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Josipa Petrunic

CUTRIC is essentially an innovation consortium – a non-profit technology company that designs and deploys really complicated and often very expensive, zero-emissions transit solutions that make transit faster. Essentially, all that we do is design projects with transit agency partners, manufacturers, utilities, and sometimes academics and government partners to get community involvement in complicated projects like electric buses, hydrogen fuel cell buses, or autonomous driverless shuttles. The idea is that we deploy new things as a community and as a group and monitor them. We then track the performance and get manufacturers to improve the products so that transit technologies are better in the future at a cheaper rate, in a way that delivers better transit providers but also reduces costs for students, etc.

Tell us about yourself?

My background is a little bit complicated. Academically, I went through a number of degrees at a number of universities and came out with my Ph.D. and other postdoctoral fellowships. That experience and that knowledge basically taught me about the social design and the social structure of science and mathematics.

A lot of my work in my academic life was about trying to deconstruct ideas about what science is so that we aren’t afraid of it, aren’t afraid of technology, and aren’t afraid of trying to use science and math to our benefit as a society. Ultimately, my background in academia is demonstrating that math is created by humans for human purposes. The purpose of me doing that kind of academic background is because I really believe that fundamentally, in politics – which is the determining factor of how we distribute resources in this world – very often politicians will lack the knowledge to dive into the science and technology or the physics of an industry. Scientific expertise is very helpful in enlightening us, but industry lobbyists can very often manage our interests in a way that works against the commodity or against the tide, against the current environment, against our best interest for diversity inclusion, etc. So my goal was really to make sure that one day I could run for election – maybe even be Prime Minister of the country – and be in a position where I was comfortable with any kind of scientific discussion, any technological discussion, and any policy or investment discussion… whether that was pharmaceuticals, agriculture, transportation, or any other fields, like oil and gas, that this country is dependent on.

When I started entering the industry of electric vehicles, there was a lot of concern for the transportation sector in general – trucking, coaching, shipping, and aviation. At the time, the recession made it difficult for people to afford fuel and price demand had dropped. However, there was also a new climate motivation. People were worried about the environment. More importantly, the government was trying to regulate and legislate based on environmental concerns. For their part, the industry was worried about how much money it would cost them. But there were enough companies willing and interested enough to start exploring the innovation. During my time at McMaster, we were able to pull together over 100 companies in Canada alone that were interested in funding programs for innovation and wanted the federal government to come to the table. It was there that I really found my drive for the electrification and decarbonization space.

If you could go back in time a year or two, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

I think the best advice I could give myself is: the start-up future is risky, but there’s no reward without risk. Innovation needs buy-in from multiple parties or sources. Otherwise, when things get tough – as they will – the projects the world needs have a higher risk of falling down. It will be challenging. Money might not always materialize, and some partners will step away when the going gets tough. But it’s worth the fight.

What problem does your business solve?

We are always asking ourselves this question: How can we get new technologies that make transit cheaper, faster, and greener out the door? That is the key problem to solve. That involves putting money into it, getting involved in design and technology, establishing partnerships, lobbying the government, and so on. We are trying to decarbonize transit to make it better, faster, and cheaper for everyone in Canada so that it becomes their primary mode of transportation through technology.

The reality is that our planet is dying, and Canadians are composers for the rest of the world. We care about these things. One day the rest of the world may be looking for a place to come and live, and that’s going to be Canada.

What is the inspiration behind your business?

We are inspired by getting it right in Canada. Our cities are already clogged, our streets are clogged, our highways are clogged, and our energy consumption is among the highest in the world. We’re already starting to hit our maximum, and the quality of our lives is starting to degrade in some ways. So that is the inspiration — we need to figure out how to be better in Canada because we’re already outgrowing what we have now, and frankly, more people are coming. There are hundreds of thousands of immigrants already lined up, and more will come as we recognize climate emergencies globally. Our inspiration is to keep our quality of life high.

What is your magic sauce?

Our magic sauce is literally consortium-based technology projects. That is what we specialize in. We don’t do one member, one partner, or one project for proprietary intellectual property. We do projects that have multiple cities and multiple manufacturers at the table. The support of an entire project across industries is critical because failures are bound to happen. The technology is new, it’s being tested, and it hasn’t been deployed over years… no one’s really sure it’s all going to work, but everyone knows we’re at the cutting edge. How long will it last? How will people like it?

Our magic sauce is keeping the ship afloat and steering it by making sure we have a core group of champions at the table who are willing to see it through to the end and who are willing to lift up other partners when things are stalled or go wrong. Our magic sauce is finding companies and organizations with this culture of camaraderie and cooperation.

What is the plan for the next 5 years? What do you want to achieve?

One plan is to launch the country’s largest hydrogen fuel cell – getting hydrogen fuel cell buses with green hydrogen out the door in Mississauga. That will be a first in Canada – a near-zero carbon fueling solution that will then scale hydrogen fuel products as part of a decarbonized transit or terminal.

Our second goal is to launch a large data truck, where we have buses and chargers to deploy testing and monitoring in real-time. How are they performing? We want to essentially coordinate with agencies and cities that have deployed the buses and clean up any issues. The goal is, for the first time ever, to be able to look at how one charging system is operating in cousin cities and sister cities. This would help power companies, and the government, in knowing how many buses are actually operating, which allows them to actually hold manufacturers accountable if things aren’t working at a certain level of efficiency, based on our real-time data. That data is powerful because it allows the taxpayer to have the control over the product and service, not the private sector, and will ultimately lead to a huge amount of innovation across the country’s technology network.

The third goal in the next five years is to bring back to the table the idea of autonomous driverless shuttles. They were sexy in 2016 – a bunch of pilots were deployed, they all kind of failed, and then nobody bought the stuff. The technology was too early, but if tested and tried again and done right, it could have huge benefits. They have very little cost per city and could move a whole lot of people, with very little costs around drivers and operational costs.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

The biggest challenge we face is funding. You would think that the technology and the science is the hardest part, but actually, the issue is who’s going to pay for it. Cities don’t have enough money on their own, manufacturers can try to drop prices though at the expense of profit, but ultimately, the government and taxpayers are going to have to decide. Are we willing to subsidize the private sector for the public sector? Can we buy this stuff, test it, and trial it? That has been our biggest issue.

How can people get involved?

I think the first way is, if you’re young, to consider a career in transit and transit technology. Often, people automatically look to automotive, but transit is a big industry that is growing its technological footprint. There’s always something new. There’s always innovation on the horizon. Secondly, if you’re already in the automotive industry, consider training for the electric future. Consider learning how to deal with electric or hydrogen fuel cell power trains. Basically, people can get involved by actually educating themselves on new sectors and advocating for projects. Sustainable mobility is the business of the future.