Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS Discovery District — North America’s largest urban innovation hub — discusses how cleantech ventures are poised to play a key role in the transition to a sustainable future.
Of all the climate-change solutions out there, why are you so passionate about cleantech?
Defeating climate change requires many things: collective will, a commitment to science, strong policy, personal responsibility, and a heightened sense of urgency. As a signatory to the Paris Agreement, Canada has committed to do its part to avert catastrophic outcomes for life on Earth by drawing down our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But making good on our commitments also gives us an enormous opportunity. We have the chance to convert our position as one of the leading cleantech innovation nations into one of the leading players in the global cleantech economy, which is estimated to be a multitrillion-dollar growth category over the next three to five years.
Commercializing tech has two key advantages: one, we’re creating jobs and fuelling the economy; and two, we’re improving the lives of people, quickly and at scale.
We have a solid pipeline of cleantech innovations and a growing pool of commercial solutions ready to be deployed around the world. Already, 12 Canadian firms rank in the Global Cleantech 100 — more than any country other than the U.S. But we have to move beyond pilot and demonstration.
You see, Canada doesn’t have an innovation problem. We have an adoption problem.
The game plan must be to focus on supporting and helping Canadian entrepreneurs to commercialize and scale their innovations, by connecting them to incumbent customers and strategic sources of capital who are incentivized to work with these young companies. This is how we can create a launchpad for global powerhouse companies that can drive the impact that Canada needs, while also winning more than our fair share in the global climate economy.
Which Canadian innovations are you most excited about?
MaRS supports more than 1,300 ventures, but I’ll pick two that demonstrate the vast scope of Canadian innovation.
First, let’s go out to space by way of Quebec. Headquartered in Montreal, startup GHGSat boasts a fleet of microsatellites that can track GHG emissions from a low-earth orbit. What’s so remarkable about this company’s tech is its ability to precisely pinpoint emissions from specific industrial operations. And, because the satellites have a full view of the planet, GHGSat is essentially creating an international standard for emissions monitoring — an integral part of any private or public sector program that aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions.
Back here on Earth, there’s Extract Energy, a solution that “programs” metal alloys to react in a specific way when exposed to heat. Using a kind of heat engine, Extract Energy can capture low-grade waste heat and convert it into low-cost, emission-free electricity. When one considers that more than 70 percent of consumed energy on our planet is released as waste heat, one doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to do the math behind what could be an enormous source of GHG-emission drawdown, and a potential game changer in Canada’s ability to create sustainable advantage in the climate economy.
Canada is a relatively small country competing with cleantech giants like the U.S. What’s our distinct advantage?
We’ve traditionally relied on our resource economy as our primary building blocks to support our way of life. But in the 21st century, the new resource is talent, and as it turns out, the generational talent pools of materials scientists, geophysicists, and chemical engineers that we have built in support of our traditional resource industries, are themselves the new resources for the cleantech economy.
Without a doubt, we’ve also been distinct beneficiaries of President Trump’s wrongheaded immigration policies. South of the border, policies around immigration and innovation have helped Canada attract and retain top talent from around the world. When the U.S. started building walls, the Canadian federal government started breaking ours down with the Global Talent Stream, a program allowing startups and scale-ups to fast-track the entry of skilled foreign workers. The new Biden administration will somewhat erode that advantage, but also bring about more resilient, cross-border partnerships.
Still, the past four years have left Canada in a great position to compete. Every day at MaRS, I hear from international corporate partners and investors, praising Canada’s cleantech companies. The status of our ecosystem on the global stage is higher than it’s ever been. I don’t mean to downplay the competition, but we have the talent, entrepreneurial drive and government backing to take more than our share of the market.
Tell us about Mission From MaRS. Why did you start it, and what makes it special?
Mission From MaRS is a recently-launched initiative that will identify Canada’s most promising cleantech ventures — Climate Champions — with the greatest ability to rapidly reduce GHG emissions. These companies, working in the real estate, transportation and energy sectors, have the potential to mitigate gigatons of emissions globally and, in the process, change the way the marketplace views cleantech as an industry.
While we have a solid pipeline of innovation in Canada, it’s tough to look at it and point out billion-dollar climate unicorns. That’s because companies face many barriers to adoption that slow down deployment. Mission From MaRS was created to help speed things up. Once our Climate Champions are selected, we’ll work to build coalitions around each company, representing a broad spectrum of stakeholders, from end customers and industry suppliers to strategic investors, regulators and policymakers. Milestones will be set, and progress measured, ultimately culminating in the widespread use of new cleantech products and services. This approach complements existing MaRS programming but is different in two key ways: It’s hyper-focused on solutions to reduce GHG emissions in the shortest period of time and it leverages the idea of using dedicated industry coalitions to help individual companies scale.
The COVID-19 pandemic has drawn attention away from climate action. Do you think environmentalism can continue to gain traction after the pandemic?
In many ways, COVID-19 is simply the latest installment in a series of devastating crises that can be traced to a planet that is spiralling out of equilibrium. Global warming now regularly creates 500-year storms and 100-year fires, and our sea levels continue to rise due to melting icecaps. When combined with man-made deforestation, this drastically reduces habitats that are capable of supporting life, bringing humans and animals that have never encountered each other into close proximity — along with new diseases for which humans have no built-in immunities. Unfortunately, we now add 100-year pandemics to the mix of catastrophic events that we have brought upon ourselves.
If anything, this crisis has only further demonstrated how society’s ills (environmental destruction, disease, racism and poverty, to name the gravest) are connected. It’s why the need to “build back better” has dominated the world’s recovery conversation. So, what better way to stimulate the post COVID-19 economy — and heal the planet — than by investing in climate solutions? This pandemic has reminded us of the importance of economic resilience. It has exposed our vulnerabilities and shone a light on what we can do to minimize and prevent future disasters. COVID-19 is a trial run for what we can expect as our climate crisis grows. We must learn from it.