The times they are a-changin’. Millions of people on every continent marched in climate change protests last September. Leaders around the world are mobilizing to limit global warming to 1.5oC. More and more companies are committing to carbon-neutral targets. As we ramp up our climate ambition, innovative clean technology solutions are needed more than ever.
To put the opportunity in economic terms, the annual worldwide spend on cleantech development is expected to exceed USD $2.5 trillion this year, according to Export Development Canada (although the impacts of COVID-19 on the sector directly are still unknown). Canada is particularly well-positioned to be a leader in the cleantech sector, with 12 Canadian ventures on the 2020 Global Cleantech 100 list. Canada is also home to many government and funding programs that support cleantech start ups, and many local cleantech accelerators that help budding ventures build capacity.
Starting a new business is hard. It takes blood, sweat and tears and a solid dose of luck and good timing. But with big risk can come great reward, and we need Canadian innovators at the table to help us address one of the biggest challenges of our time. Do you have a great idea that you think could change the world? Are you itching to build a business from the ground up? Are you searching for a way to make a difference by limiting climate change and preserving our environment for future generations? Keep reading for tips on how to build your knowledge and comfort in the cleantech space before launching a business.
1. Connect your PURPOSE with a PROBLEM.
Think of your purpose as an internal mission statement. Your purpose or mission statement should serve as both a driving force to propel you forward and a compass to keep you on track.
For example, when Leading Change, GLOBE Series, The Delphi Group and the EXCEL Partnership all came together to form a constellation of organizations, we united behind a shared purpose: to achieve a sustainable, prosperous and socially just future in a generation. This is the glue that holds us together and our North Star, guiding our actions and decisions and inspiring us to do what we do.
As you work to develop your own mission statement, ask yourself: What motivates me to get out of bed in the morning? What am I most passionate about? What values am I unwilling to compromise on? Do a little soul searching to identify a central purpose that resonates with you. As a frame of reference, look to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Which goal aligns best with your personal values, interests and skills?
Once you land on a purpose, begin to do a ‘root cause analysis’ on the issue you’re interested in—whether it’s affordable housing, food security, biodegradable packaging or something else. A ‘root cause’ can be defined as the core issue that sets in motion the entire cause-and-effect reaction that ultimately leads to the problem in question. In conducting a root cause analysis, you are ultimately looking to ask questions and dig deeper in order to understand what the true cause of a problem is. What is it about this issue that speaks to you? At the core of the issue, what are the challenges being faced by people, communities, or ecosystems? Draw on your own lived experiences or connect with an individual who has experienced the problem in question to learn about the solutions needed and solutions that have failed in the past. From there, conduct an in-depth search of secondary research materials, such as reports and white papers. For further information on how to conduct a root cause analysis, refer to the “It All Starts with a Problem” workbook from the League of Innovators.
As you home in on your purpose and problem, keep in mind: all great ideas ultimately need a customer in order to be successful. Will you be selling your product or service to other companies (i.e. business to business/B2B)? Or will you be selling your product or service to consumers (i.e. business to consumer/B2C)? By thinking about these questions, you’ve taken critical early steps on the entrepreneurial journey. The next steps are to 1) identify a target audience, 2) determine your product-market fit, 3) develop a business plan and then you’ll be in business! Keep in mind that you can always pivot and change your strategy down the road—flexibility is a key ingredient of entrepreneurship after all!
2. Learn the lingo.
When first entering the world of entrepreneurship and cleantech, it can be a confusing path to navigate. Startup. Venture. Angel investor. Educating yourself on the terminology of the sector and core entrepreneurial concepts is a key step on the path to success. From customer personas and business models to debt-equity structures and intellectual property, there’s a lot to learn. We’ve compiled a resource list to help you out:
- The Lean Start-Up by Eric Ries
- Value Proposition Design and Business Model Generation by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur
- The Startup Owner’s Manual by Steve Blank and Bob Dorf
- Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart
- The Breakthrough Challenge by Jochen Zeitz and John Elkington
- The Innovators Academy, a free online learning resource for youth, run by Victoria-based not-for-profit The League of Innovators
3. Find a mentor.
Developing a new idea, technology, or service area is hard work! To be successful, you need to do something that has never been done before. And that means you likely won’t have all the answers, but someone else just might.
Finding a mentor who is available for open, honest, and frank discussions can help you accelerate your startup AND help you avoid many common startup faux pas and mistakes. A mentor can be someone you admire for their business style, leadership skills, global impact, or simply for the idea they were able to bring to life. In a 2013 survey, 80% of CEOs said they had a mentor at some point in their startup career.
To find the right mentor for you, think of your professional and personal networks. Do you know any entrepreneurs? Who do you admire most? It could be someone you met at a conference, an old colleague or even a family friend. Reach beyond your network and consider local business leaders or role models who work in a field related to your business purpose.
If you don’t have a potential mentor in your immediate network, programs like Entrepeer from Futurpreneur Canada are very useful. If you have a specific person in mind but don’t have their contact information, try reaching out through LinkedIn or sending an email through their company website to ask if they would be interested in meeting you for a coffee. Be polite, but don’t be afraid to ask. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
4. Visit an innovation event or connect with a local accelerator.
Chances are there is already a lot happening in your local community around innovation, cleantech, and start-up ecosystem development. While events will be virtual for the foreseeable future, online events still offer many of the benefits of in-person events—including networking, gaining intel, and building your personal brand. Check out startup pitch or networking events both at the national or international levels and in your local area. Innovation events allow you to see how other startups present their idea to funders, customers, and the general public and local events specifically can give you an opportunity to learn more about your local infrastructure and make local connections.
If you’re feeling up for more of a challenge, do some research into local startup accelerators and incubators. Check to see when their next program cohort will begin and consider putting in an application. If the cost and time commitment of enrolling in a full program is overwhelming, look at their course offerings. Local innovation hubs usually run courses throughout the year for individuals who don’t yet have a solidified idea but who are interested in learning more about entrepreneurship more broadly.
MaRS Discovery District has compiled a detailed (although certainly not exhaustive) list of startup accelerators and incubators across Canada. You can browse the list here, but don’t be afraid to do your own digging into potential programs and offerings that best align with what you want to do and where you are on your own startup journey.
If you live in a rural community, consider reaching out to an accelerator or incubator program in the city nearest you. Given the changes brought on by COVID-19, many innovation programs have had to modify their offerings so that they can be delivered virtually. Take advantage of this newfound opportunity. They may also be able to direct you to resources and connections within your own municipality.
For real-world success stories and advice direct from Canadian cleantech entrepreneurs, consider attending Leading Change’s next webinar, “Cleantech Connect: Key Learnings and Advice from Young Founders” on July 9 at 2-3 p.m. Pacific or 5-6 p.m. Eastern. The event is free to attend. Register here. We hope you can join us and continue the cleantech conversation!
Leading Change is a national non-profit organization for and by young leaders and sustainability professionals accelerating action on issues that are critical to attaining a sustainable, prosperous, and socially just future within a generation. GLOBE Series and Leading Change are part of a constellation of organizations that also includes the Delphi Group and the EXCEL Partnership.