Cleantech walks the talk

Cover_artNov_08_clean_tech.jpgWe need to build about 100 venture-grade companies in order to have the basis of a cleantech industry. Creating critical mass is the key . . . With more companies [there are now about 25 in Ottawa] . . . we could turn the burners up and get more funding because investors would rather make multiple investments in a single geographic area, which is more efficient than doing just one.

By James Bowen
From SCAN's Print Edition

The term “cleantech” covers a wide range of solutions for combating harmful emissions and waste, as well as technology for producing green energy and reducing energy use. The opportunities presented by an accelerating shift to all things green are innumerable, and they’re being seized upon by a cleantech community that has become a force in Ottawa’s tech industry.
Statistics compiled by the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation (OCRI) show 82 local companies operating in the cleantech space, the majority of them focused on waste conversion or reduction. Unlike the name “cleantech,” however, this sector isn’t new. Of the 82, a third have been around for more than 20 years.

Yet local cleantech is still experiencing growing pains, according to the manager of OCRI’s Cleantech Initiative, Marc McArthur, who is concerned about skills shortages “ranging from senior management to engineering to sales and marketing.” He notes that on November 19 OCRI will host an event designed to facilitate “targeted networking” between a group of skilled workers, HR professionals and cleantech companies.

Companies such as Triacta Power Technologies rely heavily on such skilled workers. Aproximately 80% of Triacta’s employees have a background in IT, and were instrumental in “the transfer of [the company’s] technology knowledge to a new market” when Triacta “put more emphasis on its multi-tenant commercial and residential billing business due to customer demand worldwide,” according to CEO Rob Brennan.

Triacta makes smart meters that allow tenants in multi-unit properties to manage their own electricity consumption. The meters also give property owners, vulnerable to ever-increasing energy costs, the means to monitor energy use unit by unit so they can determine who are the heavy consumers and those who conserve electricity. From this knowledge can come “new (energy saving) services to offer tenants, cost reductions and compliance with energy usage regulations,” says Mr. Brennan.

“We need to build about 100 companies in order to have the basis of a cleantech industry. Creating critical mass is the key,” states Claude Haw, founder of VC firm Venture Coaches. “With more companies … we could turn the burners up and get more funding because investors would rather make multiple investments in a single geographic area, which is more efficient than doing just one.” He adds that a variety of focuses, from clean water to green energy, would help make such an industry viable.

He is describing a diversified cleantech cluster, with numerous tendrils reaching into many markets. To be realized, however, this vision would require an anchor organization, one that provides local networking opportunities and channels to investors and distributors. As it happens, a contender for just such a group is currently in the offing.
Marc Dubé, chair of uOttawa’s department of chemical and biological engineering, is the man with a finger positioned over the launch button of the Canadian Centre for Renewable Energy. CCRE would provide a place of strategic focus for renewable energy initiatives, in the tech business community as well as at the university.

“We are looking at all the implications of renewable energy, including legal, business, political policy, social aspects,” says Professor Dubé. “It’s all about integration, not just providing a technology, (but also) testing it, improving it, integrating it and commercializing it. We are looking at doing good for society.”

uOttawa researchers have been involved with many green energy projects over the last 10 years, particularly the last five, when they have taken advantage of strengthened federal funding commitments.

“Ninety percent of our department is now working on aspects of renewable energy, from technologies to applications,” says the professor.

A major project undertaken by Professor Dubé and his team, called “process integration,” is addressing such problems as energy loss in a production stream, by linking technologies together so that loss occurring in one process can be used in another, in such a way that “we can reach the theoretical limit of efficiency and expel less waste into the environment.”

Professor Dubé currently has a $20-million proposal before the Canada Foundation for Innovation. If it comes (an announcement is expected in March), the funding will be used to launch CCRE with the space and equipment it requires. In the meantime, the CCRE group is active pursuing relationships with the local tech community and searching for even more funding.

Process integration or “industrial ecology,” as it is known in Europe, is the idea of “cradle-to-grave” environmentally sound technology. It is a notion espoused by people such as Terry Kimmel, president of MemPore Corporation, which has developed a low-cost, low-energy membrane process to clean non-aqueous (oil-based) liquids. Conceivably, the membrane could be used for purifying a wide variety of non-aqueous liquids ranging from food oils to crude oil, but, for the present, the company is planning on applying it to lubricating oil.

Mr. Kimmel has obtained a grant from Sustainable Development Technologies Canada (SDTC), to build a prototype plant that would process one ton of used lubricating oil a day. The investment would allow the company to further refine the technology and study the economic feasibility of constructing a full-scale plant capable of processing 20 tons of used oil. Annually, about 15 million litres of lubricating oil are collected in the capital region, much of which is incinerated. Lacombe Waste collects seven million litres, and Safety Kleen collects the rest. What isn’t burned is transported 600 km to a plant in the US for re-refining.

“And that’s not sustainable,” states Mr. Kimmel. “We should be able to set up one or two local plants and recycle the oil here.” He describes a scenario that evokes the industrial ecology, the ecosystem, the co-operative partnerships, the critical mass that he, Mr. Haw and Professor Dubé all see as paramount: “One company’s waste is another’s feed. Our plant would need a small amount of steam to operate. We could be set up next to Plasco, or another company with low-grade waste heat, and get steam from them to help our recycling process. Then the 25% waste stream outputted from our technology could be used as an input to another technology, perhaps an asphalt producer.”

“Energy is a major global issue and effectively addressing it is a priority of the next decade,” says Mr. Niraj Bhargava, chairman and CEO of Energate. “We need to be frugal in resources, reduce our footprint and be sustainable.” Though still largely fixed on the North American market, Energate, with help from its partners, recently went global and now distributes its smart thermostats in Europe and Australia. The company has attracted US venture capital and is currently going after series-B funding.
And there’s more good news coming out of Ottawa’s cleantech sector.

VLN Advanced Technologies makes a water jet system that removes durable surface coatings, like chrome, using ultrasonic technology rather than the conventional chemical approach. The company started off trying to place its technology in the marine market, before switching focus to the aviation industry where its system’s green qualities recently caught the attention of the US Air Force. VLN’s director of business, William Bloom, echoes the sentiments of others in this story, pointing out that while VLN has grown without external financing most cleantech startups would benefit greatly from the investment and guidance accruing from a thriving cleantech cluster.

Notes Mr. Haw, “Plasco is doing very well, with a recent announcement of a commercial deployment (of its waste-to-energy plasma gasification technology) in Alberta. And we have lots of activity in energy efficiency sector (smart grid, smart homes and factories) in the region attracting strong interest from specialized investors. And the number of venture-grade cleantech companies identified in Canada is now 120, about 25 of them in the Ottawa area.”

James Bowen, PhD, PMP, CMC is an Ottawa technology entrepreneur and adjunct professor at uOttawa’s Telfer School of Management. If you have ideas for future market or technology focused articles, send them to jbowen@ces.on.ca.

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