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We need more women leaders in cleantech. Let’s change that

May 10, 2018 By: Jane Kearns

This post is also available in: Français (French)

By Jane Kearns, Senior Advisor, MaRS Cleantech

It’s well known that women are under-represented in the innovation economy. In fact, a recent report found that only 5% of Canadian technology companies have a solo female founder or CEO, and only 13% of companies have one female co-founder.

In our experience here at MaRS, such representation is similar—and arguably worse—when the focus is on clean technology companies.

That’s why MaRS was keen to design and launch the Women in Cleantech Challenge in collaboration with Natural Resources Canada. Through this national initiative, we aim to support the creation of more highly impactful, globally significant cleantech companies founded and run by women.

Our inspiration came from the Cyclotron Road fellowship program at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) in California, one of several major United States Department of Energy lab facilities located throughout the US. Each year, Cyclotron Road recruits a cohort of entrepreneurial scientists and engineers, and embeds them for two years within the LBNL research ecosystem, where they receive funding support and have access to lab researchers and equipment. The participants are also groomed to become successful tech entrepreneurs and introduced to the mentor, investor and partner networks they need to build experience, raise capital and find customers.

That last part—building successful tech entrepreneurs—is what MaRS does every day with hundreds of ventures from across Canada. As for labs, Canada has some of the best federal laboratories and research facilities in the world. After officials from MaRS and Natural Resources Canada visited Cyclotron Road in January 2017, they walked away remarking, “We need to do this at home.”

But with two new twists. First, why not focus on women innovators? And, second, why not position the program as a national challenge?

A major part of the 2018 federal budget was aimed at addressing gender gaps in the workplace that inhibit economic growth. For example, to boost the percentage of female-owned companies in the technology sector, we need to give women the tools they need to succeed and remove the barriers that hold them back. At the same time, both the 2017 and 2018 budgets identified the growth of Canada’s cleantech sector as a national priority.

Given this focus, designing the Women in Cleantech Challenge, which supports women innovators in Canada who are determined to tackle the world’s most difficult energy and environmental challenges, made great sense.

The challenge is part of the Government of Canada’s Impact Canada Initiative, which includes Clean Tech Impact, a series of prize-based challenges focused on “unlocking breakthrough solutions to complex and persistent problems in developing clean technology.”

The Women in Cleantech Challenge has six key objectives:

  1. to seek out the best and most driven women innovators;
  2. to tackle “hard tech” with the biggest potential for impact;
  3. to require, but also enable, the entrepreneur’s complete dedication to the mission;
  4. to leverage existing federal research assets and networks of expertise, maximizing the use of existing public resources;
  5. to build support for success via a curated mix of mentorship, educational programming and access to market intelligence; and
  6. to make timely connections to the investors and corporate partners that matter.

Through a national open call that stretches from May 10 to July 13, our goal is to recruit top female cleantech innovators from across Canada, select an elite cohort of five, and over a period of 30 months provide them with the mentorship, critical services and enhanced support they need to focus and thrive (including financial support).

At the conclusion of the challenge, the participant who has advanced the furthest and is deemed most likely to succeed (as determined by a jury of six women) will be awarded $1 million to continue building her business. The jury will consist of a mix of entrepreneurs, investors, technologists and academics, including honorary juror Margaret Atwood. (In addition to being one of Canada’s most iconic authors, did you know that Ms. Atwood is an inventor and co-founder of a technology company?)

We’re excited about this challenge and hope that you are, too. Please explore this website further to learn about the eligibility criteria, the selection process and the supports participants will receive. You can also download the Applicant Guide, read the FAQs and get to know the jury. If you’re a female innovator with a great cleantech idea, you can apply for the Women in Cleantech Challenge online.

Most of all, please help us spread the word by sharing the challenge with your networks.