By Joel Magalnick
Alberta’s natural resources have long made us the wealthiest province, but it’s very likely we will be overtaken by other provincial economies in the coming years. There are a number of factors for this, but we have another kind of wealth — one in which we can point a straight line from the oil and gas industries to help us get out of these doldrums: that’s the deep scientific knowledge our province has cultivated in chemical, electrical, mechanical, and even agricultural processes.
As the collapse of global oil prices over the past seven years has shown, diversification can help us spread our eggs among many baskets. Whether we’re talking pharmaceutical, geothermal, or even clean tech, Alberta’s deep engineering heritage can and will propel us forward—and it doesn’t have to be at the expense of oil and gas.
Events in the past month show how far Edmonton as a region, and Alberta as a whole, have come in diversifying our economic drivers. On March 11, cleantech took center stage with an investment summit led by Startup TNT and included sponsors such as the Alberta Clean Technology Industry Alliance (ACTIA) and Energy Futures Lab.
“2019 was great, but 2020 oddly enough was even better,” said ACTIA executive director Jason Switzer in his opening remarks at the summit. Alberta’s significant heavy industry and agricultural sectors can take the lead in reducing carbon output, he said. “We’ve got all that it takes to be a global leader in clean technology and we’re going to do what it takes to make that happen.”
Switzer further noted that venture funding has begun to outpace baseline capital, but also cautioned that Canadian start-ups don’t get the same levels of investment as startups in the U.S. and European Union. “That’s a big problem,” he said. “There’s not enough money flowing into these startups, so if they come out, even if they’ve got just as good or even better technology than a startup from California, they don’t have as much money, and that’s oxygen. That’s their ability to fight and win.”
Matt Mayer from Energy Futures Lab noted that reskilling workers in cleantech methods and practices will help to increase Alberta’s standing as a global player. “The lab has been focused on identifying projects that have the potential to significantly shape Alberta and Canada’s energy landscape.”
Some of the emerging companies that participated in the Alberta Cleantech Investment Summit included companies that use AI and machine learning to better understand ground chemistry from space, provide real-time insights on all kinds of data points like weather conditions or IoT device readings to help frontline oil and gas producers become more efficient, and to help manufacturers reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The winner of the evening, SeeO2, epitomizes our province’s deep knowledge and experience that makes it a scientific powerhouse. This mid-stage startup is currently testing a system that reclaims waste gases using specially designed electron-based devices to convert carbon dioxide and steam emissions into carbon monoxide or hydrogen, for example. These gases can then be reused to manufacture highly processed products such as synthetic fuels and construction materials. As SeeO2 ramps up to release a commercially viable product later this year, its reach has the potential to achieve success on a global scale.
As the world eagerly awaits to reopen while we move toward a critical mass of coronavirus vaccinations, pharmaceuticals have become much more visible in the public eye. Our region is clearly playing a role.
“Even before the pandemic, our region had significant assets and competitive advantages for bio tech and biology pharmaceuticals,” Lynette Tremblay, Edmonton Global’s vice president of strategy and innovation, said in the opening remarks of the Commercializing Research and Development panel she moderated on March 22. “The Edmonton region has a strong life-sciences ecosystem that includes chemical and pharmaceutical companies, engineering talent, and all of that manufacturing, early-stage inputs and mid-stage active pharmaceutical ingredients.”
Tremblay said that 17 proposals for Covid-19 vaccines had come out of the University of Alberta alone, and two of those candidates have entered phase-1 clinical trials. “Alberta and Canada really have the opportunity to be at the forefront of this industry,” said panelist John Lewis, founder and CEO of Edmonton-based Entos Pharmaceuticals, one of those two companies hoping to bring the vaccine to market. “We’re hoping that it’s going to be successful and brought to bear on this pandemic for the benefit of Canadians and potentially the world.”
Dr. Jared Davis, president of Providence Therapeutics, the other local company bringing its vaccine to trial, said that the mRNA technology will have important benefits beyond Covid-19—in particular to create personalized cancer vaccines. “In early 2020 we were very close to going into the clinic with a cancer vaccine,” David said. “However, COVID hit. Our plans changed. We very quickly developed a vaccine for COVID using the technology we’d developed over the year for our cancer programs.”
Davis said he expects Providence to complete the phase-1 trial this month.
While we’re still at a point where the innovation coming out of Edmonton and the rest of Alberta is in the tens or hundreds of millions rather than the billions from fossil fuel extraction. But the more we continue to put value on scientific ventures, the more quickly we’ll see exponential investment and growth—and attract more big players. “You look at the big health centers in the world, they’ve got a lot of competitors all in one compact space,” Davis said. “It’s all really helpful. We can feed on each other and grow together.”