By Virginia Gewin

The Canadian province of British Columbia has a simple strategy for becoming a hub of clean technology — be bold. Under its premier Gordon Campbell, the province has established aggressive clean-energy initiatives, including North America's first carbon tax (see http://tiny.cc/HkvYn) to meet its goal of reducing greenhouse-gas emissions to 33% below 2007 levels by 2020. Carbon-based fuels will be taxed at a rate of Can$10/tonne (US$9.28) of carbon emissions now and at Can$30 per tonne by 2012. Campbell's government has also made reducing carbon emissions part of a wider plan to stimulate job growth in the region, where the traditional natural-resources industries of forestry and fisheries are struggling. From biofuels to wave energy, the province's government and the Canadian federal government have made sizeable investments in the research, development and commercialization of clean-energy alternatives to fossil fuels.

The plan seems to be paying off. Early-stage companies are getting the funding they need to hire additional staff, and energy-related training opportunities abound. The big challenge, however, will be bringing these technologies to fruition. In the face of an uncertain market and the significant up-front costs of commercializing a new energy technology, British Columbia's leaders have encouraged investment in clean energy, "The real prize is becoming a 'go-to' place to sell technologies to the rest of the world," says Andrew Walls, director of the British Columbia Innovation Council's ocean sciences and energy programme.

To complement the federally funded Can$1-billion Sustainable Development Technology Canada (SDTC) fund, devoted to developing clean energy, most notably biofuels, British Columbia has created its own clean-tech funds. The Can$25-million annual Innovative Clean Energy Fund (ICE) and the Can$25-million British Columbia Bioenergy Network (BCBN) emphasize help to companies that are developing biofuels. In 2008, the provincial government released a bioenergy strategy to help guide its energy plan. "This is one of the few sectors that has legs, and people actively developing technologies," says Michael Weedon, executive director of the BCBN.

Lignol, an emerging biofuel company based in Burnaby, has received funding from the ICE, the SDTC and the BCBN to support its efforts to produce ethanol from woody materials. It wants to recruit scientists, primarily those with biology and chemistry backgrounds, to explore and develop new technologies. Lignol's chief operating officer Michael Rushton says the company looks for people with skills in chemical processing or enzyme chemistry as it continues to improve the efficiency of the conversion of lignocellulose into ethanol.

Despite the emphasis on biofuels, there are also job opportunities in the areas of wave energy and carbon sequestration. In March, SyncWave, a company in Pemberton, received Can$2.7 million from the SDTC to field test its technology, which taps the energy of ocean swells. Chief executive Nigel Protter says he needs scientists and engineers who understand hydrodynamics and fluid dynamics. British Columbia will also be the site of one of eight Canada-wide projects that will share Can$140 million in government funds to conduct carbon-capture and storage demonstrations. Spectra Energy, based in Houston, Texas, which specializes in natural-gas infrastructure, will oversee the carbon-capture project in British Columbia from its offices in Vancouver and Calgary, Alberta. Tony Irwin, the company's director of climate change and energy efficiency, says he is looking for people who can combine multiple skills, including chemistry, hydrogeology, policy and engineering.

Both the public and the private sectors are taking steps to ensure that British Columbia's human scientific resources match the clean-tech initiative. The provincial government has established the Leading Edge Endowment Fund, a Can$56.25-million joint government–private sector initiative to create 29 permanent endowed chairs at British Columbia universities and colleges in areas including health, technology and the environment. The hope is that 20 permanent leadership research chairs will attract top talent and that nine 'regional innovation chairs' will spur technology transfer at smaller colleges and technical institutes.

 

Training grounds

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada's Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) programme aims to fill interdisciplinary gaps. For example, the CREATE program in interdisciplinary climate science will partner with the Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis at the University of Victoria with the Institute of Ocean Sciences on Vancouver Island, run by Fisheries and Oceans Canada. The programme will carry out research in areas crucial to industry and government, such as developing new ways of predicting the evolution of terrestrial and oceanic ecosystems, and climate diagnostics research to uncover signatures of climatic variation. Other CREATE programmes will target British Columbia's health and life-sciences industries, and those devoted to the environment and energy include bioenergy, biorefining and biodiversity. Each programme receives Can$1.65 million to split among stipends for undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students.

Meanwhile, a new climate-science initiative should mean several million dollars in funding for graduate students, postdocs and visiting scientists. In March 2008, the Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions (PICS) was established with a Can$90-million endowment. PICS, a partnership between the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, the University of Victoria, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby and the Univ
ersity of Northern British Columbia in Prince George, will spend around Can$1 million of its operating budget on training. Projects are still being planned but scientists will be needed to address how ecosystems and humans can adapt to climate change, says Nancy Olewiler, director of the public-policy programme at Simon Fraser University and a member of the PICS programme committee. She expects teams from each university to participate in interdisciplinary projects such as developing solutions to water shortage, tracking climate-induced emerging health issues and exploring how timber can meet bioenergy needs.

Formal partnerships with two recently established oceanography initiatives should extend PICS's interdisciplinary reach. The newly established Can$100-million North-East Pacific Time-Integrated Undersea Networked Experiments (Neptune Canada) and the Can$25-million Victoria Experimental Network Under the Sea (Venus) project, a deep-sea and coastal ocean observatory, will provide climate-science opportunities for oceanography graduate students and postdocs. They will have the task of sifting through an unprecedented variety and amount of data, which can be used, for example, to visualize the sea floor and monitor conditions such as oxygen depletion and ocean acidification, says Verena Tunnicliffe, professor of deep-sea research at the University of Victoria and Venus's project director. Tunnicliffe's team is exploring ways to help oceanographers handle the huge amount of data generated by the Neptune and Venus programmes. She says the training possibilities for young scientists in British Columbia are endless.

Connecting graduate research to burgeoning industries in British Columbia is the goal of the Accelerate programme, run by the mathematical and science research network MITACS, in Vancouver, which fosters graduate internships with potential employers in high-tech industry, government and non-profit organizations. The aim is to give companies, and in particular those in the clean-tech sector, access to cutting-edge university research, while students get a first-hand experience of what industry needs."British Columbia is moving away from its history as a resource extractor," says Tunnicliffe, "to a region using technology to find exciting ways to use and develop these resources sustainably."

Bioenergy investment benefits cash-strapped life-sciences sector

The economic downturn is hitting Canadian life-science companies hard. On 15 July, BIOTECanada, Canada's biotechnology industry organization, released survey data suggesting that, including jobs already lost, 7,000 highly skilled researchers and scientists could be laid off throughout the country in the next year if short-term financing from private or government sources cannot be obtained to keep struggling companies afloat.

Although British Columbia has a relatively mature biopharmaceutical sector that is better placed to weather the storm, the recession has had an impact, says Bob Ingratta, bioproducts and bioenergy sector specialist at the non-profit industry-support organization LifeSciences British Columbia, based in Vancouver.

The Canadian government's investment in bioenergy and clean technology could offer a welcome respite, and create opportunities for those with genomics or bioinformatics skills. For example, Jörg Bohlmann, a forest biologist at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, has a grant of Can$7.5 million (US$7 million) from Genome British Columbia, one of six centres that vie for funds from the central organization Genome Canada.

Bohlmann is hunting for genomic clues to the outbreaks of mountain pine beetle that threaten Canada's forests (pictured), and is exploring how the biofuels sector might use infested wood as biomass. He wants to train people in genomics, bioinformatics and ecological risk modelling. "If we can't truly stop forest impact of the pine mountain beetle, we may be able to better utilize forest resources that are infected," he says.

Pierre Meulien, Genome British Columbia's chief scientific officer, says that although Genome Canada did not receive any new funding in this year's budget, it is funded up to the end of 2013. Genome British Columbia also receives money from the provincial government specifically for research on local priorities such as bioenergy. For example, researchers funded by Genome British Columbia at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and the University of Victoria are investigating how to maximize the fermentation of lignocellulose to bioethanol, using poplars.

The Canada Foundation for Innovation has provided Can$71 million in funding for 16 major infrastructure projects in British Columbia, with particular emphasis on ocean research and the life sciences. The focus is on maintaining cutting-edge research platforms in life sciences, including a Can$10 million ultra-high-throughput DNA sequencing platform for large-scale genome analysis at the University of British Columbia. Such investments are considered key to maintaining British Columbia's success.

Christoph Borchers, director of the University of Victoria–Genome British Columbia Proteomics Centre, sees ample promise in the province's diverse portfolio of genomics research despite funding woes. "Genome British Columbia has a lot of funding from the provincial government, which wants to see the community broadly apply 'omics to all areas that affect human health from trees to fisheries," he says.