Former Research In Motion Ltd. executive Jim Balsillie is taking over an arm's-length federal agency aimed at spurring Canada's clean technology sector.
Mr. Balsillie was announced Tuesday as the chair of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), a not-for-profit foundation that was established with a federal grant in 2001 to support Canadian researchers and firms in the clean tech sector, tackling issues related to climate change and water and air quality.
"Clean technologies are making the extraction and use of our natural resources more efficient, our transportation better, our buildings more livable, and our communities healthier, more cost-effective places to live and work," Mr. Balsillie said Tuesday.
Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver praised Mr. Balsillie's record at the Toronto announcement, calling him a "Canadian visionary" with an unmatched résumé in global innovation.
"Jim Balsillie is an extraordinarily successful entrepreneur and businessman with a history in innovation and technology," Mr. Oliver said in an interview. Mr. Balsillie will focus on getting the work of Canada's clean tech sector to market, Mr. Oliver said.
"The objective here is to move to commercialization, from clean tech ideas to commercialization. And that's a process he understands and he has been intimately involved in," he said.
The appointment to the file comes as the federal government aims to diversify its energy markets and help Canadian clean tech companies capitalize on growing global demand for the technology, which is projected to triple to $3-trillion by 2020 from $1-trillion in 2010.
The government is also looking to Canadian clean tech to improve the environmental performance of the energy sector with advancements in pipeline safety and reducing water usage. "One way of getting there, clearly, is through science and technology, through efficiency and innovation," Mr. Oliver told The Globe.
SDTC has supported more than 240 Canadian clean tech innovations, including battery technology developed by Mississauga-based Electrovaya Corp., a Canadian company whose technology is now being used in electric vehicles in India and China.
"SDTC helped us cross the dangerous chasm between an idea and the development of a working prototype and commercialization," said Sankar Das Gupta, chief executive officer of the company.
Mr. Balsillie's role will be to help nurture the ideas of SDTC's portfolio of clean tech companies into commercial success.
Canadian innovations in the sector need to be commercially available in order to realize returns, Mr. Balsillie said. "They need to be developed, proven and in the market," he said, adding that revenues from the sector could climb to as high as $62-billion by 2020, creating as many as 126,000 jobs.
He will serve a five-year term on the SDTC board, and the position is considered part-time. He takes over from outgoing chair Juergen Puetter, president of both Aeolis Wind Power Corp., which develops wind power in northeastern B.C., and Blue Fuel Energy Corp., which specializes in low-carbon renewable fuels. Mr. Puetter's term ended in 2012, but he agreed to serve until a replacement was named.
Mr. Puetter, who will remain on the board, said there's "unanimous support" for Mr. Balsillie and said the appointment was a positive step. "He has obviously a very high profile, and I suspect he's looking for new opportunities, and I think he's chosen a very worthwhile organization to lend his name and expertise to."
While acknowledging Mr. Balsillie is "new to the clean tech sector," Mr. Puetter said SDTC has plenty of people to make technical decisions about projects. "The fundamental business principles and the connectivity he brings are the key assets he can bring. He is also, from what I understand a very dynamic individual. Outspoken, not that we weren't before. I think it's all good."
Mr. Balsillie and Mr. Puetter have different backgrounds, but Mr. Oliver rejected the suggestion that SDTC is changing direction. "I wouldn't characterize it as a shifting mandate … the core mandate is there. What he wants to do, and what he talked about with me is, how he can help in achieving the commercialization of the technologies," he said.
The federal government needs to provide more long-term dollars to SDTC, but Mr. Balsillie could be a good choice, said Clare Demerse, federal policy director for the Pembina Institute, an environmental policy think tank.
"In the same way that smartphones have changed the way we operate day to day, we see clean technology not as a niche but as an indispensable part of a low-carbon future. I'm hoping that Jim Ballsillie's background will be a significant asset in helping Canada's clean technology sector tap into the trillion-dollar global clean technology market," Ms. Demerse said.
This year's federal budget allocated $325-million over eight years to SDTC, Mr. Oliver's office said. The agency spent $68-million on projects in 2012. Mr. Balsillie's new gig is hardly a lucrative one – the position of board chairman of SDTC pays $12,000 annually, with a $550 stipend for each meeting.
Mr. Balsillie expressed interest in the position after speaking with a member of Mr. Oliver's staff, although the minister declined to detail whether he specifically sought out the BlackBerry mogul. "He's certainly been very successful, and when people are successful sometimes they want to devote themselves to doing things in the public interest," Mr. Oliver said.
Mr. Balsillie stepped down last year from RIM, which has since been rebranded as BlackBerry. Mr. Balsillie had spent 20 years with the Waterloo, Ont., tech giant, helping build it into one of the world leaders in smartphones.
Since leaving the company, Mr. Balsillie has been an adviser at a number of venture capital firms and startups. Three years ago, he was appointed to the UN's Panel on Global Sustainability. He founded the Balsillie School of International Affairs, was the founding chair of the Canadian International Council and remains chair of the Centre for International Governance Innovation, a Waterloo think tank he also founded.
A hockey fan, Mr. Balsillie also found himself in the spotlight amid repeated attempts to buy an NHL team and relocate it to southwestern Ontario. That chase has ultimately proven fruitless, with Mr. Balsillie clashing regularly with league commissioner Gary Bettman.