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Deadly weather draws investment to B.C. clean tech

New report shows a surge in financing for climate-change technology companies.
Jeanette Jackson, CEO of the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre, expects more pressure to be applied to the private sector to fight the effects of climate change.
In the aftermath of heat domes, wildfires and atmospheric rivers that shook B.C. this past year, Jeanette Jackson has seen her inbox take a turn amid the deadly weather.

“I have personally received 15 to 20 emails from young technical students, business students who are wondering how they can get involved with clean tech,” said the CEO of Burnaby-based Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre, adding messages have been pouring in from somewhat older professionals as well.

“They’re eager, they’re passionate, they’re all currently employed and they’re saying, ‘I don’t think my company is invested enough in clean tech and climate change.’”

As extreme weather events increasingly pull the West Coast at the seams, B.C.’s clean-technology industry – a sector pursuing everything from sucking carbon from the atmosphere to producing clean nuclear power – may be poised to capitalize on increased interest from both talent and investors.

“In the next few years, we’re going to more than quadruple our workforce,” said Jay Brister, chief business development officer at General Fusion Inc.

The Burnaby-based company closed a US$130 million Series E funding round last month as it moves towards commercializing its fusion power technology by building a prototype plant in the U.K. And with more than US$300 million raised from investors to date, the Jeff Bezos-backed firm is now in the midst of opening a new headquarters on Vancouver International Airport land.

“B.C. is kind of at the centre of a really thriving world-class technology innovation ecosystem,” Brister said. “There’s a lot going on here. We want to be definitely a piece of that to move B.C. forward in this space.”

Speaking about the industry more broadly, he said investment in the clean-tech sector is clearly on the rise amid the increased number of extreme weather events, but is “still not enough to really move the needle, I would say, in the longer-term resolution [to address] climate change.”

A December report from financial services firm PwC found investment in companies behind technology aimed at fighting climate change hit US$87.5 billion globally between the second half of 2020 and the first half of 2021.

While that’s up 210% compared with the US$24.8 billion invested during the same period a year earlier, Vancouver was not among the top five climate-tech hubs in PwC’s North American rankings, falling behind San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Seattle and L.A., respectively.

“We under-capitalize Canadian clean-tech companies at the early stage,” Jackson said. “It’s almost a joke to give a clean-tech company $500,000 in seed investment when in the States they’re getting $2 million, $3 million, $5 million, $10 million. But we just can’t compete and the companies just don’t have enough runway to really aggressively pursue the technology because they’re worried about how they’re going to get their next paycheque.”

Despite that disadvantage, she said, many of these Canadian startups could gain traction if the government tweaked some of its tax structures to meet its net zero commitments.

“For example, if they [businesses] make X number of dollars in investment in clean technology, they get certain tax breaks,” Jackson said.

“There are mechanisms that make sense, and they work and it drives market investments as opposed to relying on government grants and programs.”

A 2020 report from the Institute for Sustainable Finance (ISF) estimated it would take Canada $128 billion in investment over 10 years to meet its 2030 greenhouse gas emission targets.

Meanwhile, Brister and Jackson both said separately they expect more pressure to be applied to the private sector to combat the effects of climate change.

“If large publicly traded Canadian firms devoted 5% of their annual capital expenditure to reducing emissions over the next decade, that would cover half of the investment required,” the ISF report stated. •