Cleantech Startups 101 – Jeanette Jackson, EIR at Foresight

Cleantech Startups 101 – Jeanette Jackson, EIR at Foresight

As part of our ongoing “Cleantech Startups 101” blog series, this week we interviewed Jeanette Jackson, a successful serial entrepreneur and one of Foresight’s Executives In Residence (EIRs). Among other accomplishments, Jeanette was CEO of revolutionary Light-Based Technologies, has advised organizations including the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs BC, and is currently Executive Director of eTrove. She is also the mother of an 11 year old and is about to run for Point Moody Council, so we’re thrilled and somewhat amazed that she found time to speak with us.

What’s the most rewarding part of being an EiR?
I’m a pretty hands-on EiR and the companies I work with commit to monthly milestones. I’m a huge fan of seeing progress against the goals they’ve set for themselves. It usually takes three times longer than they think, but it’s gratifying to see them work through the process and help them figure out what not to do.

What are the things they shouldn’t be doing?
The biggest thing I’m seeing is that they’re not thinking through risks and working through their risk scenarios in a systematic way – they’re working through every scenario at the same time, which is time consuming and not particularly strategic. Sometimes entrepreneurs just don’t pay enough attention to indicators – for example, whether customers are responding and willing to sign an MoU or put dollars on the table, performance assessments, etc. – because they’re too connected to their idea, or don’t know what to ask in meetings. That’s why it’s good to work with the Foresight EiRs in the early days.

What are the most common challenges faced by cleantech entrepreneurs in Canada?
One of the biggest challenges is that 10-30% better performance isn’t good enough anymore. The technology has to be ground-breaking because the cost to change over at the scale of some of these technologies is enormous.

There is also a common fear of making a decision. This is the only Trump quote I would ever use (though it’s likely he stole it from Orrin Woodward, who may have paraphrased from Roosevelt), but “No decision is the worst decision.” You may be afraid to make the wrong decision, but then six months go by and you’ve made zero progress. As painful as it can be at the time, it’s much better to learn something or even fail – that’s the kind of clarity you need to move in the right direction. “Founderitis” can be a real stumbling block for some entrepreneurs.

What is “founderitis”?
It’s when you can’t give anything up because everything about your concept and organization is precious to you – it is the Gollum of tech entrepreneurs. It usually relates to team members and markets.

What are the greatest opportunities for cleantech in 2018?
Most of the technologies require a change in habit or behaviour among the general population, so you need to do something different in order for it to be a unicorn. If you position your company as a thought leader and engage the right partners to drive it forward, you could create opportunities. There’s also a huge opportunity related to software, especially since – unlike hardware – it doesn’t require millions of dollars to get a pilot going. How can we use software or software platforms at an enterprise level to help existing systems perform better?

What’s a common mistake that startups make?
They don’t talk to enough people. We have companies presenting to us at Foresight that have worked on something for two to three years and have spent $100,000, but they haven’t validated their technologies with potential customers, funders or partners. Some entrepreneurs have a hard time picking up the phone because they don’t want to hear a no, but it’s better to know that someone isn’t going to buy your technology than waste your time.

What are the three things that cleantech entrepreneurs need to know?
Be persistent – there’s a slower adoption cycle in cleantech but, if you’re seeing some good indicators, keep going. Surround yourself with great people. Listen to your gut.

A fourth thing is don’t be afraid of collaboration – when people win together, they win bigger. In Vancouver, you have people in the same block competing with each other. Lift your head up and see who else is doing the same thing as you.

What does the cleantech landscape look like in 10 years?
I think there will be a huge consolidation of companies or solutions. There is also a huge shift coming with robotics, automation and AI, and I think this is going to change people’s behaviour around transportation, food delivery, etc. I’d also like to think that more people will have changed their habits and lifestyles to protect the environment, and that will create a bigger market for cleantech.

Why do you do what you do?
I love what I do because I feel like I’m making a difference with the companies I work with – my goal is to help them learn faster. I’m also pretty excited by new materials and biodegradables, and about some of the software companies that are coming up. I’m looking forward to coming across the Next Big Thing and being part of that.

For more information on Foresight’s EIR program and other services and support it provides to cleantech startups, check out our website