A Tide of Cool, Clean Ideas

November 1, 2004
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Microbes that turn oily sludge into clean water. A portable, membrane-lined pouch that can filter urine and toilet water and leave behind a refreshing drink.

Underwater windmills that capture energy from ocean tides. Solar-powered LED light posts that can operate more than five years without maintenance.

Nineteen companies from across North America, seven of them from Canada, got a chance to tout their products and technologies in front of more than 150 venture capitals last week, part of a two-day forum focused on clean technologies, or “Cleantech.”

It was the fifth forum held by the Cleantech Venture Network, a virtual organization co-founded and chaired by Toronto resident Nick Parker. The turnout was strong and Parker is already looking forward to the next three conferences planned in San Francisco, Paris and Boston over the coming year.

“We’re building the community, and doing exactly what we set out to do,” said Parker.

Cleantech, as we’ve described in past columns, encompasses any technologies that use energy and other resources more efficiently or in a way that improves quality of life – or both.

Four years ago investment in companies that fall under the cleantech banner represented 1.6 per cent of total venture capital investments, compared to nearly 8 per cent in 2003.

“Although there was a downward trend for the total investment in Canada there was an upward trend for cleantech,” said David Oxtoby, vice-president of OPG Ventures, who participated in a forum panel called “Canada: A Northern Cleantech Tiger.”

And Canada, said fellow panellist Vicky Sharpe, president and chief executive officer of Sustainable Development Technology Canada, “is a substantial opportunity for investment in this space.” SDTC has already approved and provided $92 million in funding for 47 cleantech projects, which have also attracted three times that amount from private and other public sources.

Interesting is that much of the private funding is coming from U.S. investors, not the home team. Parker reckons the forum attracted a record number of U.S. investors to a Canadian event, whereas trying to get Canadian shops to attend proved difficult and disappointing. Perhaps not surprising, given their track record, most of the major Canadian pension funds were a no-show.

“It was hard getting Canadian interest,” said Parker. “We had more Europeans come to the event than from Bay Street. We had people from Israel, Finland, Denmark and Hong Kong.”

One person who did lend his support was Gordon Nixon, chief executive and president of RBC Financial Group, who used the forum to announce that the bank had become a lead investor in the GEF Clean Technology Fund, a new investment fund to be managed by the Global Environment Fund.

In brief comments last Monday night at the opening reception of the Cleantech Forum, Nixon described what he called the “double bottom-line” that clean technologies can offer.

“I believe that achieving this so-called ‘double bottom-line’ of higher returns and less pollution and waste is a goal worth pursuing for the benefit of all stakeholders – companies, investors, and most of all, our communities,” said Nixon.

He said large companies in traditional sectors are beginning to go after this double-bottom line, and this has helped drive significant growth in the U.S. economy and, at the same time, provide “measurable” environmental benefits.

“Our finance minister recently said – quite correctly – that improved productivity will be a critical driver of future GDP growth,” Nixon added. “Clearly, the development and adoption of clean technologies can be something that potentially energizes our manufacturing sector, our productivity growth and, in turn, our economy.”

If this is where the world is moving, then Canada, as Sharpe from SDTC pointed out, is well positioned to take advantage. SDTC has built up a database of more than 3,000 Canadian cleantech companies.

Below are a few of the more interesting ones that presented last week:

Group IV Semiconductor. Operating in stealth out of Ottawa, this start-up has developed a new way to create light that is several times more efficient than your standard light bulb. The technology is neither fluorescent nor incandescent. It is not based on light-emitting diode technology. Rather, light is emitted using thin silicon-based films that are touted as more pleasing to the eye and longer lasting than existing lighting technologies. The nature of the technology means no vacuum or glass casing is needed, which means fewer materials, less waste and dramatically cheaper production costs.

Blue Energy Canada. We’ve heard all about solar, wind and geothermal energy, but less discussed is the constant back and forth movement, and thus power, of our ocean tides.

Vancouver-based Blue Energy has developed an underwater vertical turbine system that captures that movement to produce electricity. The company claims its technology can, in certain installations, produce electricity at 2 cents per kilowatt hour and it has already identified 200 coastal communities in B.C. and Alaska that could benefit. Countries such as Scotland, Chile and Korea are already knocking.

Here’s the kicker: the turbines can be built into physical structures, such as auto and train bridges that cross water, creating a “tidal fence”. In other words, bridges around the world could eventually double as massive, emission-free power plants, able to produce 500 megawatts or more.

Carmanah Technologies. What do bus shelters, roadways, airfields and the ocean have in common? It’s not easy lighting them up. Bringing basic light to a bus shelter means ripping up sidewalks and roads, which is a costly exercise for cash-strapped governments. Ditto for roads and airstrips. In the ocean, batteries can only last so long. Carmanah has combined solar, battery and LED technology to produce self-contained lighting units that can produce light for more than five years without the need to upgrade or recharge.

The Victoria-based company has already sold 100,000 units in 110 countries, and not surprisingly, its products have become popular for marine applications and are attracting interest from the transportation industry. The technology is already a standard for the U.S. and Canadian coast guards.

HERA Hydrogen Storage Systems. Based in Longueuil, Quebec, this company is trying to solve the problem of hydrogen storage, which has been regularly cited as one of the three main barriers to creating a hydrogen economy. Its technology is based on metal hydrides – mined from rocks – which can absorb and de-absorb large amounts of hydrogen into a small space. Advancements in nanotechnology have helped HERA get the cost and weight of the hydrides down, making the technology a strong candidate for the hydrogen storage needs of fuel-cell cars.

The company is also trying to build an advanced, long-lasting nickel hydrogen battery based on hydride material. As the “longest lasting batteries known to us on earth,” as the company says, the goal would be to target this battery as a replacement for existing battery technology on hybrid vehicles, such as the Toyota Prius.

Finally, honourable mention must go to Oregon firm Hydration Technologies, which scored the highest “neat” points. The company has developed a “forward osmosis membrane” technology that can filter bad water into drinkable water.

Think of a quarter as the holes in the membrane and an industrial waste bin as a virus or bacteria. The water molecules can get through the membrane but all the nasty stuff is left out. Hydration Technologies’ products – Hydropacks and Hydrowells – are so easy to use, the company claims on its Web site, “that even a child can take muddy, life-threatening supply water and turn it into life-sustaining drink.”

Hence the urine reference at the beginning of this column.