For a facility designed to accelerate and develop innovating ideas in the field of energy, the Centre for Urban Energy (CUE) is a rather ordinary building. Unlike Ryerson’s flagship incubator, the Digital Media Zone, with its open workspace and panoramic view of Dundas Square, the CUE is a complex of whitewashed walls and flickering fluorescent bulbs nestled in beside a drycleaner. Despite the bland exterior, innovators inside have big plans they hope will change the way we think about energy. The CUE was born out of a partnership with Ryerson, Hydro One, the Ontario Power Authority and Toronto Hydro. The centre focuses on how to create and use energy sustainably. This year marked the launch of the I-CUE, an incubator for urban energy start-ups.
Dan McGillivray, the CUE’s executive director, says his plan is for the I-CUE to do for energy start-ups what the DMZ did for companies in the digital media space. The I-CUE is interested in “trying to move from idea to income,” says McGillivray. As an accelerator, the I-CUE “operates under a fail-fast model,” says McGillivray. It’s not that he wants to see companies fail – he wants to move quickly to see if the idea will work. According the McGillivray, the I-CUE is the first urban energy focussed accelerator in the country. The I-CUE is the latest of Ryerson’s innovation “zones”. The first was the DMZ, established in 2010, which has now taken over multiple floors of the AMC building. Future zones are planned for the aerospace, design, health and social design industries. In a report submitted to the Minister of Colleges, Universities and Training, Sheldon Levy wrote that Ryerson sees a future “in which 10 per cent of its graduates will have created a business or an organization in the course of their studies.” The I-CUE plays a key role in helping fledgling energy enterprises solve problems experienced by start-up companies. Energy start-ups face political, financial and intellectual hurdles. Since energy is tied to government policy, ideas have to be politically as well as economically feasible to secure a space in the I-CUE. One of the biggest challenges for energy start-ups is securing funding. Retaining investors is difficult because “in the energy space it’s 2-5 years to revenue,” says McGillivray. Investors may not be willing to wait to make their money back as profit. Intellectually, the process is complicated further by the fact that many of the ideas and new technologies in the I-CUE require protection. It costs thousands to apply for, maintain and protect a patent. Without a patent, an idea or technology can easily be replicated by a wealthy competitor. The I-CUE gives start-ups the tools they need to span the gap from idea to income, starting with giving businesses a place to work and grow. “You need an office, you need a place with electricity, air conditioning, computers, space – you need a place to do your work. You can’t run business from the back of your car” says Ron Groves, Education and Outreach manager with the non-profit I-CUE start-up Plug‘n Drive. Plug’n Drive is an advocacy and education group promoting the expanded use of electric vehicles. The I-CUE also gives companies the chance to work with like-minded entrepreneurs. Groves is excited to work among similar companies. “Down the hall you have people working on better chargers, longer lasting car batteries, and new energy models,” he says. Ryerson students also have the chance to work on I-CUE projects. The Chang School has a certificate in energy management. One capstone option for the course is to start a business in the I-CUE. Even if the idea doesn’t turn into a business, students will still get a credit and valuable experience in both entrepreneurship and energy management. Although the I-CUE presently only hosts 4 companies, the centre hopes to expand as soon as possible. The CUE hosted an energy start-up boot camp during Global Entrepreneurship Week. McGillivray was impressed with the results, and some of those ideas are being developed into pitches for the I-CUE. Energy is an important sector in need of growth and innovation, and according to McGillivray, it’s open to anyone. “It’s not all engineers. Lawyers and economists are involved in energy too,” he says. While competitive, it’s a growing field. “For every two people retiring from the sector, only one is coming in,” McGillivray says. As Ryerson has grown, the university’s work in innovation has been noticed by the outside community. Venture capitalists want to invest in the DMZ and institutions from Brazil, India and Israel hope to collaborate on future projects. The I-CUE hopes to use this buzz to grow and impact energy conservation. Ryerson’s community of innovators can use their IQ to go from idea to income.