Chance encounter with a bulletin board post changed trajectory of alumnus' career

May 03, 2024
MRM alumnus Timo Makinen and son, Erik Makinen, GES major

Since completing his master’s in resource management (MRM) in 1991 and master’s of business (MBA) in 2000, SFU alumnus Timo Makinen has led an expansive career in sustainable development, holding positions at BC Hydro, BC Gas, BC Research, Shell and Light House Sustainability Society before taking a position at agricultural start-up Lucent Bio — where he works today.  

Makinen began his career in the Alberta oil patch with Shell Canada as a young chemical engineer. When he grew restless in that position, a chance encounter with a poster for SFU’s REM program on a bulletin board brought his attention to the MRM.

“It was very interdisciplinary. We had a small class, only a dozen of us, and I was the only engineer, with biologists, foresters, policymakers and a lawyer,” he recalls.

As a graduate student, he worked with REM professor Mark Jaccard, researching wood residues as potential biofuel. The results of the research were applicable to BC Hydro, who provided funding, and he was subsequently offered a position there when he graduated. While acting as their industrial load forecaster, he contributed to the early days of the well-known Power Smart program.

After five years, Makinen left BC Hydro and took positions at BC Gas in the Planning Group and another at BC Research to head their Energy and Environment Department. He later returned to Shell, this time as a climate change strategies advisor. There, he and his team ran a portfolio of carbon dioxide mitigation measures and looked at ways to increase energy efficiency.

“At the time, we had a very leading-edge environmental commitment to do a lot of voluntary off-setting of Shell Canada’s oil sands emissions,” he explains, highlighting work preserving a peat dome in Borneo with a local NGO and planting more than a million trees across Canada in partnership with Trees Canada, where he served on the board for fifteen years.

He later moved to an international sustainable development role within Shell’s Global Specialities Product Group, and remained in that position for five more years before opting out of an overseas placement for family reasons.

In 2017, Makinen got involved with a circular economy initiative brought over from the UK known as NISP, or the National Industrial Symbiosis Program. He likens the concept to a matchmaking service for firms that gives one firm’s waste a second life as input for another.

NISP’s Canadian pilot ran in Vancouver, Edmonton and the West Kootenays for two years, diverting a quarter million tonnes of waste from the landfill and avoiding 24 thousand tonnes of CO2e emissions. For the businesses who participated, there were also over six million dollars in economic benefits. Unfortunately, the pandemic ended the program.

Now at Lucent Bio, Makinen says it is interesting being part of a tech start-up, where he advises on ways to market the superior environmental footprint of the company’s crop nutrient products. There’s also a strong connection to SFU through research body 4D Labs, he says. “And a number of SFU co-op students work in our research greenhouse and facilities.”

His ongoing connections to SFU do not end there. Makinen’s wife, also an SFU alumnus (MA Education), works in student services, while his son, Erik, is a global environmental systems major and member of the Geography Student Union (GSU), which was recently awarded a FENV Changemaker Award.

“It’s still somewhat surprising to me that I have a 19-year-old taking the occasional REM course in the same Faculty I graduated from so many years ago,” he says.

He also reflects on how one small meeting, course or conference can change your career path:

“You probably know the John Lennon Song ‘Beautiful Boy’ in which he sings ‘life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans’,” he says. “If I hadn’t seen that bulletin board at that time, I likely wouldn’t have done the MRM program, been hired by BC Hydro, et cetera.”