Canada’s Growing Cleantech Industry – Leah Lawrence Reflects on Her New Role at SDTC

I recently had the opportunity to meet with Leah Lawrence, the new President and CEO of Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) at her office in Ottawa. During the visit we had the occasion to discuss her involvement in the Cleantech industry, her new role with SDTC and her vision for the organization. Leah brings many years of experience to her new job.  She has held a wide range of senior leadership positions in both the corporate and non-profit sectors, having most recently served as president of Clean Energy Capitalists Inc. and as the past chair of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce. Here is a summary from our conversation:

Tim: What does clean technology really mean?

Clean Tech

Leah: I see clean technology as contributing to a double bottom line – that means technologies   enhance both the environmental performance and economic impact of an undertaking, very often in one of Canada’s critical resource sectors like natural gas.

Leah Lawrence, President and CEO of SDTC – image courtesy of SDTC.

Leah Lawrence, President and CEO of SDTC – image courtesy of SDTC.

Tim: As the new head of SDTC – the federal agency dedicated to the growth of clean technology companies in Canada. What has the organization accomplished over the past five years?

Leah: First off, for context I should note that I am new here! But it’s been over 20 years since I started working in this industry and in that time I have seen a lot of growth in Canada’s clean tech industry.   SDTC’s successes are evident in the numbers: an impressive 25 per cent of our investments have supported technologies that are used today in the real world; we also have 160 projects still in progress. Unfortunately, not all our projects have gone through to fruition, but that’s the nature of science and technology development – sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t. I credit our successes to our consortium model which pulls together partners capable of moving an idea from concept to market.

Tim: What is the organization’s focus for the coming 2-3 years? 

Leah: I have always had a passion for technology and entrepreneurship. As chair of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, as the president of Clean Energy Capitalists, and as president of a professional organization representing engineers, I have been fortunate to have met and worked with hundreds of creative technology developers and entrepreneurs. Now I get to do this at a national level with SDTC. At this stage it is too early to tell you specific areas of focus , as I am still getting to know the organization, but I can tell you this much: our focus will remain on helping Canadian entrepreneurs succeed in the global cleantech market. SDTC has been around for 14 years now, so we are starting to see and understand how some of our earlier companies have been successful and we are working to help up-and-coming entrepreneurs take advantage of these lessons-learned. Take our work with CGA for example – your members are in a position to pull our entrepreneurs’ technologies into operations and we want to help our entrepreneurs translate those relationships into domestic sales market uptake, exports and more. The focus will remain on analysing and understanding the industrial landscape so that we continue to fund projects that solve real-world problems.

“The goal of the partnership is to get natural gas technology in the hands of industry and energy customers”.

Tim: What is the biggest challenge for SDTC?

Leah: To me, it’s not really about SDTC’s challenges, but rather thinking about the challenges for the industry as a whole. It’s worth noting that the Cleantech sector employs 50,000 people in 800 firms across Canada – making our sector worth almost $12 billion. The industry is growing at four times the rate of the overall economy, all of which is really good news. However, the challenge with those numbers is figuring out how to maintain that momentum and how to grow even more. Countries like India and China are making major investments in this domain and have dramatically increased their market share. The Canadian cleantech industry must act strategically to make the most of the opportunity and compete globally.

Tim: A new partnership – the first of its kind for SDTC – now exists between the Canadian Gas Association and SDTC on natural gas end-use innovation.  What are the goals for this first private-public partnership for SDTC?

Leah: The goal of the partnership is to get natural gas technologies in the hands of industry and energy customers – in other words, accelerate market uptake. In order to develop successful technologies that are brought to market, we need to look beyond the regulatory process and create meaningful relationships between companies, governments and organizations like the CGA. We need strategic and forward thinking. We are grateful to our friends and partners for helping us understand what the market needs are, and the technologies we need to invest in. This partnership with CGA gives us a deeper level of insight, and we will use it to build a stronger, more robust cleantech industry and a more sustainable gas sector in Canada.

“I believe the key to help drive innovation is through relationships.”

“I believe the key to help drive innovation is through relationships.”

Tim: What else do you think needs to happen to drive innovation? Where and how can SDTC help?

“We need to start thinking more as a sector: a uniform force for change.”

“We need to start thinking more as a sector: a uniform force for change.”

Leah: I have been an entrepreneur for the last 10 years and during that time, I have gone through the cycle of boom and bust. I think innovation can be fun, but it is also hard and I don’t think there are simple solutions here. I believe the key to help drive innovation is through relationships. SDTC plays a big role in technology demonstration guiding projects to completion and making the introductions necessary to see technologies get into the operations of customers who need them. But we need to go beyond this and build a true innovation chain, where one phase runs seamlessly into the next, where those key relationships allow for a clean handoff to the next phase of development through to successful market deployment. This can be accomplished not only by funding, but by helping entrepreneurs build and navigate those relationships, by helping to build strong relationships with research firms, universities and other industry actors that can help deliver innovative products to market.

“I have always had a passion for technology and entrepreneurship.”

“I have always had a passion for technology and entrepreneurship.”

Tim: What are the biggest challenges in your mind to driving innovation?

Leah: Innovators are thrust into a very competitive world and the reality is only the best ideas rise, leaving behind scatters of innovation and dreams. We need to start thinking more as a sector: a unified force. We need to encourage collaboration and talk to each other and other industries. Part of this involves telling our story – sharing our success stories with the world and building on them. SDTC is committed to seeing this happen. For us, this involves deepening our relationships with groups like CGA, but also other groups like CCEMC and EDC. I see long term co-investment between public and private sectors as part of this solution. We need to act in a strategic and coordinated fashion with the provinces and industry. We need to pull every lever at our disposal. We’ve succeeded as a country when we work together. We need to do more and SDTC has a role to play in making that happen.

Tim: What do you tell entrepreneurs and small businesses trying to get a leg up on seeing their product in the market place?

Leah: Entrepreneurs are some of my favourite people to work with. In my career, I have worked with many innovators with great ideas, but they don’t all end up succeeding. Those that do are the ones who know how to take a step back when they hit a wall and figure out a way around it. I tell entrepreneurs and small businesses trying to make it that this is a hard and long challenge, and unfortunately great ideas don’t always make it to practical application. That being said, technology developers should know their product and their market. Part of this involves aligning yourself with market interests and understanding the world around you. Knowing that what worked 5, 10, or 15 years ago may not necessarily work now. Take for example natural gas vehicles – 20 years ago the market wasn’t ready for this technology, but today the technology has improved and the economics have changed. These external factors have changed the market for natural gas vehicles favourably. I also think that those starting off need to find someone who has had experience and success and ask them how they did it. It’s important to find that person that has raised financing, who has found customers and can provide guidance along the way. For me, my success as an entrepreneur was because I had a mentor to advise me through the challenging times. Knowing that there are plenty of partners out there, willing and able to help, and how to take advantage of their expertise are necessary to entrepreneurs trying to succeed.

“As innovators, we are thrust into a very competitive world.”

Tim: Any final thoughts?

Leah: I am very excited to be here at SDTC and we are fortunate to enjoy the support of the Government of Canada and organizations like the CGA. This new opportunity will allow me to expand on the work I have done in the past and help Canadian entrepreneurs succeed. I am looking forward to my time here and am eager to work with partners across Canada to drive Canadian innovation to the global market.