Tapping the potential of cleantech

Clean technology (cleantech) is one of the fastest growing sectors in our economy. Increasingly, BC is recognized as a leader in cleantech, thanks in part to Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre. Already distinct among Vancouver-area accelerators, Foresight recently introduced a new partnership with Startup Canada that further increases the organization’s reach and influence. Foresight is now one of four accelerators providing co-working space to Startup Canada members living in and travelling to British Columbia.

BCIC recently spoke with Foresight’s Managing Director Neil Huff about the cleantech sector’s rise, why the Lower Mainland is an ideal location for cleantech and what makes a great value proposition.

What has changed about the cleantech sector in BC in the past five years?

Cleantech got a pretty bad rap over the past few years. Here’s what happened. People made the assumption that if you had a technology that was going to clean things up and save the world, everybody would rush out to buy it. That’s certainly not the case.

You absolutely have to have a strong value proposition. You need to either save your customer money or help them grow their revenues. Many cleantech entrepreneurs missed that memo, so there were a lot of early failures in this space. The focus on adding strong value is part of what has changed. That’s certainly one of the areas that we focus strongly on at Foresight, and we’re starting to see a lot more success and credibility with young cleantech companies.

What makes the Lower Mainland a great location for you and your companies?

We have 6,000 square feet in Surrey, and the reason we started here with our entrepreneurs is a practical one. Property in Surrey comes at a very reasonable cost. We’re all about value to our customers, so if we’re going to offer lab space to our customers, the lower the cost we can offer, the better. Having said that, we are in serious discussions with respect to a Vancouver location as well. We need to be on both sides of the river, because we have many clients from Vancouver and the North Shore, and we need to create easier access for them.

In terms of management and growth, what are the issues for cleantech firms in BC?

Startups need two things: they need dollars and they need talent. Here in BC, startups are lucky to have a significant amount of resources in the early stages of development. There’s NRC-IRAP, SR&ED tax credits and support from Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC)—all good news for our sector.

The bad news is that when you need talent, it’s a short list you can draw from. Many of our companies need talent right up to the CEO level. To assist, we’re putting together an inventory of local cleantech experienced CEOs and C-level executives that have the potential to help our company clients. This list may be short compared to Silicon Valley’s or Boston’s, for example, but fortunately it is getting longer as our talent pool grows from within and as more senior level executives come to BC and want to stay here. The addition of key talent can also be the catalyst required to generate financing opportunities.

Who are some of the most exciting companies right now in the cleantech space?

I’d say the most recent one generating some buzz is Carbon Engineering. Their new pilot facility in Squamish removes carbon dioxide from the air and will eventually convert it to liquid biofuels. There are many other great success stories:

  • SaltWorks Technologies Inc. has a desalination technology that converts salt water or brackish waste to fresh water.
  • Axine has developed a low-cost, breakthrough solution for treating toxic organic pollutants in wastewater.
  • SunPump produces solar heating and cooling systems for homes and businesses.
  • BionicPower is generating revenue from a knee brace that harvests power.
  • DarkVision Technologies, winners of BCIC-New Ventures Competition 2014, has developed very innovative downhole imaging technologies for the oil and gas industry.
  • Ecoation has a game-changing wireless crop health sensing, monitoring and management system.
  • Hydra Energy is making serious headway developing hydrogen conversion and fueling systems for fleet vehicles.

In your experience, what are the ingredients for success?

To me, there has to be a very strong value proposition and a large market. But there also needs to be a strong and high level of passion and perseverance at the CEO level. If the CEO isn’t passionate about what they’re doing, the venture won’t be successful.

Tell me something unique people probably don’t know about cleantech.

I think a lot people don’t know that it’s one of the fastest growing sectors in the country. It grew at 9% in 2013 in Canada. If it keeps growing at this rate, it’ll employ 70,000 people in Western Canada by 2022, according to an annual study by Analytica Advisors.

What’s your vision for Foresight and cleantech over the next five to 10 years?

We plan to have 30 companies in our portfolio. We want at least 10% of them to be $100 million companies in five years. So our goal is to have at least three $100 million companies that come out of Foresight in the next five years.

Beyond your programming, what’s going to help make that happen?

We need to become much more focused on value and much more focused in general. Foresight has an Advanced Resource Clean Technology Innovation Centre (ARCTIC), which is trying to focus on the resource sector where there are huge opportunities. It can be difficult to innovate in this area, and the ARCTIC model is helping to create opportunity and build companies that are solving big issues by connecting resource industry problems with innovative solutions.

Learn more about technology in British Columbia at the #BCTECH Summit 2016 – January 18 + 19, 2016.

“#BCTECH: A provincial view” profiles BC Acceleration Network partners who are driving growth of the tech sector across the province. Tech is booming in BC – but in very different ways in different regions. Read about the people who are building businesses, creating jobs and embracing innovation in our spotlight series.

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