Building a clean-tech future in Kingston

Enviro Innovate Corporation is building a pipeline. That’s not what you might expect to hear from a clean-tech business, but the “pipeline” in question moves innovative ideas to the market instead of oil or gas. This pipeline also flows in two directions. As well as bringing local innovators’ best ideas about clean energy to the world, it funnels funding and support from around the world to researchers at Queen’s and its partners. And over time, it’s going to pump talent and business activity into Kingston and the region.

Incorporated in 2015 and located in Kingston’s Innovation Park, Enviro Innovate is the product of two entrepreneurs, Tom Thompson and Paul Scott. Self-described “finance guys” both have connections with clean energy going back over two decades.

Thompson’s interest dates from 2002 when he began working with a Canadian scientist who had developed a technology capable of economically removing up to 50 per cent of the CO2 in the emissions from coal-fueled power plant smokestacks, and more than 95 per cent of all oxides of sulphur and nitrogen and heavy metals, including mercury. The search for financing had Thompson relocating to Boston in 2007 and ultimately to founding a company called Eco Power Solutions of which he was CEO.

Scott became interested in clean energy while working on a project in China. “You can’t go to China without grasping the importance of clean-tech,” he says of the rapidly industrializing country.

The two men met for the first time in 2012, when Scott was working with a company developing a technology that removed mercury from power plant emissions. Both men had Kingston and Queen’s connections – Thompson grew up and began his banking career here, while Scott, a native of Bermuda, had family in Kingston and did his undergraduate and MBA degrees at Queen’s.

Thompson had an idea for a successor company to Eco Power Solutions, but what he had in mind, he says, was not just a firm selling one product, but a business-incubator that could develop “a suite of clean technology products.”

“When Tom told me this idea,” says Scott, “I was all over it.” The concept for Enviro Innovate was born.

For a couple of reasons, they knew they would be locating in Canada. “Clean technology is really about carbon reduction,” says Scott – in particular, reducing the carbon dioxide and other noxious gases in emissions from power plants. These account for the largest portion, 40 per cent, of CO2 emissions in the United States. But, says Thompson, it’s hard to get money in the United States to work on this. “If you are not solar or wind, you are not going to get any support from the Department of Energy or the Environmental Protection Agency because they are trying to eliminate fossil fuels, even though this approach will almost certainly negatively impact United States energy supply and energy security.”

In Canada, by contrast, the pool of funding isn’t as big, but, says Thompson, “everyone is just focusing on clean-tech solutions, as opposed to following some sort of political agenda.”

They were also keen to partner with an academic institution, which is hard to do in the United States – many American schools jealously guard their intellectual property, which can make it hard for external parties to collaborate.

In the retelling, the story of how Thompson and Scott partnered with Queen’s has something of the whirlwind romance about it.

“We approached Dean Woodhouse [Kimberly A. Woodhouse, head of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science] in the first week of July 2014, spoke to her executive assistant and explained the concept,” says Thompson.

“Within seven days, to my surprise, I got a call back, and by the third week of July, Dean Woodhouse had mobilized her department heads for a meeting in late August.”

The Industry Partnerships team at Queen’s, working under the direction of Steven Liss (Vice-Principal of Research), carried the torch following the initial meeting to determine how the university could collaborate with these established clean-tech entrepreneurs.  Queen’s and Enviro Innovate signed a letter of agreement in December 2014, six months after their first contact. A master research and commercialization collaboration agreement was completed in May 2015.

The collaboration gives Enviro Innovate visibility and access to Queen’s researchers working in the clean energy sector, one of the university’s strengths. Queen’s has what is known as a “creator-owned policy.” That means any idea a researcher develops is their property, so the company can work directly with them. Queen’s may get involved through its technology transfer organization, PARTEQ Innovations, but strictly to help advance the commercialization of promising discoveries.

For Queen’s, one attractive element of the relationship with Enviro Innovate was what Steven Liss calls the company’s “sectoral approach.” They aren’t limited to carbon dioxide emission controls or new energy technologies; they take a look at everything that falls under the broad category of clean energy.

“They open up a pipeline” – there’s that word – “to a broader sector.”

Queen’s also gets the benefit of what Thompson refers to as “our Rolodex” – the network of international connections the two men have built up. Thanks to this, says Liss, “They can get ideas to market faster.”

Signing an agreement is all well and good, but as Liss puts it, “When the rubber really hits the road is when you start actually putting researchers in touch with these sorts of people.” In fact, Enviro Innovate began forging links with Queen’s researchers even before the final agreement was signed, allowing them to join in on the regular conference calls that Thompson and Scott had with their international pipeline of suppliers, business developers, the U.S. Department of Energy and international regulators. “I think that told the folks at Queen’s the work we were doing was relevant and there was very much a role they could play in it,” says Thompson.

The work they are currently doing with Professor Kim McAuley is a preview of the kinds of cooperation Queen’s will be seeing more of in future. One of the projects that Thompson had undertaken with his previous clean energy initiative was the construction of a demonstration facility, in essence a model power station, in Louisville, Kentucky, where they could study their multi-pollution-reduction technology’s effectiveness at scrubbing coal burning emissions. Between 2010 and 2013, they gathered data on its operation as they boosted performance efficiencies to world-beating specifications, in particular increasing CO2 capture up to 80 percent.

They want to use this data to help them develop their next generation CO2 capture module. Enter McAuley, a professor in the department of chemical engineering. She excels in the creation of mathematical models of chemical processes, and she and her group are analyzing the company’s Kentucky demonstration centre data so she can simulate the process operation to provide further insights on its optimization. Enviro Innovate is financing this collaboration and underwriting McAuley’s graduate student, Nam Hoa Tran. Tran’s master’s degree project is focused on this mathematical modeling project. McAuley aims to co-author a paper with Tran and Enviro Innovate’s director of research, Sanjeev Jolly.

Thompson hopes their findings “will be a game-changer from the perspective of the academic community.” The team expects to have their modeled data and improved process understanding by fall 2017.

Enviro Innovate has also connected other companies with Queen’s researchers in a similar fashion to solve technical problems. Given Enviro Innovate’s work on removing carbon from emissions, it is not surprising that they would have connections with companies interested in discovering ways of economically converting that carbon to a marketable commodity as opposed to simply storing it.

“This one group we work with has a very novel approach to CO2 conversion,” says Scott. The challenge with conversion has always been the amount of power needed to carry it out, and this group had developed a low-energy solution.

“They were refining part of their process which involves catalyses.,” says Scott. “We were able to reach out to Brant Peppley [a professor of chemical engineering and an expert in catalysis], who was able to discuss various approaches to their issue.

“It builds credibility for us that we can bring serious people to the table. And every time we turn around with a new technology, we find expertise here. We really didn’t realize how deep the clean-tech strengths were at Queen’s.”

Both men name Janice Mady, the Director of Industry Partnerships at Queen’s, and Edward Thomas, the Assistant Director, as the reason why access to key talent is so easy. They are part of a larger team based at Innovation Park that helps scholars, entrepreneurs, executives, administrators and public officials solve problems, fund R&D, launch start-ups, expand businesses and attract investment capital. “This would not work if we didn’t have this relationship with these two individuals,” says Scott.

As a result of the university’s role in incubating and accelerating technology companies, Queen’s has been able to introduce Enviro Innovate to many clean-tech startups and small- to medium-sized enterprises in Eastern Ontario. Enviro Innovate has begun working with several of these companies, helping to connect them with funding and other opportunities. One in particular has been Altranex, a Kingston company founded by “serial entrepreneur” Chad Joshi to develop an innovative renewable hydrocarbon. Its first application is as a base-lubricant made from plant or animal fats that is a better solution than current synthetic grade base-lubricants.

Using their international connections, the two men were able to find strategic investors for Joshi’s company. Recent funding will expand his laboratory and start developing a pilot plant.

“Once there’s a product that has demonstrated some level of commercial viability we can immediately take advantage of our global partners in terms of investment,” says Thompson. Others saw how they were able to help Altranex and, “We’re probably going to be engaged by two or three other companies that are here now.”

Says Thompson, “We’re starting the process now of creating dedicated Enviro Innovate events to be hosted by a number of law firms and investment houses throughout the United States. The purpose of these events is to have Enviro Innovate and its partners deliver a presentation to prospective investors who have expressed an interest in potential clean-tech investments.

“Queen’s, the Chad Joshi’s of this world, and any company associated with us will have an opportunity to go in there and tell their story. I don’t believe that there is another organization coming out of Canada that can do that for them.”

Both men will also be speaking at clean energy conferences across the United States in the next year, beating the drum as it were, for Queen’s, Innovation Park and Kingston.

“We think there are opportunities to bring people from outside Canada here,” says Scott. “People are always trying to steal companies from Toronto and bring them to Kingston. I think the model is to bring the international clean-tech innovation community here.” If they structure their companies appropriately, says Scott, they can take advantage of research tax credits worth up to 65 cents for each dollar spent.

Ultimately, the benefits of this partnership will extend beyond Queen’s and Enviro Innovate. Thompson and Scott hope to make Kingston a centre for clean technology. “We are encouraging other companies to come here,” says Thompson. “we’re talking about talented people, and with talent will come more talent and that will bring funding. We’re talking about creating good, high-paying jobs – engineers, researchers, project managers – not just a bunch of people flipping burgers or working at big-box stores.”

It is something the region needs. “Kingston has a world-class university, certainly one of the most research intensive in Canada. Kingston also attracts, trains and employs a large number of highly educated people. But we’ve seen a lot of good ideas come out of Kingston and Queen’s that for whatever reason weren’t retained here,” says Steven Liss. “Enviro Innovate provides an anchor that will keep ideas here and attract them from outside, too. The firms that set up here will give our students opportunities through internships or sponsored research, and encourage those with an entrepreneurial bent. If we get a real cluster of firms, then students may stay here after they graduate.”

It’s important, too, says Liss, that two entrepreneurs with strong Kingston and Queen’s connections, chose to come back here. “Clearly this is a signal to our alumni and to people here in Kingston that there are opportunities here, a lot of great research that could enhance all our lives down the road. That they wanted to come back here is a visible vote of confidence in our world-class research and in the potential of this region.

“It’s the kind of thing we’d like to see more of, frankly.”