies failing to become successful,” says Vera-Perez. “Mitacs aims to fill a portion of this gap by helping companies bring in talent from post-secondary institutions to assist them in executing their roadmaps.”
Building connections, fostering growth
The map to a green future has many roads, but two of the most critical avenues are targeted grants for sustainable technology research and subsidized innovation internships placing high-calibre post-secondary students within cleantech companies. This year, Mitacs’s Elevate thematic call for proposals is awarding $80,000 per year research grants to postdoctoral fellows in key priority sectors, including cleantech. At the same time, their Accelerate internship program is pairing the brightest student minds and most experienced supervising professors with the fastest growing and most innovative companies through a mediated system that provides $15,000 in funding for each $7,500 contribution made by a participating partner organization.
Mitacs aims to fill a portion of this gap by helping companies bring in talent from post-secondary institutions to assist them in executing their roadmaps.
These sorts of programs are the connecting tissue that lets Canada flex its clean technology muscle on the domestic and international stage. The direct and tangible benefits of these partnerships for companies that need research talent to grow and thrive are clear, but perhaps more important still is the way that they create an environment of ambition and a network of support that allows new ideas to grow and flourish.
“At Mitacs, we believe that collaboration is the key to success. And when it comes to cleantech, this is vitally important. Through our programs, we aim to foster innovation collaborations that will help companies fill gaps in their research and access the expertise they need to succeed in this important and growing sector of the economy,” says John Hepburn, Mitacs’s CEO.
At Mitacs, we believe that collaboration is the key to success. And when it comes to cleantech, this is vitally important. Through our programs, we aim to foster innovation collaborations that will help companies fill gaps in their research and access the expertise they need to succeed in this important and growing sector of the economy.
When good ideas are given room to mature
Dr. Ulrich Legrand is a former Mitacs postdoctoral researcher who has gone on to found a company, Electro Carbon, that is looking to turn carbon capture technology into an engine that drives further utility. Dr. Legrand has developed a carbon dioxide electrolyzer system that converts carbon emissions into usable byproducts like potassium formate. Potassium formate is a high value chemical with a wide variety of applications from deicing airport runways to preserving livestock feed. Until now, its production has previously been a source of emissions, rather than a net savings in them.
“Currently, Canadian companies that rely on potassium formate are importing it from countries that use traditional production methods, emitting roughly 1.4 tons of harmful carbon dioxide per ton of potassium formate into the air each year,” says Dr. Legrand. “When you take this indirect impact into account, each system we build has the potential to reduce global CO2 emissions by as much as 9,500 tons per year, the equivalent of taking 2,500 cars off the road.”
Mitacs has recognized the incredible value of Electro Carbon’s work with the 2021 Mitacs Environmental Entrepreneur Award. “This award helped us to gain visibility in our attempt to fight climate change with innovation,” says Dr. Legrand. “We will gladly collaborate with Mitacs for our next steps of development.”
This is just one example of the benefits of diligent and deliberate investment in advancing innovation in Canadian cleantech. If we continue to foster an environment of ambition and growth, and if we continue to strengthen and nurture the connections between industry and academia, Canada will be well-positioned to reach the audacious goals required to fully embrace the cleantech revolution in the decades to come.