Community Spotlight Series: Ali Katal and Mohammad Mortezazadeh

Planete Greenleaves Cofounders Mohammad Mortezazadeh Dorostkar and Ali Katal

Ali Katal and Mohammad Mortezazadeh are research associates at the Department of Building, Civil, and Environmental Engineering of Concordia University. They are also the co-founders of Planete Greenleaves.

Earth Hacks’ Camille Minns: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you two came to work together.

Ali and Mohammad: We’ve know each other since 2012 when we were M.Sc. students in the aerospace engineering department of Sharif University of Technology at Tehran. We had the same supervisor and spent most of our time together working on our projects. So it helped us to build our friendship and also professional careers. Later in 2015, Mohammad got a Ph.D. admission from Concordia University, and after one year, Ali joined the research group in 2016. Both of us were working on the same topic, Urban simulation, and later we decided to start our company and bring our expertise into real life and help citizens have a better life quality.

CM: How did you get involved with Earth Hacks? What was your experience like at Envision2050? Did you come into Envision2050 with part of this idea or was it created from scratch during the ideathon?

AK & MM: We have extensively worked on urban microclimate, urban building energy analysis, and extreme events during the last five years. Recently, because of the direct impact of climate change and particularly heatwaves on human life and health, especially in Canadian cities, we focused on this topic. We read about Envision 2050 and found it an excellent place to present our idea of developing a platform for climate change and heatwave mitigation in cities to achieve sustainable development goals, specifically in North American cities. Envision 2050 was a great opportunity for us to meet other experts in our field and make good friends, such as Sanjana. The committee selected us to attend the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) conference and present our idea there. We tied for first place in the AAAS program, which gave us good feedback that we are on the right path, and motivated us to start our start-up company based on this idea.

CM: One of the challenges with hackathons/ideathons is that oftentimes ideas and projects die when the hackathon is over. You created a project that won. What would you say motivated you to grow Planete Greenleaves into what it is today?

AK & MM: Yes, the common challenge with hackathons and starting start-up companies is that turning an idea into a successful product is a long and difficult journey, and often ideas or projects die after a while because the team members lose their motivation or have doubts about it the success of the project.

However, our interest, five years of experience in this field, the positive feedback we got by participating in different programs, and the help we got from various advisors are the main reasons that motivated us to continue working on our idea and grow Planete GreenLeaves. We also collaborated closely with some well-known institutions such as Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), which makes us optimistic about this project and its successful future.

CM: Tell us more about your project and how you go about achieving your vision. Obviously, with your advanced degrees in Building and Environmental Engineering, you’re well versed in the problems that exist at the intersection of climate change and the built environment.

AK & MM: The idea of Planete GreenLeaves is to create an urban digital twin by integrating city-scale simulation engines, AI techniques, and massive urban data useful for carbon reduction, climate change mitigation, and urban sustainability. During our Ph.D. studies, we developed and integrated two city-scale simulation models for urban microclimate and building energy performance. Our studies showed the two-way interaction between buildings and microclimate. Therefore, to reduce carbon emissions in cities and mitigate climate change, it’s important to focus on the building sector. We believe developing such a platform can help cities better decision-making, urban planning, and extreme weather events management.

CM: Ideally, where would you like to see the building sector grow in the next few years and how would Planete Greenleaves in the next few years?

AK & MM: Because of the major contribution of the building sector in GHG emission, we would like to see all buildings smart and energy-efficient, and net-zero emissions in the future. With the advancement of technologies, the building sector is moving toward designing smart buildings. Also, governments are investing in finding low-efficient buildings and renovating them to reduce emissions. However, all these goals need a better understanding of buildings and their long-term impact on climate conditions. We would like to see Planete GreenLeaves, as an urban digital twin platform, can provide such information in the next few years and help city-planers, companies, and citizens with better and efficient decision-making.

CM: What are some of the biggest challenges you find with regards to retrofitting or sustainable building design?

AK & MM: Considering a single building and providing a retrofitting solution won’t clarify the impact of retrofitting or sustainable building design on the urban environment as a whole, and climate change. The major challenge is finding the impact of such actions on bigger scales, such as a whole city or country. These types of investigations are complicated and expensive, so they are still at the research stage. But our main goal in Planete GreenLeaves is to bring these academic works to real life.

Furthermore, Ali and Mohammad/Planete Greenleaves (PG) have had conversations with companies about the benefits of PG and these conversations highlight other challenges. When speaking to a popular, Montreal-based insurance firm, the company had no idea about building retrofitting. They explained that using their platform — using, for example, long term weather forecasting data and using some optimized retrofitting strategy — PG could tell the company how much energy and money they could save, and how much they could really impact our environment. Unfortunately, as was the case here, they see that companies are sometimes not willing to make the necessary investment.

In this line of work, who are the people you wish would listen to you the most and what would you want to tell them?

AK & MM: Our services will directly impact every single person in a city and all homeowners. But additionally, we would like other groups, such as policymakers, urban planners, and the governments, to be aware of our work and benefit from that.

In our interview, Ali added that they had a meeting with someone in real estate and they didn’t consider energy and building retrofitting in their projects. Therefore, they saw the gap as an opportunity where these two sectors can come together and share their expertise to design more net zero energy buildings.

What’s a fun fact about you that not many people know about you both?

AK & MM: We both love football, and we use every opportunity to play football. A funny story about Mohammad is that he is a very good football player, and when he was a junior B.Sc. student, he won the first champion for his department, aerospace engineering. After this championship, his teammates called him Pele because of his resemblance to the legendary football player Pele. And after almost 15 years, even here in Montreal, his friends still call him Pele.

CM: What is something you would say to those who have never heard of an environmental hackathon, or think hackathons in general, and believe they are only for programmers?

AK & MM: Environmental hackathons are great opportunities for those who are interested in solving environmental problems. Many researchers or students with skills such as programming have some ideas to use their expertise in solving real-life problems, but they don’t know how to start. Participating in hackathons is a good start for them to get to know other people in their field, and present and grow their ideas by forming a group with other people with different expertise.