Case StudyWomen in Cleantech Challenge
1.1 About Natural Resources Canada (NRCan)
NRCan is a science-based department that works to advance the prosperity of Canada’s natural resource sectors. The Department supports the sustainable development of Canada’s natural resources through world-class research and evidence-informed policy and programs, including domestic and international engagement and in collaboration with Indigenous peoples in Canada.
1.2 About the Office of Energy Research and Development (OERD)
OERD leads the Government of Canada’s efforts in delivering energy research, development, and demonstrating (RD&D) funding, accelerating efforts in energy innovation and clean technology (“cleantech”) programming. Leveraging over forty years of experience and unique science and technology expertise, OERD invests in thirteen federal departments and agencies to undertake RD&D, as well as a wide range of Canadian small and medium enterprises, utilities, industry, and other firms, all in support of Canada’s energy innovation and climate change goals.
OERD led the Cleantech stream of Impact Canada Challenges, with a $75M portfolio of six unique Challenges. Through the Cleantech stream, NRCan experimented with different challenge designs while striving to maximize the program’s overall impact across the natural resources sector. As one of the first departments to launch Impact Challenges, NRCan’s program team has developed a unique perspective on how innovative funding mechanisms can be applied in different contexts to ensure greatest impact. Ultimately, NRCan hopes to take the lessons learned and best practices from this experience and apply it to future programing, while also aiming to support learning across the federal system by sharing insights from the NRCan Impact model with other departments considering the development of challenge portfolios.
1.3 About Impact Canada
Impact Canada, situated within the Privy Council Office, uses novel public policy methods to address identified gaps in effectively translating policy objectives into meaningful and measurable outcomes for Canadians. The Impact and Innovation Unit, which manages Impact Canada, is working to close the gap between policy development and implementation, by actioning high-level policy commitments and working on design, implementation, and assessment. It delivers on its mandate through the deployment of two main lines of business: Impact Canada Challenges and Impact Canada applied behavioural science and advanced policy research.
Impact Canada Challenges focus on more effectively deploying grants and contributions funding – a traditionally under-optimized, yet highly influential government lever – shifting from paying for expenditures or activities to rewarding the achievement of outcomes, not outputs. Impact Canada Challenges use financial and non-financial incentives to encourage participants to tackle well defined problems where solutions are not apparent or current responses are not achieving the desired results.
1.4 Why the Women in Cleantech Challenge?
In 2017, when this Challenge was under development, only 5% of tech companies in Canada were founded by women. The lack of female representation in science and technology oriented industries was clearly exemplified in the #movethedial11 report on women in Canada’s innovation community. It was reported that only 13% of companies have female representation at the executive level, and 73% of company boards have no female representation at all. These statistics were even more pronounced in the cleantech sector.
Similarly, in a 2018 survey of 350 startups, the Boston Consulting Group reported that female entrepreneurs raised an average of just under $1 million in early-stage capital, less than half the funds raised by men. The authors found that “the disparity in the funding is not due to qualitative differences in pitches or underlying businesses.” In fact, startups run by women performed much better, returning 78 cents per dollar of investment during their early years of operation compared with just 31 cents for those run by men.22
The Government of Canada recognizes that the gender gap, particularly in areas of innovation, is inhibiting economic growth by leaving a portion of the skilled talent untapped. To solve the complex problems we face as a country, we need to rely on the diversity, ingenuity, and creativity of all Canadians – and not simply those who have traditionally contributed to solutions. This means encouraging the active participation of non-traditional solvers, including those who have been excluded from participation, and those who didn’t know they had a seat at the table. It means increasing general societal awareness of the challenges needing solving, actively engaging citizens through more effective collaboration and co-creation, and partnering with civil society to magnify results. Lastly, it means that innovation can do more than just drive economic growth; it can also meaningfully address key societal challenges like climate change and social inclusion – all at the same time. In response to the growing recognition that diversity is essential to building economic resilience, NRCan launched the Women in Cleantech Challenge in 2018 in collaboration with Toronto’s MaRS Discovery District.
2. Competition Overview
2.1 Driving the Clean Energy Economy with Female-led Innovation
The Women in Cleantech Challenge was designed to have a meaningful impact on the underrepresentation of women in Canada’s cleantech sector by supporting a cohort of entrepreneurs with the financial, business, and technical resources they need to be globally competitive. It set sights on leveling the playing field for women innovators, and increasing awareness of the key role women must play in tackling some of the greatest energy and environmental challenges that face society, while also inspiring the next generation of female cleantech entrepreneurs.
Following a national call that saw nearly 150 top female innovators from across Canada apply to the Challenge, an expert selection process chose six women to participate in an intensive 3-year program culminating in a $1-million grand prize for the finalist judged to have made the most progress in advancing their technology and growing their business.
2.2 Challenge Objectives
The following four main objectives encompassed this Challenge:
- Seek out the best, most driven women innovators tackling some of the biggest global problems with a significant potential for impact.
- Leverage existing federal research assets and networks of expertise, maximizing use of existing public resources to accelerate advancement of the entrepreneurs’ R&D.
- Build support for the women’s success – via a curated mix of mentorship, educational programming and access to market intelligence through MaRS Discovery District.
- Make timely connections and provide access to investors and corporate partners early in the start-up and business development stage.
2.3 Participation Criteria
Applicants needed to be:
- A female, Canadian citizen or permanent resident of Canada, lead innovator and project lead, with a business venture that was, or could be, registered as a Canadian corporation.
- Prepared to participate in an intensive 3 year public-facing competition that includes frequent travel, meetings and lab visits, including significant time in MaRS Discovery District’s entrepreneurship and business support programs, workshops and events in Toronto, Ontario.
- Working within the defined “cleantech” field on a technology that is proprietary and/or patentable, and falls within levels 2-5 of the nine-point Technology Readiness Level (TRL) spectrum.
2.4 Key Challenge Stages and Judging Criteria
Within the Impact Canada Challenge framework, challenges may be designed to follow stage-gates or filters, like the Women in Cleantech Challenge. These provide opportunities to select and filter the best ideas and provide more intensive support (both financial and non-financial) to an increasingly refined group of competitors. This structure aims to influence and improve the quality of the solutionsproduced. Stage-gates are particularly useful for Challenges that aim to support innovators at an early stage of product development, or start-up businesses in need of seed capital to kick-start the work33.
Screening and Selection
- 148 applications from across Canada were received.
- An evaluation committee narrowed down applicants to a “short list” of 33 individuals.
- Committee members conducted right fit interviews to assess the impact of the technology, fit with federal labs, and the ability of the entrepreneur to meet the requirements of the program.
- At the end of this stage, ten semi-finalists were selected to pitch at a live event at MaRS in Toronto.
- Ten women representing a variety of ethnicities, ages, and technology areas pitched their ideas to a jury in front of 500 attendees from the cleantech ecosystem including partners, investors, educational institutes, corporate partners, and media.
- To select the finalists that would continue in the program, the jury used a pre-determined evaluation method that focused on the disruptive or visionary nature of the innovation, the probability of its commercial success, and its potential to scale globally and reduce harmful impacts on the environment or climate.
- Ultimately, six finalists were selected to participate in the intensive 3-year accelerator program and compete for a $1-million grand prize.
Incubation Period: Product & Business Development
During the 3-year incubation period, finalists each received:
- An annual stipend of $115,000 so they could work full time on their ventures
- Over $300,000 of expert advice and business development support provided by MaRS
- Up to $250,000 in federal lab support to de-risk their technology
Over that time, finalists:
- Participated in intensive entrepreneurship workshops to enhance their business acumen.
- Were each matched to a personal mentor, business and technical advisors to advance their company development.
- Participated in regular showcasing events with investors, corporate and potential partners.
- Leveraged the scientific expertise of federal laboratories to significantly advance their technologies through collaborative R&D projects.
Winner Selected and Announced!
- The $1-million grand prize was awarded to the finalist who demonstrated the most significant progress in developing their business and technology with a potential for significant scale and impact.
- The selection was carried out using a mix of criteria, including a pre-determined evaluation method based on performance metrics monitored and accrued over the 3-year incubation period, and an independent jury panel’s assessment.
- The winner was announced at the Challenge Finale, which was hosted by MaRS on November 30, 2021 at the MaRS Climate Impact Conference.
3. Design Features and Outcomes
3.1 Key Design Features
Throughout the Challenge design and implementation phases, a singular focus on outcomes ensured that decisions were made to maximize impact for the entrepreneurs. The key goals of the Women in Cleantech Challenge were to level the playing field for six high-potential women innovators, and to inspire an emerging generation of women in fields of clean technology entrepreneurship. All design decisions were made in service of these outcomes, and built around three pillars of support: business, technical, and financial. These created the backbone of support mechanisms that worked together to incubate the six business ventures that were selected to participate in the Challenge.
Knowing that collaboration would be the key to achieving results for a Challenge with such broad objectives, NRCan decided to work with MaRS to leverage their strengths in cleantech business development and complement NRCan’s science, technology and program expertise. NRCan opted for a third-party delivery agent model to facilitate this, and to ensure sustained access to MaRS resources for the duration of the Challenge. Collaborating with MaRS allowed the finalists to receive high-caliber training and advisory support, while effectively tapping into a broader innovation ecosystem and investor network. It also facilitated early engagement between MaRS and other key stakeholders, such as Écotech Québec, to further support Challenge activities. MaRS leveraged its deep roots in the global cleantech ecosystem to deliver bespoke training, access to a vast network of advisors and investors, and numerous thoughtfully curated opportunities. The finalists were also prominently featured at global innovation and investment events, such as the 2019 Clean Energy Ministerial, Mission Innovation, EDC’s Cleantech Export Week, and 2021 MaRS Climate Impact Week. MaRS’ strong networks allowed for the Challenge to have a bigger and more public presence, including the recruitment of a prominent judging panel with powerhouse women: Janie C. Béïque, Elicia Maine, Humera Malik, Jennifer Ramsey, and internationally acclaimed Canadian author, Margaret Atwood.
As a complement to the MaRS curated business development curriculum, the Challenge offered access to federal laboratory facilities and expertise, with the aim of furthering technology development and accelerating market readiness. Through NRCan, finalists were able to work with world class federal research labs to test, improve, and de-risk their technologies with collaborative R&D projects. These projects were carried out through an NRCan mechanism known as the Science and Technology Assistance for Cleantech (STAC). The STAC model supports organizations with capacity gaps, such as those with limited research infrastructure, technical expertise or cash flow constraints that would impede an organization’s ability to advance their technology or service to market. This unique mechanism can be an especially powerful support for small and medium sized enterprises in that there are no direct costs to the organization for the collaborative R&D project. In this way, Challenge finalists were able to collaborate with the federal laboratories and their scientists, which are known for their vast and specialized expertise in applied science and exceptionally well positioned to work through the challenging stages of pilot testing and scaling up technologies.
Enabling the entrepreneurs to focus all of their time and attention on growing their businesses was a priority for the Challenge, and for this reason an annual living stipend was another important design feature and one of the financial support mechanisms finalists received. This element enabled the cohort to put their best efforts into nurturing their ventures, but also ensured that there was an even playing field across the finalists. It allowed the finalists to put full-time effort into their business venture goals and have singular focus by minimizing competing priorities, which is very different from the reality of what most entrepreneurs face when growing their businesses. Ultimately, the annual stipend was highly regarded by the entrepreneurs as one of the key benefits to the Challenge.
3.2 Insight on Outcomes
Enhanced Public Awareness of a Problem or Issue
While a Challenge has the potential to attract non-traditional solvers to a problem, it cannot do so without significant promotion and marketing campaigns that engage networks beyond those targeted by traditional government programming. The Challenge was made visible through a number of channels, including email blasts to MaRS Cleantech lists, targeted social media advertisements, blog posts, a piece in The Globe and Mail, video footage posted across social media platforms, and organic social posts. Additionally, the partnership between NRCan and MaRS meant that the Challenge benefitted from cross promotion of social media posts and communications, which amplified the messaging and garnered additional public attention. These efforts resulted in widespread engagement, both at the launch of the Challenge and for the finale. The number of applicants exceeded expectations by 87%, and dedicated web platforms and social media received above average views and re-shares in comparison to traditional government initiatives. Lastly, another factor that cannot be overlooked is that the Women in Cleantech Challenge was about increasing representation in the innovation ecosystem, at a time when equity, diversity and inclusion were increasingly in the public eye. This was another reason that the program quickly garnered public support and awareness, and allowed for high levels of engagement throughout the duration of the Challenge.
New Talent Mobilized
The Challenge sought to mobilize new talent to address the under-representation of women in the cleantech industry. Using an open approach with low initial barriers to entry, it encouraged broad participation and enticed non-traditional entrants who might have had limited experience participating in traditional government grants and contributions programs. This enabled the Challenge to attract talented applicants and semi-finalists of diverse ethnicities, ages, and technology areas.
Increased Skill and Capacity
The Challenge effectively addressed key barriers to women’s success in a coordinated and complementary fashion by assembling training and support components into a comprehensive package. Bundling these elements together significantly reduced the burden on participants, who would otherwise have needed to assemble them on their own. For example, the finalists received negotiation training through MaRS, and were then able to apply those skills and gain experience using them by negotiating contracts with collaborators or investors. The integrated program created the opportunity to learn, put that learning into action, and improve through iterative feedback loops. Ultimately, the finalists who were excellent technical leaders were now able to focus on becoming excellent business leaders as well.
Furthermore, the program’s design also enabled capacity increases at MaRS. As an organization, MaRS gained additional experience supporting women entrepreneurs and created strong networks in a challenge or Accelerator framework. This new expertise can be utilized in future MaRS programming to impart long term social benefits for Canada – and in fact, this is already underway!
Increased Economic Return
Through the entrepreneurial training provided by MaRS, the potential for the finalists to attract private investment was significantly increased. Not only were finalists able to meet with targeted investors, corporates and potential partners, they also received training on how to effectively deliver pitches and were provided the opportunity to receive feedback on their delivery. These opportunities all played a role in accelerating the growth of the cohort that allowed the finalists to make significant business development headway. At the end of the Challenge, the cohort collectively raised $52.5 million in funding, and the number of paid employees grew from a total of 10 to 82.5, which represents a 725% increase.
Public Sector Innovation
The Challenge has been an effective and innovative funding approach to tackle high priority issues for the Government of Canada and society. It was well-timed in that it launched during a period of increased federal attention to gender inequality, and a growing interest and comfort with the use of innovative funding mechanisms. The 2018 Federal Budget had an unprecedented focus on advancing gender equality in Canada, and introduced the Government’s new Gender Results Framework which highlighted key gender equality goals for Canada, including Education and Skills Development, Economic Participation and Prosperity, which are particularly relevant to this Challenge. This has undoubtedly channeled greater support and increased attention across the Government and innovation ecosystems.
At the same time, the federal government advanced the use of innovative funding mechanisms and championed greater experimentation. This included Impact Canada’s set of horizontal Terms and Conditions for transfer payments, which provided enhanced flexibility to NRCan to pursue innovative program delivery using Challenges. It also included the STAC collaboration mechanism, which at the time was a first of kind model pioneered by OERD. Approval of the STAC model was a significant achievement, as traditionally the Transfer Payment Policy was interpreted to prevent collaborative R&D projects between federal laboratories and recipients of Grants and Contributions.
3.3 Unexpected Outcomes
The Ultimate Collaborative Network: the “Cohort Effect”
Perhaps one of the main reasons behind the success of the entrepreneurs and their business ventures was the unanticipated “cohort effect” that came about during the Challenge. The cohort had an undeniably collaborative spirit, one where the relationships were built on strong mutual support, sharing of knowledge, and the reinforcement and amplification of each other’s work. This team approach for a prize-based competition was not only remarkable, but also created massive benefits for the entire cohort. Some of the Challenge design features that could have played a role in enabling this effect include:
- The business ventures were all at similar development stages because eligible businesses had to be within a defined TRL range.
- The scope of the Challenge was broad enough to allow each venture to develop different technology that would not necessarily compete with each other’s target markets.
- The finalists had an even playing ground in that they received an annual living stipend that allowed them to make their business growth a full-time priority and maximize the use of the business support mechanisms curated for them by MaRS.
Ultimately, the “cohort effect” was a powerful mechanism that transformed the experiences of the individual finalists. It was even noted by the finalists as potentially being more valuable than the grand prize money at stake at the end of the Challenge.
Private Sector Investment
Building on the success of the Women in Cleantech Challenge program model, MaRS launched the RBC Women in Cleantech Accelerator (the “Accelerator”) in 2021. The Accelerator’s goal is to continue increasing female representation in Canada’s clean technology innovation economy, by recruiting new entrepreneurs to participate in future cohorts. The curriculum for the Accelerator was designed based on feedback from MaRS’ experts and the Women in Cleantech Challenge finalists and leverages the enhanced public profile of the Women in Cleantech Challenge. The continuation of Women in Cleantech funded by private sector investment is a testament to the true success of the Challenge, signaling that there is and can be an alignment between public and private sector goals. It also demonstrates the beginning of ripple effects of the Challenge and how it has impacted our views of the innovation ecosystem and the role that women need to play in it.
4. Meet the Finalists and Grand Prize Winner
Amanda Hall, Grand Prize Winner
Summit Nanotech has developed an innovative method of lithium-ion extraction from produced brine water, having the potential to revolutionize both the mining and energy-storage sector. The approach creates an inexpensive and sustainable source of green lithium for batteries used in electric vehicles, portable devices and mobile gadgets, all of which are fast-growing, multibillion-dollar markets. Summit Nanotech was awarded the Solar Impulse Efficient Solution Label, has been named by Corporate Knights as one of the 50 fastest-growing green companies in Canada, and most recently closed US$50 million in Series A2 funding.
Support in the cleantech ecosystem for women is growing stronger every day. There are opportunities in various incubators and acceleration platforms, but beyond this your fellow female cleantech CEOs will catch you before you fall.
Evercloak uses an energy-efficient and affordable process to develop nanofilms and nanocoatings. The films significantly reduce the energy required for commercial and residential air conditioning and are often used in cleantech applications, including water purification, energy storage, corrosion prevention, sensing, and smart packaging. In 2021, Evercloak engaged in a $4.5M collaboration with Environmental Systems Corp.
The Women in Cleantech Challenge was the launch pad for Evercloak, inspiring me to make the leap to entrepreneurship. The tailored mentoring and access to federal labs to scale Evercloak’s technology has equipped me with tools to accelerate our growth.
Open Ocean Robotics
Open Ocean Robotics designs and builds autonomous solar-powered boats that collect real-time data on emissions, oil spills, and other risks to the ocean. Julie’s goal is to create a ‘digital ocean’ to connect and exchange ocean data. Julie is a recipient of the British Columbia Cleantech Industry Icon Award and more recently, Open Ocean Robotics was awarded ventureLAB’s Company of the Year Award.
Cleantech entrepreneurship offers incredible opportunities to improve our planet's sustainability, create economic prosperity and advance technological innovations. To achieve these things we need diversity and more women to pursue STEM fields and take leadership roles in driving change.
Dispersa has harnessed a bacterial process to produce biodegradable biosurfactants — active agents that are used in a variety of products today. Dispersa’s non-toxic, palm-oil free biosurfactants can be readily integrated into end-user formulations, such as cleaning products, detergents, and cosmetics. Recently, Dispersa has been selected as a SheEO Venture Semi-Finalist in Canada.
Creating an impactful sustainable difference through innovation has always been a dream of mine. The Challenge helped transform my vision into reality by providing an incredible amount of curated support and resources necessary to transition from an idea I had as an undergrad into the growing cleantech venture Dispersa is today.
Solistra developed a technology that converts CO2 and methane into clean carbon products. The approach could prove a powerful, energy-efficient way to turn CO2 captured from power plants or the atmosphere into clean chemicals and fuels. In 2019, Alexandra was named a top 30 under 30 sustainable leader in Corporate Knights magazine. More recently, Alexandra has taken on a postdoctoral associate role at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
As a PhD engineer, it has been invaluable to learn about the broader cleantech ecosystem, business practices and strategies, and the economics of technology commercialization. I have been able to broaden my STEM career, since STEM in isolation cannot solve the world’s problems — a more holistic approach is required.
Genecis has developed a solution that converts organic waste into a polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) based bioplastic. PHA bioplastics are fully biodegradable in marine and terrestrial environments and can be used in traditional plastic applications such as packaging films, bags, containers, utensils, and other items. Genecis is one of the youngest teams to receive a multimillion-dollar grant from Sustainable Development Technology Canada. More recently, Genecis announced that it has raised US$7 million in Series A funding led by Khosla Ventures and BDC Capital’s Cleantech Practice.
The Women in Cleantech Challenge has not only navigated our company out of an innovation ‘Valley of Death’ and played an instrumental role in our success but, most importantly, it demonstrated that there is no longer a ceiling to what women pursuing a career in cleantech can do.
The Women in Cleantech Challenge continues to attract scale-up investments even after its conclusion!
In November 2021, Amanda Hall of Summit Nanotech was awarded the $1M grand prize. The competition tasked six first-time women entrepreneurs with scaling their startups over the course of more than three years.
- March 2022: CAD$17.8M Series A Funding co-led by Xora Innovation, Capricorn’s Technology Impact Fund along with BHP Ventures
- July 2022: CAD$1.8M Seed Funding approved by Sustainable Development Technology Canada
- Jan 2023: Close of US$50M Series A2, led by Evok Innovations and BDC Capital's Climate Tech Fund and joined by Capricorn Investment Group, Xora Innovation, NGP, Volta Energy Technologies, Helios Climate Ventures and The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment.
Designing and delivering a Challenge is a process of continual reflection, learning and adaptation. Every Challenge is unique and it’s impossible to predict and plan for all potential outcomes in advance, so there is no single script to follow. The delivery teams at NRCan and MaRS were constantly tracking progress, considering how the Challenge could be improved in potential future iterations, and exploring how the learnings could be applied in different contexts. A Challenge is an opportunity to try new things and to consider innovative solutions to better service intended outcomes.
In order to solve the complex problems we face as a country, we need to rely on the diversity, ingenuity, and creativity of all Canadians – and not simply those who have traditionally contributed to solutions. This means encouraging the active participation of non-traditional solvers, including those who have been excluded from participation, and those who didn’t know they had a seat at the table. It means increasing general societal awareness of the challenges needing solving, actively engaging citizens through more effective collaboration and co-creation, and partnering with civil society to magnify results. Lastly, it means that innovation can do more than just drive economic growth; it can also meaningfully address key societal challenges like climate change and social inclusion – all at the same time. By being thoughtful in program design decisions, social, environmental, and economic outcomes can all be equally addressed rather than being mutually exclusive of one another.
By maintaining ongoing engagement with aspiring cleantech entrepreneurs, the successful Women in Cleantech Challenge has the potential to lead to long term benefits to Canadians. It is NRCan’s hope that the Challenge will continue to inspire the next generation of women innovators for years to come and its ripple effects will work toward closing the gender gap as we know it.
5.1 Other Relevant Case Studies on the Women In Cleantech Challenge:
- MaRS Cleantech Report: “Women in Cleantech: The new leaders of climate impact”
- IEA Articles: “Women in Cleantech Challenge”