Calgary non-profit builds environmental winners

Nov 26, 2018

When it comes to supporting small environmental companies, Joe Lukacs has a simple but challenging philosophy: as he says, “we don’t pick winners—we make winners.” It’s a philosophy that for more than two decades has guided Lukacs and his team at the Canadian Environmental Technology Advancement Corp.-West (or CETAC-West) in helping hundreds of environmental startups in Alberta and across Western Canada.

“We help these companies to build entrepreneurial capacity so they’re better, stronger, more competitive,” says Lukacs, president and CEO of CETAC-West, which was launched in 1994 by Environment Canada with federal and provincial funding.

Located in the Alberta Innovates building in the research park just north of the University of Calgary, the private non-profit group assists small- to medium-sized enterprises in developing business skills critical to bringing innovative technologies to market.

This year, Lukacs says proudly, CETAC-West is celebrating 25 years of operations. But it almost didn’t reach this milestone.  Five years ago, the non-profit faced a crisis after Environment Canada discontinued core funding. It was then that CETAC-West reached out to Alberta Innovates to fill the gap. A provincially funded corporation, Alberta Innovates invests in a variety of innovation and technology programs.

“We’ve always had a funding relationship with the Alberta government. But Alberta Innovates really stepped up as a core funder at a critical time for us.  We would not be around today without their support,” he says.

Lukacs says the relationship is a strong fit. “Our focus on building business skills for environmental entrepreneurs is very complementary to their programs.”

At any given time, CETAC-West works closely with 50 to 60 environmental and clean tech companies. In most cases, this support starts with detailed diagnostics to understand the client’s needs and challenges. The non-profit then draws on a network of 50 business leaders—many of them CETAC-West graduates—to provide real-world advice to the entrepreneur. Over the next year and usually longer, a team of mentors will work with the client and share feedback through industry roundtables, advisory boards or management clinics.

CETAC-West also hosts a popular annual Entrepreneur to CEO Workshop at the Banff School of Management. Attracting about 60 clients each year, the week-long retreat enables startup executives to learn from other business leaders, private investors and mentors.

“They’ll share their successes and failures with each other and build their network. They always come away with lots of practical learnings,” Lukacs says.

With renewed funding from Alberta Innovates, Lukacs says CETAC-West has continued to evolve its services. Two years ago, it introduced a two-day retreat to assist companies wanting to participate in R&D. More recently it’s begun offering assistance to innovators pursuing technology concepts at the very earliest stages.

It’s a full set of services that’s proven highly successful, to judge from past surveys of client firms that show CETAC-West graduates have a survival rate over 90 per cent. That’s compared to an industry average of 60 per cent for similar-sized Canadian companies.

So far, Lukacs and his team have worked with about 500 companies, representing everything from environmental management to renewable energy to plant genetics to oil and gas solutions. Among CETAC-West’s success stories is Calgary-based Hifi Engineering, which has introduced advanced fiber optic sensor equipment to monitor pipelines. Another is Edmonton-based Calscan Solutions, which builds solar-powered control systems to power well site equipment. There’s also Rockland Scientific International in Victoria, B.C., which has developed advanced measurement equipment for the marine environment.

Lukacs’ commitment at CETAC-West to see other entrepreneurs succeed comes from his own life experience. An engineer, he immigrated to Canada from Hungary in 1957. Encouraged by others in the oil patch, he would devote the next several decades to finding cleaner ways to produce oil and gas resources. At Western Research, a company he co-founded in the mid-1960s, he was involved in developing and commercializing new pollution control equipment.

“I know from my own experience that technology startups face tremendous challenges. To help them, you must be totally dedicated to finding them the very best help,” Lukacs says.

It’s this experience that motivates Lukacs in his day-to-day role at the non-profit and leaves him with a hope that CETAC-West will continue to provide this critical work of helping small startups for many years to come.

“It’s a serious commitment. We build relationships that last years. For us, building successful businesses is very much a long-term process.”

Photo of Joe Lukacs (above) taken by Chris Bolin.