A senior advisor with MaRS Cleantech, Jane is a recognized leader in sustainable innovation and applies over 15 years of experience in the environmental finance, cleantech, and sustainability sectors.
She also helped launch Columbia Business School’s first environmental finance course, which continues to be taught in its MBA and EMBA programs, as well as at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Here is Exportwise’s conversation with Ms. Kearns.
What kind of challenges and opportunities does the cleantech sector face in the context of 21st century globalization?
There are some interesting dynamics resulting from globalization in the 21st century. Something we’re starting to see quite a bit is the cross-breeding of talent and ideas. Moving around the globe has become relatively easy and inexpensive, and as such people are more able to reach out to people and companies working in similar areas. This ability to connect and easily share ideas has the potential to increase progress on key issues.
On the technology side, we have a really important opportunity to enable carbon-free electrification for the developing world. Microgrids that amalgamate renewable energy, storage and controls mean it is possible to electrify areas without waiting for arrival of the grid. People will no longer be dependent on top-down access to solutions for energy access, which changes the power dynamic in these countries.
The same thing is true in developed countries. Utility companies no longer have sole control over the provision of energy – customers can generate their own electricity, and distributed renewable energy is beginning to compete on price with fossil fuels. This has the power to change the dynamic in the energy industry here at home as well.
The challenges for cleantech in international markets in many cases mirror challenges in other sectors – working with different cultures and expectations, language barriers, and deploying new technology in faraway regions.
From a cleantech-specific point of view, it is going to be very hard to shift countries away from fossil fuels. Transportation, in particular, will be challenging, yet it is such an important sector to transform if we are going to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Changing our transportation infrastructure – for example, switching to electric vehicles – requires significant investment, and it only makes sense from a carbon perspective where electricity isn’t generated from fossil fuels. An even greater challenge comes with shipping and air travel. Boats and planes emit immense quantities of GHGs, yet they will be impossibly hard to electrify so we’ll have to address those challenges with some serious “out of the box” thinking.
What are your thoughts on China as an emerging cleantech market?
China looks set to be the largest market for clean technologies for the next few decades. And according to the Cleantech Group, in 2012 China invested US $68 billion in the sector, which was fully a quarter of total global investment. So yes, China is a very big opportunity for Canadian cleantech companies. But it has to be done in the right way, and with the right partners.
As everyone knows, China has huge environmental problems, but it looks like they are finally moving to fix them. That said, China is changing rapidly. One of its key objectives right now is to go from a manufacturer of technology to a high tech innovator, and cleantech is one of the sectors they really want to pull ahead in. It still spends significantly more (about 24 times more) on procuring foreign IP than it spends on its own, but it has ambitious plans to change that and has significant amounts of capital to back them (about US $165 billion for R&D this year).
This dynamic is creating an interesting opportunity for Canadian companies to work with Chinese partners to collaborate and co-develop technology. This can provide opportunities to tap into vast amounts of capital, manufacturing prowess, and even China’s global distribution networks. China should be seen as an opportunity to co-create, and really accelerate and globalize the resulting technologies.
Increasing representation of women at the upper-executive level of the cleantech sector continues to be a slow process. What needs to happen in order to increase the numbers of women executives as well as women entering the cleantech industry?
5 Questions with Jane Kearns
1. What was your first job in cleantech?
My first job in cleantech was on the finance side, not the technical side. When I graduated from business school in New York I went looking for a job where I could use my finance skills to help build businesses that would improve the environment. I landed probably the only job in “environmental finance” in New York at that time. I worked for a boutique investment firm that focused exclusively on renewable energy and environmental technology companies (the term “cleantech” hadn’t been coined yet. That shows how old I am!). I got to dig deep into the technologies, but also put a big emphasis on identifying whether these businesses could make money.
2. How did you get that job?
I networked like crazy. I’ve never gotten a job by blindly submitting a resume. In the end it always comes down to who you know. I built a relationship with two of the founders of the firm that hired me, so by the time I graduated they already knew me well and reached out to let me know that they were hiring.
3. When it comes to the clean tech industry, what do you know now that you wish you knew then?
How long and slow the process would be. Since I started in the sector in 2001 it has felt a lot like being on the bleeding edge. It is just now, 15 years later, that I feel like I’m now positioned on the leading edge of a rapidly growing industry. It’s much less painful on this side of the blade.
4. What advice can you give to women considering a career in the clean tech industry?
It’s very difficult to get into this sector now without a technical degree. Cleantech is characterized by deep technology, and very often it is hard to gain the trust of technical founders if you can’t speak their language. You can never go wrong doing engineering in undergrad.
5. What do you do when you’re not working?
Not working? I don’t understand what you mean.