What does it take to disrupt a culture and an economy that has made it difficult for women cleantech entrepreneurs? How can modernizing policies and practices enhance the legitimacy of a more diverse array of women cleantech entrepreneurs and increase their access to capital?
On November 18, 2020, BluWave-ai hosted a Global Energy Transition Summit focused on women innovators who lead various sectors of the larger cleantech ecosystem. The event was moderated by Dr. Nasrin Sadeghianpour, senior smart grid and AI scientist, who noted that the summit “brought together women making groundbreaking strides in science, engineering, and business that are driving the global energy transition.”
BluWave-ai partnered with Invest Ottawa, which supports multidisciplinary R&D and economic growth across many scientific fields and industries — areas like smart mobility, autonomy, connectivity, and smart farming. An introduction delivered by Invest Ottawa’s Sonya Shorey, vice president of strategy, marketing, and communications, described how the Summit was a forum to address climate challenges through identifying key technology development as it applies to the cleantech industry and climate change mitigation. She hoped that Canada could become “the best place in the world for women to establish, build, grow, and sustain successful commercial companies.”
Of particular interest during the Summit was the topic of women’s access to capital and its connection to women’s overall cleantech business success.
Women in Cleantech Need Access to Capital
Current research indicates that barriers exist to women’s success in cleantech and other business creation.
- The London Sustainable Development Commission’s “Women in Cleantech” report contains testimony from many women describing institutional power-holders who display subconscious gender bias.
- Entrepreneurial challenges with gender equality include disparate contexts of receiving financial aid from investors, unequal opportunities given by supporting actors such as advisors, banks, lawyers, etc., and the effect of gender stereotypes.
- Low levels of gender inclusive practices are evident among the most impactful business incubators.
- Female body image expectations continue, to the point where facial trustworthiness of female entrepreneurs has been show to play a more prominent role in determining project success than that of male entrepreneurs.
- Companies that receive venture capital (VC) funding are less likely to adopt corporate social responsibility practices due to unique VC imprinting and to temporal and investment orientation that moderate this relationship.
Yet all is not broken. When investors/ financial institutions embrace socially responsible investing (SRI), corporate social responsibility (CSR), and/ or environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors, they tend to advocate from 3 distinct frames of reference that, ultimately, support women entrepreneurs:
- a development champion perspective focused on measures, impacts, and counts
- an integrated financial risk perspective focused on financial indices and alpha returns
- a visionary value perspective focused on experimentation, innovation, paradigm-shifts, and seeing value or worth in things previously undervalued or not valued
When value is measured differently and embraces women’s strengths, good things happen — businesses founded by female entrepreneurs typically bring in double the revenue per dollar invested, according to a report from the Boston Consulting Group.
Women in CleanTech Canada Who are Making a Difference
Leah Lawrence, President and CEO, Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC)
Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) supports Canadian “clean technology trailblazers” who are leaders in their efforts to develop and demonstrate new environmental technologies that address climate change, clean air, clean water, and clean soil. Noting that clean technology is a $2.5 trillion opportunity, SDTC has invested over $1.15 billion in 400 Canadian companies since they launched in 2001.
At the Summit, SDTC CEO Leah Lawrence said she was optimistic because she’s seem a doubling of applications from women-led cleantech firms as part of an evolution in Canada — over $4 billion in funds devoted to cleantech. SDTC covers people who are looking for seed funding beginning with startup and scale-up, through to the stage of demonstrating to a “customer that it works.” Their portfolio companies commercialize sustainable solutions that will “take net zero from promise to reality.”
“The world isn’t linear — it’s exponential, so we’re just starting to see the effects of these benefits” that apply to women’s access to capital, she commented. As the largest funder of small and medium cleantech in Canada, SDTC adds anywhere from 100 – 120 companies annually added to their mix. The SDTC perspective is to work across public and private sectors to get new ideas to market faster and to grow firms to scale sooner, looking at the opportunities that data-enabled cleantech offers through combining software and hardware. Their ESG priorities and emphasis on net-zero targets are a “coming together of funding, ideas, innovation, and investment.”
“SDTC supports and champions Canadian entrepreneurs with the potential to become world leaders in technologies that address climate change, clean air, clean water, and clean soil,” Lawrence added. She would know: she was named a 2016 Female Executive of the Year award winner by the Stevie Awards for Women in Business.
Cycle Capital Management, Shirley Speakman, Senior Partner
It is commonly accepted that having role models offers up-and-coming innovators the tools for success. Shirley Speakman, senior partner at Cycle Capital Management (CCM), has led some of the most important cleantech investments in Canada. Cycle Capital Management, she said, focuses on “demonstrated commercial traction.” They look for a company at its onset, monitoring “how it responds to the early stage of its life, how they respond to those challenges. The world does change at a great speed.”
Speakman is active in the innovation ecosystem as a member of Canada’s National Science and Engineering Research Council through her involvement at MaRS and the Ontario Network of Excellence. She mentors female entrepreneurs and investors through her work with Canadian Women in Private Equity and as Chair of the Research Innovation and Commercialization Centre.
Fueled by the participation of strategic partners, CCM applies direct venture capital investment to the best early or growth stage companies. CCM is supported by a team of financiers, engineers, and operators working in collaboration with the entrepreneurial teams to maximize returns on investment. Their purpose-driven venture capital has a wide range of applications: from agriculture technologies to green chemicals, including the new generation of biofuels, biomass transformation, smart grid, energy storage technologies, renewable energies, energy efficiency, IoT applied to resources management, big data, and technologies dedicated to Smart Cities.
Every sector, Speakman notes, is impacted by AI, as “data is becoming a way of doing business: it informs investing.” Looking back, she reflects how “we never had the ability in the past to analyze data. Now we can go through data at a granular level… some previous gut instincts were correct; others were not.” Hmmm. Were capital considerations from women-owned companies too quickly overlooked at one time?
Camilla Kullborg, VP, Global Technology Startup Scouting, SynerLeap, ABB
By bringing startups together through the innovation growth hub SynerLeap, ABB strives to ignite innovation transfer across industries, ranging from industrial automation, robotics to grid technologies, smart cities, buildings, and transportation technologies. They help startups accelerate and expand on a global market together with ABB through mentorship, investments, and a unique access to networks, clients, and technology.
“We embed sustainability in everything we do, everyday,” says Camilla Kullborg, whose expertise includes automation and robotics. “Together, ABB and Formula E are driving progress in e-mobility technology and adoption.”
ABB is the title sponsor of all-electric race series, Formula E. There have been 3 female racers in Formula E’s 5-year history — but only Simona de Silvestro competed against her male rivals for a single full season. Katherine Legge and Michaela Cerruti drove 6 races between them in the sport’s inaugural campaign. In 2019, ex-Formula 1 test driver Susie Wolff became Formula E’s first female team boss at Venturi, making headlines as a high-profile female in racing’s male-dominated world. “I thought the whole gender issue was over when I stopped racing!” she told CNN. “But I can also see that it’s causing quite a lot of interest with me being a team principal.”
Its association with Formula E also gives ABB insight into how motorsport can offer a trickle-down effect, where technological insights derived from the race track filter down into road cars and their charging infrastructure. “It’s all about collaboration,” Kullborg noted, “shorter innovation cycles, enable growth, decrease time to market, strengthen competitiveness.”
SynerLeap started with a focus on Sweden, expanded to the Nordics, and is now also open to companies from around the world. “Great by yourself or amazing together? We always choose ‘amazing together,'” Kullborg added.
Meera Makim, Program Manager, Energy Technology Sector, Natural Resources Canada
A diversity of thought and real technological answers are needed so solve the world’s climate and environmental challenges. This means women, more than ever, need to be part of the solution, according to the Women in Cleantech Challenge. What happens when you take 6 of Canada’s best and brightest female innovators, put them through an intensive program with unprecedented levels of support, and connect them to some of the top government laboratories, investors, and corporations in the world?
According Meera Makim, energy technology sector manager at Natural Resources Canada, since becoming cleantech finalists, “these women and their businesses have garnered much more recognition.” Five winners receive $115,000 a year for 2.5 years for living and travel expenses. One Grand Prize Winner receives $1 million to continue building her business.
Through the Women in Cleantech Challenge, while the most promising project is awarded the final prize at the end of the challenge, the other 5 projects, as well as some of the applicants who were not selected, have the opportunity to attract investment and support through their increased profile provided by challenge participation.
The lessons that emerge from the Challenge are that it’s important to “attract unconventional ideas and important to continue momentum to inspire the next generation,” Makim says, adding, “there is power in a cohort model.” Considering the staggering investment gaps between women and men in cleantech, the Challenge is instrumental in providing women access to the capital community and shining a light on women’s cleantech businesses.