How Startec is helping bring Canadian innovations and ideas for clean technology to the world

December 6, 2023

Cover photo by EWAN PHOTO VIDEO. By Melanie Darbyshire, Business of Energy

Kristi Cawthorn, CEO of Startec, on the delegation of Alberta business leaders to Canada’s capital

On October 2, a delegation of over 50 Alberta business leaders arrived in our nation’s capital to meet with federal government officials. Their mission was twofold: to share a renewed narrative about our province, and to reinforce Canada’s opportunity to lead. Their message was clear and concise: Canada has an incredible opportunity to lead globally, and Alberta wants to help.  

The delegation included CEOs, entrepreneurs and industry leaders, from organizations of all sizes and a wide range of sectors, who shared Alberta’s story with a united message and voice.  

Led by a consortium of Alberta economic developers, chambers of commerce and policy organizations, including the Business Council of Alberta (BCA), Calgary Chamber of Commerce, Calgary Economic Development, Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, and Edmonton Global, the delegation – called ‘One Alberta, One Canada’ – attended over 70 engagements with top-tier elected officials including the Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, the Office of the Privy Council, Minsters Guilbeault, Champagne and Boissonnault, the Opposition Deputy Leader, senators, the Alberta Conservative Caucus, and many more.  

Included among the delegation was Kristi Cawthorn, CEO of Startec Group of Companies, a Calgary-based leader in the engineering, designing, manufacturing, service and maintenance of liquid and gas processing, compression, HVAC and industrial refrigeration systems across North America.  

“Our goal is to create a different narrative within Ottawa about what Alberta is,” Cawthorn explains. “Challenge some of the stereotypes, particularly that we’re only about oil and gas. Those industries are important, of course, but we’re so much more. We have vibrant agricultural, food processing and technology industries, for example. One of our main purposes was to change the narrative within Ottawa about what Alberta represents.”  

The delegation – the largest coordinated effort on behalf of Alberta’s business community in a generation – was well received. “People were quite receptive and wanted to understand how to work better with Albertan companies,” she says. “There is a desire within Ottawa to understand more about Alberta’s challenges and how to better work together.”  

For her part, Cawthorn’s message focused around what the federal government can do to create and support an export market for Canadian clean technology, an industry Startec is heavily involved in.  

“What can our governments do to support the commercialization of projects?” she says. “There is good support for early-stage investments, for bench testing, pilot testing, but support is needed to take projects from a pilot to a commercialization project. How does the government de-risk those investments so that we can get those technologies proven and ultimately create an export market?”  

Not surprisingly, it’s an issue close to home for Cawthorn and Startec.  

The company was founded in 1976 by Joe Cawthorn (Kristi’s father), a refrigeration mechanic looking to do things differently. “His experience was working within slow and bureaucratic organizations which weren’t very empowering for their people,” Cawthorn explains of her father. “That wasn’t Joe’s style and he wanted to create something much more entrepreneurial and nimble, a flat organization that empowers its people.”  

His approach was a success, and Startec Refrigeration Services, which operated in the food and beverage and ice surfaces industries, thrived. In the 1990s, the company took its technical expertise in refrigeration and began to apply it in the oil and gas industry, and Startec Compression and Process was born.  

“It was really about applying that technical expertise from one industry and application into another – oil and gas,” Cawthorn reflects.  

Over time, this side of the business grew and today Startec also offers engineering, design and fabrication to the energy transition market.  

With several locations in Alberta, including a head office, field offices and a 100,000-square-foot fabrication facility, Startec’s 270 employees comprise service technicians, production staff, and corporate, engineering and design professionals. 

“We use the term ‘Everyday Mavericks’ to describe our internal culture,” Cawthorn offers. “Which is about embodying a pioneering mindset and thinking about business from an entrepreneurial point of view. We really are driven to find a better way.” 

It was this entrepreneurial mindset which led Startec to expand its products and service into the energy transition market. “The traditional oil and gas market can be volatile, and we’ve been fortunate over the past few years to diversify into offering services and products for the energy transition space,” Cawthorn notes. “We work with innovators and entrepreneurs to bring their ideas to market. We are designing and fabricating clean tech products that decarbonize production, reduce emissions and provide bridging fuels. Leveraging our engineering and fabrication experience, we’re helping our clients bring new, innovative cleantech to market It’s really exciting stuff.”  

For example, Startec does a lot of work in the renewable natural gas (RNG), hydrogen, CO2 sequestration, flare gas capture and emissions reductions spaces. “We’re helping those clients who are trying to affect a different way of doing things that is cleaner and greener for the environment,” Cawthorn says proudly. 

This market, she continues, is large and broad. Of note: approximately 80 per cent of the products Startec fabricates in this space go into the U.S. “There is significant demand in the U.S. for those energy transition products,” Cawthorn explains. “One of the things I’m the most proud of is that we are enabling Canadian innovators and entrepreneurs to get their ideas to market. And it’s primarily exporting to the U.S., which is awesome. And I would very much like to see our governments support the export of Canadian-made technologies to support the global energy transition.” 

Hence her involvement in the delegation to Ottawa.  

“Generally, when we hear about clean tech it’s around making cleaner Canadian production,” she says. “And that’s a great goal. But what I don’t hear much of is how can we export our expertise and technologies to help the rest of the world with clean tech. There is opportunity to support cleantech deployment around the world, and I believe Canada can play an important role in exporting our technical expertise.”  

Cawthorn is bullish on Alberta’s energy sector, pointing to strong signals in the market: “We’ve got a couple of major projects coming to life in the next short while. LNG Canada and the Trans Mountain pipeline are both coming online shortly. We are seeing some additional buoyancy in the market and I think we’re going to have a much healthier oil and gas industry in Alberta over the next couple of years. I believe Canada can and will be a leader in the production of clean energy.”  

She draws parallels between Startec’s can-do culture and the broader culture of her province: “I’m really optimistic about what Alberta can do, not just for Albertans, but for the country. We have been and will continue to be a powerhouse of the economic engine of Canada. And it’s my strong belief that it’s attitude that sets us apart and will be our success as a province.” 

Link to article as it appeared in Business of Energy