Retooling high tech for clean tech

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FIRST BREAKFAST: Panelists at SCAN’s early morning meeting on Retooling High Tech for Clean Tech. Left to right: Jack Smith, Gilles Patry, Paul Johnston, Claude Haw, Denny Doyle and Adam Chowaniec.

By Greg and Tony Patterson
From SCAN's Print Edition

More than a hundred friends of the environment crowd the meeting room at the Monterey Inn on Prince of Wales Drive. Not everyone has extensive green credentials but they all have a keen interest ─ a keen business interest. It’s May 15 and they’re here to kick off Ottawa’s clean tech discussion. Kyoto or the Conservative alternative, it doesn’t matter which. There’s lots of money to be made from colouring things green and high tech is front of the line.

There are essentially two ways to address global warming, commonly believed to be the most urgent environmental problem. One can take measures to soak up excess CO2. This is the way of planting trees, which is exactly what the Monterey Inn has done to win recognition as a “carbon neutral” enterprise. SCAN puts its conference there after learning that Monterey has planted 5,000 trees in Almonte to offset its carbon emissions.

The other way is to reduce such emissions. This is the way of technology and the reason that the gang has gathered to talk about how high tech, which Ottawa knows a lot about, can become clean tech, which the whole world is looking to find. Perhaps to buy.

There are certainly some technologies that primarily address environmental concerns. Transforming waste into clean energy is a trick that several local companies are trying, most notably Plasco Energy Group with its plasma furnace to turn garbage to electricity, and Iogen Corp., which has been offered $80 million to build a plant in the U.S. to turn cellulose to ethanol

But there are many more local companies that aren’t in the environmental space per se. They’re there almost by accident, looking at a large new market looming for goods and services they’ve been producing for other purposes, sometimes for years. And so they are at the Monterey to learn what they can of the emerging opportunity. It isn’t uniformly upbeat.

Adam Chowaniec, chair of the Ontario Research and Innovation Council and of Tundra Semiconductor, speaks about “stifling” government regulations that are hindering the progress of clean tech enterprise. He points to Plasco’s waste-to-electricity technology at its Trail Road landfill facility, and how it took Rod Bryden’s company over a year to get the permits to deploy its plasma gasification prototype. “There are not a lot of businesses that can survive those cycles,” he says. Chowaniec believes the Ottawa high tech industry can make significant contributions to clean tech by finding applications within its core strengths, such as communications, computing and silicon chip engineering. “Microprocessing technology, embedded software and sensors have dramatically reduced automobile emissions,” he notes.

Chair of high tech consultancy Doyletech and SCAN columnist Denny Doyle advises those exploring envirotech to look at the service side of the industry – test procedure, lab standard, project management – simply because 70% of global GDP is skewed to services. Pondering the future of Ottawa’s envirotech industry, he estimates it will account for 25% of local high tech activity by 2017, generating $5 billion and employing 20,000. But he cautions that this optimistic outlook will only be realized if angels, VCs and government provide the necessary funding – $1 billion, Doyle figures, in seed money alone.

Claude Haw challenges Doyle’s assertion that clean tech would be worth $5 billion in ten years; it could be done in half that time, he says. As managing partner of Venture Coaches, which is currently raising $100 million to finance early-stage clean tech enterprise, he is actively moving the industry towards that five-year goal. But hearing him speak about the need for cleaner water, improved waste management, and tighter control of Canada’s vast natural resources, it’s clear his passions lie first with environmental issues, not with exploiting them for monetary gain. “Whether you agree with Al Gore’s views or not,” Haw says, “it’s clear that climate change is a real problem.”

Paul Johnston, president and CEO of not-for-profit research funding company Precarn, discusses retooling for clean tech using the Precarn model, which is based on nurturing pre-commercial technology through collaborations with developers, customers and academic research partners.

uOttawa CEO Gilles Patry begins by saying that while clean tech ventures, faced as they are with financial and regulatory obstacles, can be “high risk,” the perils are far fewer if approached with a strategy for the long-term. He touches on the need for a national strategy to develop the clean tech industry. If we don’t, says Patry, Canada will end up losing more ground to countries like Finland and Sweden, which are investing heavily in clean technology and could soon be commanding the global market. He winds up by discussing the important role universities play in promoting environmental sustainability within their walls and beyond, and the “best-practices” approach ─ recycling and energy conservation procedures ─ undertaken at uOttawa. Patry says the university is considering introducing, to all undergraduate programs, a basic course in environmental sustainability. Not surprising, coming from a school that houses an Institute for the Environment, and which offers courses in environment and the law, environment and health, environment and energy, environment and just about anything.

Jack Smith, founding director of S&T foresight at the Office of the National Science Advisor, outlines technological areas and trends that are being applied to clean tech. S&T foresight aims to predict uncertainties associated with business, cultural trends and societal changes to determine possible outcomes and timelines for technology applications. Smith points to the strengths of research and industry in Canada and Ottawa, such as clean coal, nanobiosensors, and biofuels technologies.

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