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Denver Accelerator Could Be Global Gateway for Energia’s Clean-Tech Startups

Dhirendra Shukla, second from left, is the Chair of the UNB Technology, Management and Entrepreneurship program. (Joy Cummings/UNB)

FREDERICTON – Dhirendra Shukla had a wonderful moment of serendipity when he was visiting Denver on his sabbatical earlier this year.

Shukla, the chair of J. Herbert Smith Centre for Technology Management and Entrepreneurship (TME) at the University of New Brunswick, was there visiting a couple of startups, and he decided to visit the Canadian Consulate.

There, he was introduced to people with the Canadian Technology Accelerator (CTA), which is funded by the federal government to help what Shukla calls “high-growth, high-potential startups” raise capital, do research and development, and explore markets opportunities in the U.S.

The government has several of these accelerators around the U.S. focused on different sectors. It was especially fortuitous for Shukla that the Denver one focuses on clean-tech companies.

Shukla, the founder of Energia Ventures, had just discovered an opportunity to help the companies from that new program make inroads with U.S. research facilities, potential markets and venture capital investors.

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Energia, a clean-energy and cybersecurity accelerator supported by ACOA that launched last year in Fredericton, already has four companies at various stages of development: Beauceron Security, Stash Energy, Mbissa Energy Systems and Trispectra Innovation Inc.

Shukla invited Stephen Davis from CTA to visit Fredericton and witness the work they were doing with Energia and also TME. Davis was exposed to 19 startups during his short time there, said Shukla, and he went back to Denver optimistic that some N.B. clean-tech startups could take part in CTA’s six-month program offered to small and medium-sized Canadian enterprises.

[The CTA wasn’t sure about the potential in N.B.] because in startups the mindset is Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa, and if you’re talking energy some exciting stuff happening in Calgary,” said Shukla in a recent interview. “[But Davis] was simply blown away with the amount of activity he was seeing, the depth, the passion.”

The next cohort won’t be officially announced until sometime in October so Shukla can’t say which companies will be selected. But he said the program is intensive and invaluable, connecting startups with around 60 investors focused on clean energy opportunities; giving them access to an R&D lab run by the U.S Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Labs (NREL); and making key market introductions for companies with products and services to sell in the U.S.

This program is a huge opportunity for the province’s emerging clean-tech sector, says Shukla. The former Nortel employee is excited about the economic and environmental opportunities in the clean-tech sector, which he compares to the cellular phone revolution that happened in the developing world. Shukla says developed countries took the incremental steps from dial-up phones to wireless. However, most of the developing world never had the capacity or capital to build the dial-up infrastructure.

“They skipped that component and simply went wireless,” said Shukla, who was born in India and raised in Zambia.

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Much of the developing world lacks the traditional energy infrastructure that depends on burning large amounts of fossil fuels that increase greenhouse gas emissions. Shukla believes clean-energy solutions will allow them to skip that step entirely, much like what happened with wireless phone technology.

“How is that new way of thinking around energy going to enable communities [in the developing world] to be more independent, more efficient, more economically better off, and have a lower carbon footprint,” he said. “We can design, and redesign communities quicker than we can in North America or the rest of the developed world.”

One company that’s going through the Energia accelerator is already doing this kind of work in Africa. Mbissa Energy Systems is running a pilot project on the island of Mbissa in Cameroon using solar energy.

“There are about 3,000 people on the island of Mbissa and the thought is that it’s one of the poorest areas in the entire region,” company founder Caleb Grove told Huddle earlier this year. “So the idea is if we can find a way to reliably give people electricity on Mbissa, realistically that would apply to pretty much anywhere else in the world that’s poor and hard to reach.”

Shukla says the innovations that take place in developing countries can be implemented in the developed world as well.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity for experimentation, innovation and entrepreneurship in new markets and bring that technology back [here],” he says.

Shukla believes there are great opportunities for New Brunswick clean-tech companies in this sector, leveraging the CTA experience to become global leaders.

“We have a natural tendency to access capital, access markets in the U.S.,” he says. “But how can those companies come to solve global problems, seize global opportunities?”