Clear Blue Technologies Profile of Success
Centennial College is dedicated to driving innovation and entrepreneurship, two essential skills relevant to every sector of our economy and to every employer and employee. Centennial’s Applied Research and Innovation Centre (ARIC) unites employers, faculty and students in business-driven, real world applied research and innovation projects that are profitable for the company, create new markets, new jobs and contribute to the social good.
An example of our success is our multi-year partnership with Clear Blue Technologies of Toronto, made possible through support from the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) and the Colleges Ontario Network for Industry Innovation (CONII) . This green energy project created an innovative, commercializable solar and wind charge controller to power off-grid devices like streetlights, security systems, mobile lighting and more. The project is a huge commercial success for Clear Blue Technologies – resulting in the acquisition of over 50 new customers in the first year of sales, and 8 new jobs for this fast growing startup, among other things. Centennial continues to work with Clear Blue helping to develop the MACAW and EAGLE wireless controllers for managing the grid-free systems remotely.
The idea behind these streetlights and other off-grid systems is to place them in locations with no power infrastructure or where it would be disruptive to existing pavement or landscaping. These sophisticated devices can be monitored and controlled over the Internet, enabling optimized power management and remote troubleshooting and repair without necessitating expensive, and time consuming in-person maintenance.
Thomas Gehring, business manager at OCE, discusses the complexity of the project. “There are many levels to the technology,” he says. “There’s the communications aspect, there’s the physical aspect to the hardware, in terms of the machine itself, and then there’s the reliability of the machine.”
Miriam Tuerk is the cofounder and COO of Clear Blue, and goes into more detail. “We actually make a controller that is a small box,” she explains. “It looks like a router, but it works with off-grid systems such as streetlights. What our controller does is manage everything related to the system.” She also talks about the challenge in designing the controller for the variable conditions it would be placed in.
The streetlight uses Solar and Wind power alternatively to generate power. The wind turbine can take over if there’s no sun, and vice versa. But because of this, “the voltage and the current that’s coming out of these systems, it’s very intermittent,” Miriam explains. “It’s not simple or consistent. So we manage how it generates the energy, then we store that energy in batteries, and then we feed the load with it.”
Or, to put it simply, “our product is actually the brains.”
Centennial College Steps In
One of the OCE’s mandates is to leverage and connect companies with Ontario colleges, and to make use of the facilities within these schools to help small businesses succeed. Shantanu Mittal, another OCE business manager, explains this involvement. “They’ve developed this particular streetlight with the help of Centennial, and with the help of George Brown College,” he says. “OCE helped first make that connection, and we’ve been working with them ever since, so the College has really helped them develop the prototypes, and with field testing.”
Trish Dryden, Centennial College’s Associate Vice President of Research and Corporate Planning, elaborates on this connection. “We’ve been working with them for 5-6 years on a variety of projects,” she says. “Companies like Clear Blue don’t have R&D departments, and so rely on colleges.”
Miriam Tuerk adds to this. “What we have at Centennial is a testing facility,” she says. “So Centennial College has been doing a lot of prototype testing, a lot of environmental testing, and a lot of application analysis of systems like these streetlights, to help us make sure that it actually works with the applications we’re working on.”
“So we’ve had a very long relationship with Centennial College,” she continues, “going back to before the company was even founded. Really, what Centennial College has done through 4 or 5 projects now is to help us validate the applications that would use our technology.”
Benefits for Students
Centennial College didn’t just provide Clear Blue with market-ready technology. It provided it with manpower, too. “What Centennial did do is help them develop their early-stage prototype,” Shantanu Mittal says. “They worked with students to develop the technology.”
A unique benefit of ARIC’s partnerships is how it does more than just provide students with valuable learning experience, and companies with market-ready products. According to Miriam Tuerk, “We’ve developed a really good methodology with Centennial College, where rather than leaving students in an academic environment, we integrate them into the company, into the actual environment. So because they actually work in our facilities as part of the team, they’re getting more real world understanding of what the applications and considerations are when designing systems like this. And the quality of students and expertise we’re getting out of the program is incredible.”
One such student is Anna Serbina. She’s here in Canada from the Ukraine as a co-op student taking a term at the school, looking to work in the renewable energy sector. “My role,” she explains, “is to connect the Centennial College part with Clear Blue technologies. We’re doing research and testing on the controller part that Clear Blue developed.”
She took the time to talk shop about the project. Much of the testing was related to how the controller for the streetlight held up under extreme temperatures, important considering the plans to place the lights in remote or extreme environments. “We’re testing this controller to observe how it behaves according to temperature,” she says. “We found out that the best temperature for the controller is minus 20 to plus 40 degrees Celsius.”
It was Centennial College’s reputation that led her here. “In my personal opinion,” she says of her reasoning for the selection, “the School of Engineering at Centennial is the strongest.”
Anna also has nothing but praise for her gains during the project. “First of all, it’s an experience,” she says. “I’m an international student, so I don’t have any Canadian experience. Once I graduate, it’ll be a great chance for me to start out higher than the students that graduated without that knowledge.”
Clear Blue’s projects don’t just provide students with real-world experience. They also provide them with something more practical: Jobs. Miriam Tuerk cites the recent example of Hocine Boudhar, a Centennial graduate that Clear Blue hired on full time. Not available for an interview, Miriam explains that it was because “he was in Ohio this last week, and he spent two days doing a streetlight installation, because one of the value propositions is that it should be very easy to install and maintain and operate.”
He’s not the only one they’ve brought on after a project, and Miriam stresses that as the organization expands, their ability to hire students will only increase.
Benefits for Clear Blue
Meanwhile, Clear Blue’s collaborations have only led to positive growth for the company. Miriam Tuerk, provides a timeline of the current venture’s success. “It took us two years to go through a number of R&D prototype development projects,” she elaborates. “We launched the product in the middle of last year, so we’ve been out in the market for about a year now. We have good traction, with over 50 customers, and a couple hundred systems in the field, and we’re starting to deploy internationally.”
Shantau Mittal echoes this sentiment. “They’ve really taken off as a company,” he says. “They’ve gone out and found their first customers, they’ve found really good distributors around the world, they’ve started to make sales.”
It’s not over yet, though, and R&D and validation continues thanks to the ongoing programs with both Centennial College and George Brown. Trish Dryden doesn’t mince words on the subject. “Clear Blue is growing rapidly,” she says. “They’re going to be a great Canadian success story.”