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01. 30. 2017, The Financial Post

Canada cleans up on the Global CleanTech 100 list, with 11 winners

by Danny Bradbury

Technology has disrupted industries ranging from finance and healthcare to education and news publishing. Over the past few years, it has begun to transform something much larger: the environment. Cleantech is a growth industry, and last week saw the publication of the 2017 Cleantech 100 list.

Compiled by the San Francisco-based Cleantech Group, which monitors and reports on sustainable technology trends, the list highlights the most promising players in this burgeoning sector – and several Canadian companies are on it. See the full list here.

There’s a strong tailwind for cleantech, particularly in Canada, says Jean Kearns, a senior advisor on cleantech at MaRS Discovery District. The Toronto- based accelerator works closely with several of the firms on this year’s list.

“Internationally, we have things that are driving climate policy and the adoption of clean technologies,” says Kearns, citing last year’s Paris Agreement as one example.

“In Canada, we had the Vancouver Declaration and now we have the government’s climate strategy, which is driving us to think differently about how we use our resources.”

Ecobee is one company that MaRS has helped to establish itself as a strong international player. Its smart thermostat is designed to manage home heating more intelligently and save energy.

When Ecobee launched in 2009, existing products were complex and needed a home energy calculator to use, says CEO Stuart Lombard.

“We thought if we could build this thermostat on a smartphone platform and connect it to the Internet, if we could use Internet data sources, it would be much easier to use and it would be much smarter.”

Ecobee uses wireless sensors placed around the home to determine the best temperature setting, and also allows homeowners to control their heat settings remotely via a mobile phone app. When working out the best temperature for your home, it consumes data about local weather from the Internet, along with information about your equipment’s historical performance, the size of your home and number of family members.
In the U.S. – which constitutes 90% of its market – the technology saves the average customer around 23% on their heating and cooling costs, Lombard adds.

The company focuses heavily on product design, and almost half its employees are involved in designing the next iteration of the thermostat. Design, in this case, is not about the product’s appearance but it’s functionality. The firm also updates existing thermostats with new features via the Internet, though, meaning that early customers aren’t left behind.

These features pivot on the ability to connect the thermostat to other devices in the home, such as the Amazon Echo, a microphone that allows you to control equipment in the home using your voice, or Apple’s HomeKit home control technology.

One significant development in the firm’s business model is the ability to make revenue from services in addition to product sales. It works with over 25 utilities in the U.S. on opt-in programs that allow the utilities to control customers’ Ecobee thermostats during high-demand and regulate grid demand. Customers get a rebate, the utilities run more efficiently, and Ecobee gets a cut of the savings.

This service-based model may be a bigger part of Ecobee’s future. “We can enable new services that add value to consumers,” Lombard adds. Today, it provides users with a HomeIQ report that offers basic data on home energy usage. Based on the data it collects, the company could begin advising them on the cost-effectiveness of home insulation or furnace upgrades. “We’re actively working on that,” he says.

While Ecobee focuses on what’s happening inside the home, Green Mantra is concerned with what’s happening on the roof. Formed in 2010, the company recycles waste plastic into specialty chemicals.

Its Brantford, Ont. plant turns such discarded plastic items as shopping bags, shrinkwrap and food containers into resins that treat asphalt roofing shingles. The resins and waxes used in this market traditionally come from fossil fuels.

“In shingle you don’t need to use virgin resins produced from natural gas,” says president and CEO Kousay Said. Instead, resins from recycled plastics can extend warranties for roofing materials. “That’s been our biggest market today.”

Green Mantra, which also makes industrial adhesives and lubricants, has an abundance of manufactured waste to recycle. Meanwhile, Axine Water is focused on trying to save an increasingly scarce natural resource. The company has developed a chemical-free treatment process to remove non-biodegradable toxins from industrial wastewater.

CEO Jonathan Rhone says that whereas climate change is a discussion that creeps up on companies, water conservation is different.

“Water is kind of like a 2×4 across the head. A disruption in our ability to access safe, clean water has an immediate impact.”

There has been relatively less innovation in water value chains than in energy, and it is now catching up, he says.

Axine targets chemical manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and microelectronics among other industries with its technology, which uses an electrochemical process to pass water over a low-cost electrode. The Vancouver-based company offers high-volume water cleansing, removing a variety of toxins including ammonia, mill effluent, landfill leachate and various acids and dyes.

The technology oxidizes pollutants to carbon dioxide, water and nitrogen, and Rhone says that it produces none of the chemical sludge that alternative processes incur.

Axine, which scaled up its electrochemical cells and did field pilots with industrial customers late last year, also raised an $8 million Series B round, led by Japanese multi-national Asahi Kasei in September, and a $2 million grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada the following week.

The company will use the money to deliver its first commercial systems this year, targeting U.S. markets, but it won’t be selling the equipment, Rhone explains. Transferring the ownership risk for a new technology to clients is a barrier to adoption.

“We will own the technology system, we’ll put it on site, we’ll treat the water for a monthly fee, and we’ll service the technology.” That removes the financing burden for customers and enables the company to offer a straightforward processing fee per gallon.

The cleantech list couldn’t have been published at a more significant time, as a new administration south of the border lauds fossil fuels and leaves the cleantech industry facing significant uncertainties. Said acknowledges that the U.S. situation has delayed decisions about where to build new facilities on the west coast.

Nevertheless, the economic incentive for cleantech is too great for corporate clients to ignore, argues Kearns, who points to the economic incentives surrounding many cleantech efforts. “The opportunity is ours for the taking because we’ve built so many of these strong companies,” she says. “We’re at the tipping point.”

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