Propelling start-ups to the finish line

oil sands technology start up innovation

A key component of COSIA’s business strategy is to identify clean technologies from innovators – including start-up companies – that can be applied in the oil sands. But as we began working with newly-established businesses, we quickly realized that we needed to work with them in a different way as we did not have the expertise to incubate early stage technology ventures.

Start-ups by their nature are fast-paced developers and although COSIA and its member companies are well equipped to assess new technologies, our evaluation processes and pace are methodical and thorough. As well, most start-up technology is not sufficiently developed for COSIA members – who are oil sands producers – to properly assess its potential for commercial application. There may be a spark of a brilliant concept, but it’s not far enough along to assess properly, so the risk of failure is too high for our members to engage.

In the beginning, we tried using third party organizations to bridge this gap. The organization would provide coaching to help the start-up company advance their technology and build a business case. But while these organizations understood the oil sands industry, they were not embedded enough to successfully evaluate the technology on industry’s behalf. 

We knew we needed a different process, one that would help start-up companies appreciate and understand the oil sands industry’s pain points. It also needed to show start-ups how to methodically prove the feasibility of their technology and develop a viable business model.

The answer was to partner with a technology accelerator, and we ran our first pilot with the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre in late 2019. Foresight is a not-for-profit corporation that fosters the growth of clean technology companies in Western Canada. Its entrepreneurs-in-residence provide support and training for start-ups whose technology has high potential to address current industry challenges. 

cosia foresight accelerator

After the first companies began graduating from the Foresight program, it was clear they had advanced by leaps and bounds. They understood the customer’s needs, had a well articulated pitch and a high level technology development roadmap that laid out in detail how they needed to test their technology. The pilot was such a success that we continue to refer start-ups to the Foresight program today.

The pilot demonstrated the value of intense collaboration between complementary partners, each of whom brings different skills and expertise to the table. Even though Foresight staff provided most of the heavy lifting, COSIA and industry still need to engage. COSIA provides guidance on how to move a new technology through the formal gated stages of development. Member companies provide access to their technical staff to ensure that development goals are aligned. The outcome is a win-win for everyone involved.

CalAgua Innovations Corp. is one recent Foresight graduate. The company has a growing portfolio of low-impact clean technologies that include water-less bitumen extraction and a process for processing oil shale directly to liquid fuel. President and CEO Brian Mellor credits the Foresight program with honing the company’s ability to better understand its clients’ needs and improving its technology development to address their challenges. “What’s particularly valuable about this program is the ongoing mentorship and guidance we receive from Foresight’s executives in residence as we continue our growth, Mellor said.

For more information about the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre and details on how to apply, check out their website.

Interested in other stories like these?
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•    Creating community to spark innovation

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