Meet a MaRSian: Tom Rand

Meet a MaRSian: Tom Rand

In this instalment of Meet a MaRSian, Angelo Casanas interviews Tom Rand, the managing partner of the MaRS Cleantech Fund and the winner of Earth Day Canada’s 2013 Outstanding Commitment to the Environment Award. An avid cyclist and musician with a passion for yoga, Tom is the author of two books dealing with climate change.

What does your role entail?

The MaRS Cleantech Fund is a private $30 million fund that provides early-stage venture capital to promising cleantech startups. My role is deciding on investments and helping those companies we’ve invested in to move forward. We act as entrepreneurs with regard to the fund, not just as money managers.

How long has the fund been in existence?

We’re in our first year. We’ve closed five deals thus far, and we’re looking to close three more. We’re probably the most active cleantech fund on the continent.

You’ve written two books on climate change. Could you share a bit about that?

I predominantly see the world through carbon-coloured glasses. Everywhere I look I see energy and carbon, because if you’ve been to the “carbon kitchen” you don’t come out the same. I believe that we’re heading off of a cliff and that this century is a defining moment for industrial civilization. Climate change is our end game, and anyone who has looked into the carbon kitchen understands that.

So how did this passion for climate change start?

I’ve been an educated scientific climate observer for many years. I also came from a science-literate family and we’ve had many table discussions about the subject matter. Having sold my software company in 2005, I’ve also had the opportunity to rethink what I’ve been doing and to do something that matters, and so I got into climate change full time as an entrepreneur.

Entrepreneur vs. advocate, which one are you?

My full-time job is as an entrepreneur, but I’m a polymath. I’m not satisfied with doing only one thing. I think that the idea of a technically competent entrepreneurial-minded person speaking about science and policy is required in society, and that we need more of them.

Writing my two books required a much broader approach [to climate change], while working at MaRS enables me to find technologies to solve the problem and to get those technologies into the marketplace.

You’ve written two books about the subject. What is the first one about?

The first book is called Kick the Fossil Fuel Habit: 10 Clean Technologies to Save Our World and I wrote it in 2009. It’s very upbeat and offers a message to the general public about the possibility of powering civilization without fossil fuels. People seem to think that to power civilization you need to melt vast quantities of tar or burn coal, and that everything else is second best. That’s absolutely untrue! There is far more energy available from clean renewable sources than you’ll ever get from fossil fuels. However, you need to be thinking about clean energy on the kind of scale that we think about fossil fuels.

Tell us about your second book.

My next book is called Hot Water and I think it offers a much more realistic assessment of why we’re not acting on climate change. It’s an analysis of our paralysis, because it is only through understanding why we are paralyzed that we can unlock that paralysis. It’s about economics, politics and psychology, and it’s really about the rules of the game that keep us from acting on climate change.

Everyone has heard the story about the frog and the pot of hot water on the stove. If you put a frog in a pot of water and if the water heats up slowly enough, the frog will not leave that pot and it will boil to death. The obvious question is: Are we that frog?

My answer is that if we don’t take a hard look in the mirror and figure [climate change] out, we will be that frog.

Is there hope?

Having talked to entrepreneurs such as John Paul Morgan of Morgan Solar, Greg Kiessling of Bullfrog Power and the guys from, you can’t help but be optimistic because there are a greater number of people with great brainpower and creativity coming to the table.

What is one practical step to take when dealing with climate change?

The first thing is that you don’t need to understand climate science, although it wouldn’t hurt to know about it. If you have cancer, you go to the doctor. If you have a toothache, you go to the dentist. If you want to know something about atmospheric physics, you go to the National Academy of Sciences. As an adult you can make a judgment about who you can trust, and if you do that you’re off to the races!