Neil Huff’s journey: From fishing to Foresight

Neil Huff’s journey: From fishing to Foresight

This is the first installment in Foresight’s blog series, which will feature interviews with and insights from innovators, investors, funders and experts on all things cleantech. Subscribe to our blog series below. 

Neil Huff is the Managing Director of the Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre, Western Canada’s first clean technology accelerator.

Over the next few months, I’m looking forward to sharing stories and perspectives from many of our friends and colleagues through Foresight’s blog series. To kick things off, I’d like to share a little bit about how Foresight came to be. This is my story.

A personal and professional epiphany – while fishing, naturally

I’ve been fishing the lakes of BC with my son for over 10 years now. Someday I hope to fish these same waters with his son, my four-year-old grandson. During a Father’s Day trip a while back, I was looking out across the pristine vista and I realized something: if we continue to use energy and resources the way we do now, my grandson and his children won’t get to experience this. That was a horrible, depressing thought.
The first thing I did was write a song about my concerns (Listen to it on YouTube). The problem is, I’m no Bob Dylan…or Bono…or whoever the recent boy-bander is…so I was pretty realistic about the fact that I wasn’t going to reach enough people to change the world.

A visionary mentor
The more pragmatic solution was to do something with my 23 years of experience in the cleantech sector. I had a long, pretty good run as CEO of the Battery Division of Ballard Power, and as a result got to learn first-hand from Geoffrey Ballard – founder of Ballard Power and widely considered to be the father of the fuel cell industry. Geoffrey was a true visionary – he was actually named “Hero for the Planet” in Time Magazine back in 1999.  He saw more than just a future for hydrogen fuel cells; he believed that they were going to lead an industrial movement like Canada had never seen.
While that dream hasn’t quite come to fruition in the way that Geoffrey Ballard envisioned it, I witnessed how hundreds of engineers and researchers were inspired by his passion. That taught me something very important: when you’re passionate and driven by something personally, the people working for and with you can sense it. It excites them and they, in turn, make it their own dream – and they give it everything they’ve got.

Experiencing ups and downs in the land of startups

Starting Foresight in 2013 was personal, and something I was driven to do. I had just finished 10 years as co-founder and CEO of a micro-fuel cell startup called Tekion. We were exposed to gut-wrenching ups and downs throughout those 10 years and, without much access to advice and mentoring, I probably held on to the dream much longer than I should have.
The experience with Tekion made me realize that, in order for our economy and industry to be transformed, Canadian innovators needed support – not just funding and investment dollars (although of course these are  critical), but expert advice and guidance that will help them grow their ideas and businesses. And grow them in Canada.

Making the dream a reality: The birth of Foresight Cleantech Accelerator Centre

I figured a cleantech accelerator was the answer. With personal conviction on my side, I contacted the BC Innovation Council (BCIC)…and unbelievably, in just two months, I had the funding to launch Foresight. BCIC has continued to be a key partner and strong supporter of incubating Canadian ideas and innovation.
Today, I’m proud to say that, after only two years, 45 companies have participated (25 active right now) in Foresight’s program, with another 2-4 companies pitching to join Foresight every month. The startup companies we’ve worked with have generated 70+ jobs, millions in revenue and/or investment.
We have seven highly-experienced Executives-In-Residence (EIRs) and are one of the fastest growing accelerators in the Province. We also launched a new program, ARCTIC, a few months ago, in which we match industry challenges with Canadian innovators – and provide funding through the prototype and final testing stages.

Conclusion (for now)

What is most thrilling is to see the passion and sense of personal mission that exists in the DNA of the innovators we work with – innovators like Phil Marsh, CEO of BC Biocarbon, and Simon Pickup, CEO of Hydra Energy. You’ll hear more from people like Phil and Simon in future Foresight blogs.
The same passion and drive exists in the DNA of our EiRs and in many of our partners. And now is a more exciting time than ever to be working in cleantech, with the new federal government voicing its support and committing to investing in clean innovation, with the US government doing the same, and with heavy hitters like Bill Gates and co announcing billion dollar investments in cleantech.
However, while cleantech is one of the fastest growing sectors in Canada, with the opportunity to employ 70,000 people in Western Canada by 2022, we are losing global market share.  Now is the time to invest in and support our homegrown innovators and their ideas…it’s the right thing to do for our economy, and it’s the right thing to do for our planet – because, as we now understand, you can’t have one without the other. And for me? It’s the right thing to do for my grandson.