Q&A with Steve MacDonald: CEO

What was the biggest highlight from 2018?
If I had to pick just one thing, I would say our Oil Sands Innovation Challenge was the biggest highlight. These technologies have the potential to significantly reduce the footprint of oil sands production in Alberta. Also, we challenged applicants to bring forward projects that would cut carbon and cut costs. This was a breakthrough and the major oil sands players involved in every project will deliver real action. Imagine no more tailings ponds or the elimination of steam in the extraction process. These are game-changers.

What are the biggest barriers to technology acceleration in Alberta right now? How is ERA navigating them?

Canada and Alberta have historically been good at coming up with innovative ideas, yet we have struggled to commercialize new technologies as quickly as other jurisdictions. This is not necessarily because of a shortage of funds in the early innovation stage. The ability to attract smaller dollars for scientific discovery and proof of concept isn’t the issue. The need for large capital funding sources to scale-up, demonstrate, and deploy projects remains a major barrier in Alberta and across Canada. ERA is providing funds that help mitigate the technology risk associated with scale-up. Our model also requires industry match ERA’s investment, demonstrating market pull. We also look for opportunities to further leverage funding by connecting projects with our trusted partners.

How has Alberta’s innovation ecosystem changed in the last year? 10 years?

It has come a long way. ERA has been in operation since 2009. Across the system we are working as trusted partners. There was a time when it felt like innovation organizations were at best working in isolation and at worst competing with one another. Industry and governments recognize that we must work together to be even more nimble and effective going forward. We need to continue to work together to identify the right priorities. And, we need to pick the most promising technologies—this is what ERA’s process is designed to do. We can’t sprinkle money across every good idea and expect to be successful. We need to prioritize technology gaps as a system. This is how Alberta will lead the way to a lower carbon future.

How do you know ERA investments are working?

ERA has funded 128 projects and leveraged money so that our $375 million generated over $2.6 billion in total investment. Job creation is so important to the province right now, and our modelling suggests that this investment will generate 12,000 person-years in jobs by 2023. In terms of GHG reductions, we plan to reduce more than nine million cumulative tonnes by 2020—and by 2030 we are estimating that number will grow to more than 28 million tonnes. It’s a good  start, but the number of projects and the amount invested isn’t the measure of success. The real demonstration of success won’t come until later—when the projects we fund are commercialized and deployed in the market. That’s the low carbon future.

How do you know you are delivering what Albertans want and need?

Talking to innovators, project proponents, and others in the innovation system offers great insight. A large part of our team’s role is listening to better understand challenges. In November 2017, we conducted a formal research project to test the level of awareness, familiarity, and support for ERA and its mandate. This research gave us a better understanding of public and stakeholder opinions and identified opportunities for improvement. One statistic that is important to me: two thirds of our stakeholders would recommend others apply for funding through ERA. This is known as a net promotor score, and it is believed to be the truest measure of customer satisfaction. This helps us validate that the call for proposals process is working and identify where there is room for improvement.