Women in Cleantech: The new leaders of climate impact

For the fourth year in a row, Canadian clean technology companies have featured prominently on the Global Cleantech 100 list — second only to the United States in terms of representation — as the ones most likely to make a significant impact on the market over the next five to 10 years. Research by the U.S. Cleantech Group also ranked Canada fourth in the world for its ability to commercialize its cleantech innovations.

So, what’s holding the country back from achieving true leadership in the global cleantech space? For one thing, a lack of women leaders.

Only 16 percent of small and medium- sized enterprises (SMEs) are owned by women. According to the 2018 and 2019 National Cleantech Survey, only 19 percent of cleantech companies in Canada have at least one female founder, while just one in 10 cleantech founders is a woman, with some subsectors, including energy efficiency and transportation, having even fewer women at the helm.

“There’s a clear underrepresentation of women as entrepreneurs, notably in tech,” says Frank Des Rosiers, assistant deputy minister of strategic policy and innovation at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan). “Women account for half the population. If you’re a coach and you’re trying to get the best team out there, it’s just not smart to leave half your firepower on the side.”

And the Women in Cleantech (WIC) Challenge has shown what can happen when the best team is on the field. The results of the three-year program are — or should be — impossible to ignore. In 2018, to help address the disparity in cleantech, NRCan funded the Women in Cleantech Challenge and partnered with MaRS Discovery District to announce the Challenge, a national initiative to encourage six innovators in the space. The program offered access to lab facilities to develop their technology, a stipend that would allow them to focus full time on their business, curated curriculum, as well as targeted introductions to investors and ecosystem partners. In late 2021, the entrepreneur who has come the furthest and has shown the greatest potential in achieving commercial success will be awarded a $1-million prize.

The women’s visions had roots in everything from a high school science fair project and a PhD dissertation to a rowboat trip on the open seas. Their work started in school labs, garages, basements, and barns. But those visions and their determination along with access to lab facilities to develop their technology as well as MaRS’ mentoring, networks, financial aid and business support — not to mention the help the finalists gave each other — resulted in six game-changing innovations and some extremely strong new Canadian cleantech companies. And in less than three years, two of the finalists are raising or have closed their Series A funding, and others are working on their seed rounds — a testament to how the commercialization of clean technology can be accelerated.

“Every one of these amazing entrepreneurs has surpassed my expectations,” says Jane Kearns, vice president of Growth Services and senior cleantech advisor at MaRS. “That they have been able to move these really, really deeply technical companies forward so quickly, including through the COVID-19 pandemic, is a victory for every single one of them.”

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