Today’s Youth Will Have to Put the Clean Growth Agenda Into Action
- Inventing and designing the technology necessary to achieve our carbon and climate goals is not the big challenge, the real issue is adopting the policies, funding and public support necessary for its deployment and widespread adoption.
- Current students must expose themselves to courses from as many subjects as they can since solutions to complex problems like climate change and energy access require individuals from a variety of disciplines.
- Young Canadian entrepreneurs have so many opportunities to establish ventures within the Canadian cleantech sector since the level of competition is considerably lower than in other countries.
It is going to be the youth that drive the clean energy agenda. But Canada is at risk of brain drain; young people get frustrated with the scale of thinking, so they leave. Canada must build the support systems and environment for young talent to grow and feel supported.
Do you view technology as the catalyst for Canada’s cleantech revolution and energy transition?
The common misconception is that technology is the silver bullet and that it will bring all the answers. That is almost too optimistic and actually harmfully misleading. I think the world already has enough technology to reach our carbon neutral targets; deployment is the challenge. It does not matter if the technology comes from Canada, Germany or the US, the real issue is putting it to use by setting the policies, creating the capital market and generating the necessary public support for widespread adoption. So, maybe technology is part of the answer, but it is a much smaller part than people realize. I see a lot of clean energy businesses through my work at Generate Capital and as a Co-Founder of Student Energy. In my experience it is often the existing technologies that make a difference, provided they are able to scale and implement in the way they want.
This is important for Canada because it can be the poster child for effective carbon reduction deployment. But rather than focusing on building the cleantech industry, there should be more focus on building the wider renewable energy sector.
Why do so many cleantech start-ups succumb in the valley of death? What do you see as the solution to the challenge of scaling-up cleantech?
Not just Canadian companies, but all companies across the globe experience the valley of death. It is a problem for energy companies because many investors today are either focused on high growth with high risks or steady yields with very little risk. It is hard to find investors in that in-between stage, where many energy start-ups lie. So, this is a worldwide issue because of the structure of the investment ecosystem.
“The world already has enough technology to reach our carbon neutral targets; deployment is the challenge.”
I do not know if the right solution is for government to support all companies through the valley of death. Firms like Generate Capital are doing their part to pull companies out of it by offering more options with flexible capital. Moreover, social impact investors and high net worth individuals’ interest in green investing are changing the dynamics of capital flows. Government can set a carbon price to incentivize green innovation and provide more incentives to encourage investment in cleantech, like tax deductions for investors. But it eventually needs to step away and let the private markets do their work. That will also ensure the sustainability of the cleantech sector since it will not be dependent on changing governments.
Do you think it is possible for Canada to have a prosperous economy while preserving its environment? How will we achieve this?
It is absolutely possible. It is going to be up to the youth of today to put the clean growth agenda into action. Sustainability was not embedded in previous generations’ thinking; it often came as an afterthought. Today’s older generation is also more entrenched in industry, which has constrained our imagination. But the next generation is growing up in a very different paradigm, in which more technologies and ideas are available at our fingertips. The acceleration of electric vehicles, battery technology and solar power, as well as the evolving business models behind renewable energy are definitely creating a different paradigm.
“Good ideas and good talent are the same everywhere. What’s different is the support system that is offered to companies in order for those ideas to grow.“
To achieve this goal of economic prosperity and environmental sustainability, students and young professionals must realize that we are always going to need energy; the real issue is identifying its sources. Even if the oil and gas sector becomes less relevant in the future, the world would still need to turn on lights, power computers for cryptocurrency mining and move from one place to another. The question for the youth is what role they want to play in it.
You co-founded Student Energy as an Accounting student at the University of Calgary. How and why do you think youth with diverse academic backgrounds is engaging with Canada’s environmental issues?
I studied accounting, but I also double majored in philosophy. I think my philosophy degree just helped me think better whereas my accounting degree taught me how business works. My advice to current students is to branch out and take as many courses from multiple disciplines as you can. Having dedicated time to explore your intellectual curiosities is a luxury. When you look at the problems of climate change and energy access, they are very complex problems whose solutions require people from multiple disciplines. The more tools in your toolkit, the better equipped you are to solve the problem. As someone starting their career, it has also helped me distinguish myself from others. I also think that climate change is a very human problem, and being able to understand people of different perspectives and backgrounds helps you understand the motivations and reasons as to why people act the way they do, and how you can shape your solution more effectively.
How different are the Canadian and American cleantech industries and what are the major opportunities and risks that the Canadian cleantech sector faces from its American counterpart?
I don’t really see a difference between Canadian and American companies; good ideas and good talent are the same everywhere. What’s different is the support system that is offered to companies in order for those ideas to grow.
“My advice to current students is to branch out and take as many courses from multiple disciplines as you can..“
The biggest opportunity for Canadians, especially young entrepreneurs, is that there are so many ways to work in the sector without competition. One could feasibly take any innovation from the US or around the world, and adopt it in Canada and probably gain a significant market share. The renewable energy sector isn’t as big, and so there’s less competition. Sure you are dealing with a smaller market size, but there’s still enough population to have a viable market.
“I hope that in the future Canada becomes the reason for another country’s brain drain, rather than suffering from it.”
I think the biggest risk for Canada is brain drain. In a way, I am a testament to that. It’s not to say that I won’t come back to Canada, but a lot of young people get frustrated with Canada and the scale of thinking, so they leave. It’s important to create environments where entrepreneurs and innovators feel valued and embraced and supported. I personally felt it was easier to get the experience and growth that I wanted if I left and then came back, versus just staying in Canada. I hope that in the future Canada becomes the reason for another country’s brain drain, rather than suffering from it.
*Note: The interviewee wishes to specify that the opinions herein do not expressly represent the view of Generate Capital.