Clean technology is a trillion-dollar global industry, but can Canada compete?
“Canadians have long been great innovators,” says Kevin Nilsen, President and CEO of ECO Canada, which is based in Calgary.
He points to the two Canadians who patented a design for a light bulb, Henry Woodward and Matthew Evans. But two years later, American Thomas Edison bought the patent and has since been credited with the invention.
“We haven’t always been the best at supporting organizations to commercialize and to set up a strong, competitive business,” Mr. Nilsen says. “That’s why sometimes some of the great innovations are bought by other countries.”
ECO Canada, which stands for Environmental Careers Organization Canada, is a not-for-profit that supports the environmental sector through three main functions: research on the gaps and opportunities in the industry; communication between government, academic institutions; and business and training programs.
“Investment in clean tech is growing,” says Mr. Nilsen, citing the sector’s growth from $880-billion in 2008 to $1.2-trillion in 2015, according to the organization’s research (funded in part by Employment and Social Development Canada’s Sectoral Initiatives Program). It is projected to rise to more than $2-trillion by 2022.
Clean tech is a subset of the larger environmental sector. It includes any technological process, product or service that provides any improvement in performance, reduction in cost, minimization of negative environmental impacts, and more efficient use of natural resources, he explains.
“Canada was ranked No. 1 in the world when it came to investment in clean tech innovations but we were only ranked No. 16 globally when it came to generating revenue from clean tech.”
There is a gap, he explains.
“We need to not only be good at coming up with ideas and new technology, we also have to commercialize on that opportunity to make a viable business out of it, to create jobs and be a bit more revenue hungry.”
The federal government has a clean technology economic strategy table that has set a target aiming for clean technology to be in the Top 5 of Canada’s export industries by 2025. “So, that shows a tremendous opportunity globally,” Mr. Nilsen says.
But that may require a shift in focus, he suggests.
“In order to succeed globally, we need to be taking it one step further [beyond innovation]. It’s not enough to support companies with research and development. You support them with commercialization, setting up that deep work force that can support these businesses.”
This support is well demonstrated through the wage subsidy programs ECO Canada offers, allowing startups and established companies to hire recent graduates. Much of the funding comes from Employment and Social Development Canada, and over the past year, ECO Canada has placed 3,500 people in positions, with more than 90 per cent remaining employed.
In order to know where the opportunities are, ECO Canada conducts research on growth trends in the industry in Canada and abroad, as well as labour gaps and opportunities, says Mr. Nilsen. Research like this also helps policy makers decide where funding would be most beneficial.
In a report released in February 2020, the organization identified employers that hire clean tech workers as coming from a variety of industries, such as natural resources, utilities, construction and manufacturing, among others. The report identified pipeline transportation, rail and water transportation, utilities, and oil and gas extraction as having high rates of clean tech use in Canada.
Abroad, opportunities go beyond the United States, currently Canada’s largest export market, according to the report. Countries tightening environmental regulations and developing nations are emerging as potential export markets for Canada’s clean tech expertise.
Skilled work force
While more than half of the 81 companies surveyed for ECO Canada’s report planned to hire clean tech positions in the next year, they noted coming up against shortages in a variety of skills.
Employers are calling for additional training and certifications in the areas of environment, waste management and recycling, energy efficiency, alternative energy, sustainability, and health and safety.
“It’s important for academic institutions to keep up with technological changes,” Mr. Nilsen says. ECO Canada brings industry into academia to provide input and feedback into how their curriculums are structured, ensuring industry’s needs are being met.
ECO Canada accredits environmental programs at postsecondary educational institutions for meeting the national standard for environmental education. It also has programs to prepare students for the work force, such as supporting co-op placements and certifying environmental professionals in training. ECO Canada also helps companies with financial incentives to create jobs and eventually replace retiring workers. In fact, the organization’s research suggests 30 per cent of the current environmental work force is set to retire by 2029.
“We survey employers to find gaps they find with recent hires,” Mr. Nilsen says. “One consistent thing we are seeing is that business and financial acumen is a gap, especially with more technical graduates [in science and engineering].”
Business and financial acumen is key to commercialization, and the lack of these skills is a significant roadblock, explains Mr. Nilsen.
Commercialization with Cleantech Commons
One academic institution leading the charge for clean tech commercialization is Ontario’s Trent University, which delivers several environmental programs accredited by ECO Canada.
Recognizing that need to nurture commercialization in the clean technology sector, Cleantech Commons at the university is a research park designed to boost collaboration between private industry and the academic community.
“We see ourselves building a cluster of scalable growth companies in the areas of clean, green and low-carbon technology development,” says Martin Yuill, Cleantech Commons’ executive director.
Cleantech Commons, a partnership between Trent University and the City of Peterborough, chose the location in order to capitalize on the wealth of clean tech expertise at Trent, as well as other academic institutions in the area, such as Sir Sandford Fleming College.
The idea is to attract a range of companies to the park, from early-stage businesses looking for investment, mentorship, and skilled labour; to large enterprises that want to collaborate and engage with the ventures, technology and talent being developed; to startup and spinout companies from academic research.
The focus is particularly on the expertise of Trent’s core research areas of water technology, environmental services, advanced materials sciences, agri-food and biotechnology, and information and communications technology.
Cleantech Commons is still in its early development. The city is bringing municipal services to the site, and the organization is in talks with developers to create facilities for tenants. There are 25 companies currently interested in the space, and the organization has raised $4.8-million in grant funding from the federal government for a clean tech accelerator to be located at the research park, Mr. Yuill says.
The accelerator will be one of the facilities that will be part of the first building. Known as the Trent Enterprise Centre, it will provide shared labs, space for technology assessment, demonstration and piloting, office space for student entrepreneurs, and scale-up facilities for startups and spinout companies from academic research. The idea is to “get new technologies to market quicker,” Mr. Yuill adds.
Collaboration is key
Resources like Cleantech Commons are essential in moving Canada up the commercialization ranks, and to bolster its reputation for innovation.
But according to Mr. Nilsen, it really all comes down to industry, academia and the government working together to ensure the environmental work force continues to grow and grasp opportunities like the one clean tech offers Canada.
“We need to ensure investment is made now in the commercialization and development of a deep work force for the clean tech space. Let’s build a pool of skilled talent that is focused on finishing the house and living in it, not just building great foundations and stopping there.”