Montreal: A Collaborative Ecosystem for Climate Tech
- Montreal’s progressive social economy and environmental awareness have allowed the city to forge an innovative climate tech ecosystem.
- There is no shortage of talent in Montreal, with universities specializing in key innovative areas and progressive immigration policies.
- With strong innovations and talent in the technology space, Montreal is set to be a leader in the digitization of climate applications.
The challenge of climate change cannot be tackled alone. Montreal’s ecosystem is based on collaboration and openness, setting the standard for other cities and leading in bringing collaborators from around the world together. With a high number of international organizations in the city, these collaborative efforts will be even more effective, but Montreal needs to do better at telling its story.
What does SecondMuse do in the context of climate tech?
Climate tech is one area in which SecondMuse intervenes. SecondMuse has been in existence for almost 15 years as an agency for impact and innovation. In the last decade, we have worked with large companies on open innovation and supporting entrepreneurs through challenges or hackathons such as the NASA International Space Apps Challenge.
In the context of climate, we ran Future Economy Lab, a consulting process in Montreal. I partnered into that while I was still in Real Ventures. SecondMuse, the McConnell Foundation, and Maison de l’innovation sociale all played a part in looking at what we can do to support the emergence of climate entrepreneurs in the sector. That is the kind of process we undertake at SecondMuse.
How would you describe Montreal’s innovation ecosystem for cleantech and climate tech?
We have decades of a progressive society around issues of ecology, the environment, equality and poverty. This forms a great base of potential for social engagement. The social economy is super strong in Quebec, through cooperatives and other types of organizations. These types of organizations have been embracing innovation more recently. In addition, tech innovation and the startup scene in Montreal, combined with decades of research from really strong research centres in our universities have created this melting pot of perfect conditions for innovation to happen.
One challenge we have seen is that we have a gap between the intellectual capital in research and the application, commercialization, and deployment of this research, which has not been as fast or wide-reaching as it could have been. This is a focus of mine, to help make that happen in an easier or faster way.
“The spirit of openness, collaboration, and trust that exists in Montreal is something special.”
The spirit of openness, collaboration, and trust that exists in Montreal is something special. I thought that every innovation ecosystem was like that, but after visiting several of them, I realized that this openness and collaboration is not something that should be taken for granted. It comes with a certain level of trust but also curiosity and creativity. You can find this in Montreal, Quebec, and Canada generally.
What is the availability of talent in Montreal and what is being done to attract, train, and retain talent?
This is one of the most awesome things about Montreal. Montreal is a university city—there are a lot of students and researchers coming out of our universities and research centres. It is also an immigration city. Just like Toronto, Montreal welcomes a bunch of immigrants every year. Immigration adds to the social fabric of the city and creates new sparks with people coming in with different perspectives. Montreal has a progressive society that is quite inclusive and diverse. It may not be enough yet but we are on a good path. This is part of our culture and that creates good soil to grow new ideas, businesses, and organizations.
“The shift from manufacturing to the service and knowledge industry has happened quite fast in Montreal.”
The shift from manufacturing to the service and knowledge industry has happened quite fast in Montreal. The knowledge industry, if you include gaming studios, technology, and information technology (IT) startups, is the biggest sector in Montreal. It has grown the fastest and now represents the biggest sector here. The Montreal International website has a bunch of studies on this.
Because of the culture and talent pool here, we have seen an amazing amount of new private-public research centres being opened in the last few years, especially around artificial intelligence (AI). There is also a great influx of talent and knowledge—after all, Montreal has to both connect in and out. We have to invite people in and also connect out. This has been done at a level unseen elsewhere. Montreal International, the agency that attracts organizations to the city, won the top prize in the world for its work last year. They have been doing great work. With these great assets, Montreal has found the recipe for people to benefit from what we built.
Are there specific subsectors under cleantech or climate tech that Montreal excels in?
We excel most at our raw talent in digital intelligence. We have organizations like Mila and IVADO that are fantastic research hubs that work with universities and both public and private organizations. This digital intelligence is being applied to different sectors. It is really about what we can do with digital. The digitization of different sectors is the greatest opportunity for Montreal. With digitization, we can measure with data and use algorithms to evaluate, alert, predict, and prescribe.
“With climate data, we will be able to make better decisions and know if we are on the right path towards the goals we have set as a country.”
For climate, that is exactly what we need to do. We need a planetary system of data that allows us to have finer knowledge of what is happening from a meteorological, geological, oceanic, and aerial perspective. With climate data, we will be able to make better decisions and know if we are on the right path towards the goals we have set as a country. This is true for the country and also the provinces and cities. The City of Montreal has an ambitious target that they have announced publicly on their website.
This is also true for companies. Companies have their own decarbonization targets and they need more efficient and optimized processes. We will get the biggest gains in terms of decarbonization by using digital intelligence. In Quebec, most of our energy is already clean. If you look at the pie chart of emissions from different sectors, you will see that the industrial sector will benefit more from optimization and efficiency. The same applies to agri-food and transportation, which is the biggest sector. If you look at the Canadian pie chart, transportation is the biggest piece of the pie in terms of emissions.
“There is not going to be one silver bullet to help us with the climate; we need to try hundreds of different solutions and measure them to see what works.”
We have research centres on supply chains, smart mobility, and smart cities or resilient cities. The ingredients are there, but we need to try a few different recipes. There is not going to be one silver bullet to help us with the climate; we need to try hundreds of different solutions and measure them to see what works.
What do you see on the horizon for Montreal and Canada’s cleantech industry?
The challenge and opportunity are the same. You cannot work on climate in your own small bucket. You cannot be the biggest fish in a small bucket—we need to have international collaboration. We have the innovation, research, and entrepreneurial potential, but we have not fully realized those. We need better coordination across cities. I am really excited about the Low Carbon Cities Canada (LC3) network. There are seven different cities collaborating, with climate funds in each city, to help fund projects that will help decarbonization. We have amazing programs like Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC), which has funds to help entrepreneurs and organizations launch new innovations that will bring us towards a cleaner economy. There is also social pressure, and we need more of that. We need more social pressure on making sure we have the right climate policies that are implemented with good follow-through, and that there is a budget available for these things to happen.
What would you pitch in 30 seconds to international investors looking at cleantech or climate tech in Montreal?
One unique aspect of Montreal that I did not mention is that it is a city that hosts many different international organizations. We have a great combination of international organizations, research centres that are connected all over the world, and Canadian entrepreneurs who now have the right level of ambition. This used to be something that we did not compare favourably in. If you look at Montreal’s Startup Genome Report, all our indicators are in the green for things like growth, talent, innovation, and funding. Everything is there and innovation is happening, but we do not boast about this as much as other cities do. We need to work on representing ourselves better because everything we have is world-class and has been. It is still a little bit of a hidden secret but not for long. That knowledge is spreading fast.