Jeanette Jackson, CEO of Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre based in Burnaby BC, joined Cascadia Report to share some of her experience and wisdom, and valuable insights into the cleantech sector. Ms. Jackson is an entrepreneur and business strategist who served as an Executive-in-Residence at Foresight for four years prior to her role as CEO for the last two. Previously she was the founding CEO of cleantech company, Light-Based Technologies, and was also President of The Brag Company, a combination of online and retail product distribution for smart and luxurious travel products. She has also supported several organizations including Futurpreneur as a Business Coach & Mentor and New Ventures BC as a Mentor & Judge.
Since Foresight was launched in 2013, it has helped more than 550 start-ups and run 30 successful Industry Innovation Challenges in the energy, water, forestry, and bioeconomy sectors among others. In 2018, Foresight also launched its Growth program to serve small-to-medium enterprises who are post-market-validation phase and preparing to scale. Foresight companies have created over 5000 jobs, attracted more than $280m in new funding and investment, and generated over $230m in revenues.
I spoke to Jackson as the team at Foresight prepared to launch a website rebrand and our Zoom call was just one of many for the day. It was a fun and lively conversation touching on everything startup, clean tech, and we uncovered some great advice for budding entrepreneurs. We started by getting into what the role of CEO at a cleantech company looks like, and what keeps her motivated every day.
"As CEO of Foresight Cleantech Accelerator, Canada, my role is to provide the strategic direction, energy, and focus to drive the organization to achieve its goals. Our goal is to position Canada as a global leader in cleantech innovation. We do that through a series of different programs and initiatives that help the innovation community more effectively launch and scale ventures that meet the needs of industry and are compelling to the investment community.
My day to day is quite busy. With clean technology being front and center in COVID recovery, we are busier than ever. I'm pulling 12 to 16 hour days. A lot of meetings, conversations with stakeholders and partners to continue to validate the approach that we're taking, in some cases we're proposing new programs, working with the team to make sure that they have the support they need in executing on all this great work. There are also secondary stakeholders like government and academia who want to be involved in what we're doing, so there's a lot of relationship management and other considerations there. It's busy, it's fun, and I certainly love what I do."
Prior to taking the CEO position at Foresight, Jackson was a successful entrepreneur in her own right in technology and retail industries. While it would be impossible to cover every venture and cause she has supported here, I asked what some of the highlights had been, and how some of her past experiences have informed her current role at Foresight.
"I've always been quite entrepreneurial. I started working at a very young age doing a paper route. I did some fun retail jobs, but I came right out of university steadfast on being an entrepreneur. My first real venture was a company called Motion Media. we were buying and selling the backs of 510 trucks for advertising. But I did have an intense passion for technology, and sustainability.
When I was presented with the opportunity to work with an innovative company who had come up with a technology for the cleantech sector, at that time it was lighting. I dove right in and essentially scaled the organization from ideation to 40 team members in Canada and the US, did the full VC capital raise, multiple raises, accessing government grants and other programs eventually handed off the company to a new executive team who had scale up experience that I didn't have. I stayed on as a board member.
They usually say to take some time but within four weeks I had purchased another small manufacturing business. I wanted something more transactional and operational, so that I could build up that experience. Ultimately, did scale that business up and sold it to our largest customer in 2015.That business was sold because I was producing products. They were fun, but they didn't align with my core values in terms of sustainability and climate. So, I personally felt the motivation to come back into the sector. I dove in as an Executive in Residence at Foresight mentoring about 25 other ventures over the course of three years and Foresight was much smaller at that time, and so had lots of hands-on experience. Everything from value proposition, business models, competitive advantages, go to market strategies, market validation, products, and things like that. How do you make sure that what you're invested your time and sweat and money into is absolutely something that can become a going concern?
We have a much more robust series of programs and initiatives that achieve those goals of positioning Canada as a global leader in cleantech, driving domestic and international adoption of Canadian cleantech companies and working with partners around the world to transition global economies to net zero. So that's what we're steadfast on, very collaborative entrepreneurial fun and of course as a nonprofit we also work closely with those respective stakeholders to ensure that we're meeting other economic opportunities when it comes to capital and exports."
The Canadian clean tech market, especially in the Cascadia Corridor is growing at a pace, and Jackson is determined that this is just the beginning. She has said previously that her goal is to take 25 Canadian cleantech companies to a valuation of $1 billion by 2030. I wanted to learn more about what achieving this goal means to Jackson, and how it fits with the Canadian Government’s latest target of 30% greenhouse gas emissions in the same timeline.
"It's a very complex question. Over 80% of Canadian cleantech companies export, so while we are hyper focused on domestic procurement and adoption of clean technologies to reach Canada's goals, we also have exports in our mandate, there's often faster movers in various sectors internationally, than there are here in Canada. Cleantech is the future. If you look at sort of what happened in the ICT space, over the past 20 years, you've seen companies like Facebook and Google. Now, those are trillion-dollar valuations. So, I think it almost feels modest to think that with the capabilities that our innovation community has when it comes to cleantech, think CCUS, hydrogen, transportation, built environment. There's already a handful of prospects that we think can get there in the next few years if we really lean in on the next 20 and help them reach that $1 billion valuation mark.
It’s very exciting to do that in partnership with our colleagues across the country in various associations and other accelerators that are perhaps more regional or sector specific. The role we play is about convening the resources required to scale these ventures, and having a structured approach to support while still being flexible to the dynamic needs of scaling ventures. We start off with some predetermined structure and as they reach certain milestones, they'll get more flexibility in the type of support they need to address those scale up challenges. That’s inherent in the approach that we take.
On the flip side of that, another reason we can have an impact is we run a series of industry innovation challenges, and some of our work to date is already showing promise. One of the challenges could have a half a billion-dollar economic impact, which means the valuation of that company will multiply in a very short time. Smaller innovation challenges are more like matchmaking and ecosystem building activities, but when we start to dig into the more comprehensive challenges that are quite specific with different industry partners, and it's a scalable opportunity, then we can more quickly get those technologies validated, piloted, commercialized, and then really support that scale up effort. We see a clear path forward but there's still a lot of work to do. We're a very nimble organization, so we'll be able to scale up our support for this work, assuming we're achieving our goals as well."
Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre has been a driving force for clean technology companies in BC and beyond. With over 500 companies supported and $280m in capital raised by supported companies , I asked Jackson which businesses she had been working with in the Cascadia Corridor specifically, and about some of the common challenges she sees for Cleantech start-ups in the region.
"Most of the ventures that we support are Canadian ventures, so we don't cross the border too much, I'll stick to BC and Alberta. We do get more and more applications into our accelerator programming from the US. With that being said, the main opportunity in the Cascadia region is that the needs of our regions have commonalities. We see Seattle and Vancouver both have strong digital company traction. And obviously, BC doesn't have a very diverse utility market so being engaged with the utility partners throughout the Cascadia region is promising opportunities for energy companies, what role does electrification, hydrogen and biofuel play in our respective regions? I think there's going to be some huge opportunities there. Transportation is another big one, is it a hyperloop from Vancouver to Seattle? I don't know, but obviously there's strong interest and alignment to see fluid movement of people, products and services between our respective regions.
Water and the resource sector are more BC focused but we also have done a lot of work with the CleanTech Alliance in Seattle and have had great conversations with Grid Forward. All of us recognise that the climate problem is massive. It's always nice to think we're going to find a homegrown business to solve it, but probably not a reality in the scope of things. It's important that we have our eyes open to best practices globally. The Cascadia region is a dynamic ecosystem. If we can learn within our area, we can all collaborate to elevate one another to be more competitive globally."
Jackson is clearly a passionate advocate for the potential of the tech industry in the Cascadia Innovation Corridor, but she also has some words of caution, and is keen to point out that the region has more to do to unleash that potential. Much of the work the team at Foresight do is enabling the next generation of entrepreneurs and having discussions around what needs to be done to get to the next step.
"Early stage capital is the biggest single challenge in the region. I know that E8 is a really strong Angel community for climate, they've definitely been a great resource, but we don't have enough of them. We need to ignite the next generation of angel investors, at least for the seed stage. Another challenge is around cross-border work with policies and regulations. BC and Washington have had some interesting conversations - how can we ensure our policies and regulations are more common than different so that it's easier for innovators to navigate what that framework looks like that they have to operate in. We have very strong digital talent in all our respective regions, but we don’t have strong manufacturing scale talent, though I wouldn't be able to say, concretely that the same is true across the border. Finally, if we can support entrepreneurs to start more problem-driven ventures, the dynamics of how we accelerate can also evolve.
In BC, we definitely have some areas of opportunity to increase and attract different talent requirements for these ventures to really scale and become that going concern. We're getting better, it's always nice when you have a few success stories like Carbon Engineering,General Fusion and Terramera. It gets the conversation going, people globally are saying, ‘oh, what's happening there?’ it doesn’t hurt that the Cascadia region is pretty beautiful. It's hard to compete with. And that's why the housing prices for us are sky high. That is a literal problem as well when you are attracting talent, the cost of living and related items are under consideration as well.
We are seeing good things happening - more collaboration and more conversations. We're working with different folks, the CleanTech Alliance, Seattle on a water tech initiative in May. Mel at the CleanTech Alliance and I also sat in some sessions with the BC and Washington respective governments to talk about opportunities to share best practices on energy transition and transportation. There are things that we can do, but there are hurdles. If we can pick a few priorities and lean in on those and be successful, I think it could become a strong roadmap for how we can do that more successfully in other sectors as well."
It is a genuine pleasure to talk with a leader from the Cascadia region with so much invested in helping the community to succeed, but I couldn’t let Jackson go without touching on her own successful career as a company founder. While we chatted about her past experiences it is also worth noting that she has long devoted her time to worthy causes and nonprofits such as the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs, the BCIC New Ventures Competition, and Futurpreneur Canada. I asked Jackson what some of the obstacles she had faced and what impact they had on her career, and how that has informed her perspective as a mentor and advisor.
"The first thing I’d say is, when you start a business, make sure that the founding partners are aligned on what it's going to look like through each of the stage gates as you launch, commercialize, and scale. You really want to make sure that your founders are aligned. And it's hard, because you want to move fast, especially when there's so many pressures as a startup you must move fast to survive. But you really do have to be mindful of the team that you're building and the decisions that you're making from the ground up.
Personally, I also am a workaholic and I have a beautiful daughter, but I did sacrifice a marriage for one of my startups. Knowing what I know now I would definitely have taken a different approach to starting a business but unless you do it once, you don't really know. Business is important, but so is making sure your values and work-life balance is reflected in how you do things, it just depends on what your personal interests are.
Another thing to note, is that fundraising is a process. We often hear from ventures who say, ‘I pitched, and they were interested but they haven't given me a cheque yet’! Well, it's going to take a lot of conversations, investors want to see you following a process and meeting milestones you share in each of your engagements. What you present on day one may not be the same as what you present on day 60, or day 120 but if you're communicating openly and keeping them engaged in the process, you're going to have a much better chance of closing financing then if you have an attitude that people should just be coming to you with cash. Because it's competitive, there are a lot of great people trying to do great things. I’d also note that for some sectors we still have a problem with technology-product, or product-market fit. In many regions, there are still too many ventures that are technologies looking for problems, they're not as problem driven as they need to be to succeed.
We are an entrepreneurial organization. So, lots of communication, patience, and openness. I am keen to pass as much of that learning down to the ventures as I can. We have a strong EIR [Executive in Residence] and mentor network; making sure that they know it's okay to be vulnerable and share their story, if that's going to help the ventures learn. Not every venture is going to be successful. The probability rates aren't in favor of entrepreneurs. It’s important to recognize that and be okay with it. Then we help pick people up afterwards and get them to take their passion and energy to do something that maybe does have a higher probability of success."
With a proven track record in building her own companies and helping cleantech ventures come to market, I couldn’t let Jackson leave without getting some top tips for young entrepreneurs that might be reading this who are considering starting their own cleantech company.
"What I would say is, first of all, if you are thinking about entrepreneurship and you have passion for sustainability try something when it's low risk. Once you start getting a family and kids and things, you're going to have a different box that you have to work in.
If you're going to try something, start young and give it all you have. It's okay to fail, what you learn from that will propel you forward faster in any future opportunity, whether it's as an entrepreneur or for a larger company as a sustainability advisor. Sustainability now is broad, and many great companies are building out teams to figure out how they play a positive role and an impact on climate change. But if you are passionate about sustainability and think you got an idea, pursue it, give it a go, get help, figure it out, validate it, fail fast, and then move on. Don't sweat it."
As always at Cascadia Report we wanted to leave you with three key takeaways. Jackson took a moment to carefully consider her choices and shared some great advice for budding cleantech entrepreneurs, and a positive outlook for the industry and wider world.
1. Things change. When you start something and you have a vision for it, it will pivot, mold and evolve along the way, especially if you're good at stakeholder engagement to help you continue to redefine that. Don't be afraid, embrace that change.
2. Customers over capital. It's great to have access to grants, and obviously you want to raise funding as you scale up a venture, but customers will get you the capital you need to do the job that you want to do. So, build strong relationships with your customers.
3. Attitude and energy. Not everything is colorful and roses. There's going to be problems. The more quickly you can embrace those, solve them and move on from them the better.
"The future is green so if you were ever thinking about entering cleantech, sustainability, SDG, anything related to innovation and you have a passion for it, jump in, now's the time, let's go. At the end of the day, it's all about breaking down silos and collaboration. If you have ideas on collaborating with programs or initiatives where you see gaps, we're open to any ideas and learning and working together. That's beneficial for all of us."
You can find out more about Jeanette Jackson and the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre here: https://foresightcac.com/