The lag in implementing climate solutions is hindering Canada’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Stronger collaboration between stakeholders, better alignment of innovation and climate policies, and improved communication between scientists, regulators, and Indigenous communities is imperative to bridge the support gap for climate solutions ventures.
The International Energy Agency’s Net Zero by 2050 report predicts that 50% of the technologies needed to meet our zero emissions target by 2050 are either not invented yet or still under development in university research labs far from the commercialization stage. Currently there is on average a 30-year time lag between the invention of novel climate solutions at universities and adoption by society. This slow timeline may hamstring the Government of Canada’s effort to undergo a green transition to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 to avert the worst impacts of climate change. More effective strategies for accelerating commercialization and adoption of climate solutions are required to decrease the timeline down to 5-10 years for more immediate impact. A working group of innovation and entrepreneurship thought leaders from the research-intensive universities in British Columbia (UBC, SFU & UVIC) has been collaborating since 2021 to identify gaps in support and funding for early-stage ventures and advocating actions discussed below to overcome these challenges.
“Currently there is on average a 30-year time lag between the invention of novel climate solutions at universities and adoption by society”Shannon Bard
To successfully bridge the identified support gaps, it is important to forge stronger collaboration and communication channels between diverse stakeholders (regulators, academia, industry, investors, NGOs) and Indigenous rightsholders so that the green ecosystem is working effectively together and not inadvertently at cross purposes. Thus, to accelerate the launch and scaling of impactful climate solutions, better alignment of innovation policy with climate policy is required across all levels of government.
New climate solution technology development at universities is frequently undertaken in isolation from industry needs and market opportunities which can hinder commercialization timeline. More opportunities for technology-market matching exploration could streamline this process. To address this issue, Foresight Canada, a national cleantech accelerator, and entrepreneurship@UBC’s Climate Venture Studio launched the Climate Connections series of reverse pitches addressing themes in energy, agriculture, water, mining, carbon management, biocircular economy, and waste management. Since its inception in 2021, this problem-driven event series has gained traction with university partnerships nationally, as the forums facilitates communication between solution-seekers from industry with researchers and innovators from academia thus fostering cross-sector connections to address the climate challenge.
Open channels of communication between scientist-entrepreneurs and environmental regulators are imperative to modernize prescriptive regulations which may pose inadvertent barriers to market for new climate solutions technologies. Environmental regulators can play an important role in creating new markets for emerging green technology via the use of carrots and sticks to incentivize desired behaviors across industry and broader society. For example, Environment and Climate Change Canada announcing a timeline to ban certain single use plastic items such as disposable plastic straws immediately created an urgent market and consumer demand for green alternatives that were previously deemed ‘nice to have’ rather than ‘need to have.’ Government procurement can play a strong role in scaling climate solutions through strengthening pilot-to-procurement programs. Many large university campuses provide services similar to municipalities, and climate solutions have been piloted at a small scale via Campus as a Living Lab initiatives. Currently, we are exploring with Innovative Solutions Canada how universities can serve as testing grounds for cleantech pilots to accelerate scaling through procurement by governments.
To attenuate the climate emergency trajectory that society is currently tracking on, will require changing human behavior. As all parents are keenly aware, although challenging, modifying human behavior can be achieved with the proper motivation. Such motivation can be generated through compelling and empathetic storytelling. Thus, successful adoption of green technology can be accelerated by forging collaborations between innovators and effective storytellers. For example, to address clean water insecurity, UBC’s water innovation research center RESEAU collaborated with remote communities and UBC Research-based Theatre Collaborative’s playwrights and actors. This partnership resulted in the creation and performance of the play Treading Water which effectively brings to light water quality and health issues facing rural and Indigenous communities today in order to stimulate urgent action for adoption of water treatment innovations in those communities and support climate justice.
Another example of creative partnership to facilitate innovation adoption is entrepreneurship@UBC Climate Venture Studio’s collaboration with Dr. Bonne Zabolotney, Emily Carr University of Art + Design, to pair climate solutions scientist-entrepreneurs with communication designers and artists. The goal was to embed effective communication design into climate innovation. The use of design methods helped to address gaps in knowledge and understanding of climate innovations for the public and make information and influences visible that may normally remain invisible in the public consciousness. Efforts to create intuitive design approaches contribute to ease of use for consumers and facilitate rapid uptake and adoption of new green technologies. Furthermore, as early adopters of climate innovation, users can envision themselves as active changemakers, and thus feel emotionally invested to promote uptake of these innovations to make a positive impact to address the climate emergency.
We need a basket of solutions to address the complexity of the climate crisis. With diversity as one of Canada’s superpowers, our university innovation entrepreneurship programs are cultivating an environment welcoming to individuals with varied backgrounds, experiences and expertise whose intersectionality invites new ways of identifying problems and generating novel solutions.
However, entrepreneurship is a difficult, risky and personally expensive pathway to commercialize climate innovations. Scientist-entrepreneurs represent some of the most vulnerable founders. These include cash-poor current or former graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, international students without permanent residency, those supporting young children, elderly or sick relatives, and a myriad of other life challenging situations. Female, gender diverse, disabled, neurodiverse and BIPOC founders have also traditionally been systemically disadvantaged in accessing early-stage support and investment funding. Such founders cannot bootstrap their ventures if they cannot afford boots.
The founder diversity displayed across the portfolio of early-stage climate ventures in university entrepreneurship programs is not necessarily reflected in later ventures attracting investment funding. Many of our vulnerable founders are falling through huge holes in our development funnel and as a result their climate innovations may be delayed or never come to fruition.
We have an opportunity to democratize entrepreneurship and have been working to address this deficiency in partnership with forward thinking granting agencies. New funding initiatives are being launched that provide flexible support for scientist-entrepreneur led climate solution ventures that were traditionally ineligible for reimbursement (founder salary, intellectual property costs, laboratory space rental, travel, etc.) Recent impactful initiatives include: BC Centre for Innovation and Clean Energy; Genome BC’s Pilot Innovation Program; and Innovation Science and Economic Development Canada’s Elevate IP program delivered as Accelerate IP by Innovate BC and New Ventures BC in partnership with a network of university entrepreneurship programs, tech incubator and accelerators.
The green economic transition is an opportunity for economic reconciliation with Indigenous Nations. We have an opportunity to support the co-development of climate solutions in partnership with Indigenous communities to address renewable energy independence, clean water and sustainable local food security, sustainable housing, enhance biodiversity and habitat productivity. It is financially advantageous to pilot these climate solutions in remote communities where current solutions are exceedingly expensive. These climate solutions strengthen land sovereignty and can generate wealth for Indigenous communities.
“We have an opportunity to support the co-development of climate solutions in partnership with Indigenous communities”Shannon Bard
Finally, collaborations across science and liberal art disciplines is going to be critical for us as a society to meet our climate goals. Current threats to democracy including disinformation and misinformation undermine trust in society, trust in science, trust in scientists and universities, trust in community, society and government. We are going to need strong democracy and independent journalism, thoughtful discourse on ethics and human rights to address the climate emergency and climate justice in our local communities and across the globe.