Canadian cleantech startups get ready for a breakout year

Author: Tyler Hamilton


Publish Date: Friday, January 5, 2018

This opinion piece was first published on January 4, 2018 in The Globe and Mail.




By Tyler Hamilton

Canada's global reputation for cleantech innovation is on the rise.

A 2017 study from one of the sector's premier research organizations, Cleantech Group, ranked us fourth in the world as a clean-technology innovator – and tops among Group of Twenty countries – up from seventh place in 2014. It means we've become much better at developing and commercializing technologies that help reduce our environmental footprint.

We've even leaped ahead of the United States on this global index. Only the Nordic countries Denmark, Finland and Sweden are doing better, and not by much – and perhaps not for long. Canada's cleantech sector is expecting an even stronger performance in 2018, when many of the federal government's new support programs kick into gear, including a mandate for all provinces to have a $10-a-tonne floor price on carbon emissions by this fall.

Who will shine in 2018? Here are three startups expecting a breakout year:


With its national mandate, Canada joins a list of more than 40 countries on five continents that are pricing carbon emissions. Dwarfing all of those efforts will be China, which in July plans to move forward with a national cap-and-trade program that will roughly double the amount of global GHG emissions to carry a price tag.

One company poised to benefit greatly from this pricing trend is Montreal-based GHGSat, which in June of 2016 launched the first satellite in the world capable of tracking GHG emissions from any industrial site on the planet.

The satellite – nicknamed "Claire" after the daughter of the company's lead systems specialist – is about the size of a microwave oven and carries sensors that can accurately detect and measure GHG emissions from space. Claire travels in low earth orbit at seven kilometres a second, gathering valuable data on emissions with each 98-minute circling of the planet.

GHGSat sells that data as part of a service that is far more precise and less costly than conventional ground-based systems in use today. It's why Hydro-Québec and major oil sands producers such as Suncor Energy Inc. were among the company's first paying customers.


The internet consumes energy, a fact most don't consider when ordering goods online, streaming video, or engaging with friends and family on social media.

Cisco Systems estimates that global internet traffic will triple between 2016 and 2021, with 82 per cent of it related to video. This is likely a conservative projection, considering the tsunami of data traffic expected to come from the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence and blockchain applications such as bitcoin.

Two years ago, researchers at Chinese networking company Huawei Technologies calculated that all forms of communications technologies are likely to consume 21 per cent of the world's electricity by 2030, assuming modest improvements in energy efficiency. If more coal- or natural gas-burning power plants are fired up to meet that demand, that's bad news for the climate.

"It's astonishing how big this problem is going to be," said Hamid Arabzadeh, co-founder and chief executive officer of Ottawa-based RANOVUS. "More people are starting to ask questions about it."

RANOVUS is positioning itself as the answer. The company has developed the world's first commercial optical communications technology based on quantum-dot lasers, pioneered decades ago by Bell Northern Research (predecessor to Nortel Networks).

Where conventional lasers only generate one wavelength, quantum-dot lasers are made up of millions of self-assembling nanoparticles of different sizes, with each size emitting its own wavelength. "What you end up with is many wavelengths coming from a single laser source," Arabzadeh explains.

Each quantum-dot laser could replace dozens of conventional lasers, allowing data centre and network operators to carry dramatically more data traffic while consuming less power.

Arabzadeh said the technology, which RANOVUS is now shipping to customers, could have the same impact on internet infrastructure as LEDs had on the lighting industry. Customers already include one of Europe's largest data centre system providers and two of the world's top networking equipment suppliers.

Opus One Solutions

As the delivery of electricity becomes more decentralized, and as more power generation comes from scattered – and intermittent – renewable sources such as solar and wind, utilities around the world must adapt to remain relevant.

Toronto-based Opus One Solutions is emerging as a key ally in this utility transformation. The company was founded in 2011 by Joshua Wong, who before that was an engineer helping Toronto Hydro with its smart grid strategy. His goal was to design software that brings intelligence and transparency to an otherwise dumb and opaque electricity system.

Seven years later, the company's appropriately named GridOS is winning utility customers across North America and drawing interest from overseas. Last year alone Opus One grew from 12 to 50 employees and enjoyed a tripling of revenue growth, with the expectation of similar multiples in 2018.

One key utility partner is National Grid, which delivers energy services to more than 20 million people across New York State, Massachusetts and the United Kingdom. Using Opus One technology, the utility has built what some have called "the world's smallest electricity marketplace" at the 49-hectare Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

It amounts to an automated electricity trading system that allows research and hospital facilities on campus to generate and store their own solar power, value it, and sell it on a market, making that energy available to other customers and businesses in the area.

Tyler Hamilton works with cleantech companies from across Canada as an advisor with the non-profit MaRS Discovery District in Toronto.

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