Climate hope: How the ‘artificial leaf’ made its way to Canada

Waterloo’s unique intellectual property policy and Canada’s inclusive environment create a culture for innovation

Yimin WuWhen a University of Waterloo researcher announced he had developed an “artificial leaf” that converts harmful carbon dioxide into fuel, his discovery was celebrated around the world.

Professor Yimin Wu’s breakthrough was an exciting advance in research he conducted at a national laboratory in the United States before joining Waterloo’s Faculty of Engineering last year. Wu landed in Waterloo after undertaking a worldwide search for a post that would allow him to teach and take his work to “the next level.”

His decision to move to Canada was based on two main factors: the distinctive culture at Waterloo and Canada’s reputation for inclusivity.

Waterloo’s intellectual property policy

Wu says Waterloo’s unique intellectual property policy, which grants researchers full ownership of their work, is extremely appealing to entrepreneurial academics like him who want to commercialize their inventions.

“My passion is not just doing science in the lab,” he says. “I want to make an impact on society.”

Wu hopes to work with industry — especially resource companies looking to reduce emissions — on his artificial leaf technology.

While his research has the potential to produce national and global benefits, Wu’s presence in Waterloo will also have local ripple effects, according to Joel Blit (MASc ’99), an economics professor in the Faculty of Arts. Blit’s research shows that new knowledge transfers optimally within distinct geographic regions because of social networks and the movement of talent from firm to firm.

“That’s why researchers need to be near other researchers who are top-notch in areas similar to their area,” Blit says. “It’s also why we get tech clusters.”

Canada’s culture of inclusivity

Wu says the other important reason he launched the next phase of his career in Canada was its reputation as welcoming to newcomers. “Inclusivity is very important for me as an immigrant,” he says. “Work is part of it, but at the end of the day you need to enjoy your life and you need to adapt to society.

“We all need to be working together. Scientists, entrepreneurs, industry partners and policy-makers will all play important roles in finding solutions to climate change.”

Link between climate change and outbreaks

Wu said the current COVID-19 crisis highlights how quickly infectious diseases can have a devastating impact around the world and how there can be a link between climate change and disease outbreaks. Climate change has meant a loss of biodiversity as wildlife habitats around the world are destroyed, which can increase the risk of some diseases in humans. “We need to fight climate change with researchers around the world for environmental and human health,” Wu said.