Mather Carscallen’s SABRTech Inc. won gold in Innovacorp’s CleanTech Open last week, but I’d like to unofficially award silver and bronze medals to the Atlantic provinces and Innovacorp.
The entire region (I was tempted to say Nova Scotia but prefer to take a regional view) is a winner because this international competition has developed stronger links with scientists, environmentalists, and, most importantly, sources of finance around the world. And it wouldn’t have happened if Innovacorp didn’t have imagination and courage.
A few years ago, the Nova Scotia government decided that cleantech would be one of the pillars of its innovation efforts. It makes sense, given the province’s legislated goal of generating 40% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020 and the laws encouraging the community development of energy projects.
In April of 2011, the province established the $24-million Nova Scotia CleanTech Fund. So far this year, Innovacorp’s investments have born a distinctly greenish tinge: a $1.1-million funding of CarbonCure Technologies and $2 million for Seaforth Energy.
So Innovacorp’s decision in the autumn of 2011 to host an international competition was in keeping with this ethical strategy. The organization decided to fling open the doors and invite start-ups from around the world to enter to win the $300,000 first prize (including a $200,000 equity investment), as long as they set up shop in Nova Scotia.
To get the word out, Innovacorp had to market the message, so it became sponsors of a couple of international cleantech conferences. That’s how Innovacorp officials learned that Dartmouth-born Danielle Fong was the co-founder of Silicon Valley start-up LightSail Energy, which has invented a compressed-air storage technology that is scalable, portable, clean, and economical. They contacted her, and she agreed immediately to serve as a judge.
There was a similar story with C100, the network that helps Canadians in the U.S. tech and cleantech industries. It put organizers in touch with Matthew Nordan of Boston-based venture capital fund Venrock, who also joined the judging panel.
So am I blown away by the entrepreneurial name-dropping? No at all. What impresses me is that Innovacorp and Nova Scotia have decided they want to be players in the world of clean technology. The upside is huge, since humankind will spend the next generation and trillions of dollars weaning society off hydrocarbons.
But like biotech, cleantech needs more than good people with great ideas. It needs millions—sometimes hundreds of millions—of dollars in investment. There are relatively few sources of that magnitude because many venture capital funds shy away from cleantech. They figure it’s more profitable to invest $1 million in a tech company that could exit in two years than several million in a cleantech company with a foggier outlook for an exit.
With CleanTech Open, Innovacorp has begun to swim in the same pool as the real players in this industry, both the venture capitalists and the entrepreneurs who know the VCs. “Six months ago, I couldn’t call up even one venture firm in Silicon Valley,” says Thomas Rankin, Innovacorp’s investment manager who organized the competition. “Now there are lots I can call.”
An added bonus is that the 10 finalists in the competition are now all familiar with Nova Scotia, and Rankin believes some of them may develop their business here. Certainly the experience will help the three finalists already from Nova Scotia and the development of the industry in province. But it will also help Atlantic Canada as a whole, because it will foster expertise, funding, and adoption that could assist other provinces as well.