This story is in partnership with Spring.
When he was working at Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Chalk River, Ontario, engineer Edward Chiang was shocked at what happened when there was a regional power cut.
Although just 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, the impact was dramatically worse. In the national capital, power went out for a few hours. But in Chalk River, the blackout lasted 24 hours. Locals told Chiang that a record blackout once lasted two weeks.
Grocery stores were throwing away frozen food, Chiang recalls, while hospitals were struggling to stay open. The only place with its lights on was the local Tim Horton’s, thanks to a backup diesel generator.
“Everything was down. There was no reception or anything,” Chiang said. “That really was what hit me. I realized that even living in a very privileged, first-world country here, all the people that live two hours away from a big city still experience highly, highly unreliable power.”
Along with three like-minded engineering graduates from Simon Fraser University, he co-founded a social impact start-up called Moment Energy in Surrey, British Columbia. The company repurposes electric vehicle (EV) batteries for energy storage, aiming to help communities off the grid access sustainable energy, and reduce damage done by battery disposal in landfills and lithium mining.
In June, Moment Energy became the grand prize winner of Spring Activator’s National Impact Investor Challenge, winning $100,000 in investment to expand their work. Their prize came after weeks of rigorous training and pitching with investors, along with a cohort of 20 companies whittled down to five finalists.
Another start-up looking to expand its work is Heal Mary in nearby Vancouver, which helps to recruit patients for clinical trials around the world. Cassandra Hui, Heal Mary’s founder and CEO, says she got the idea for the company when both of her sisters were diagnosed with cancer in 2017, after her mother was already a stage four cancer survivor.
“When it impacted all of the women of my direct family, that really had me searching,” said Hui, whose app was awarded $50,000 by Spring Activator’s 2021 Campbell River Impact Investor Challenge.
“It’s inspiring to see so many innovative impact-driven ventures committed to driving social and environmental change,” said Blair Miller, managing partner of TELUS’ Pollinator Fund for Good, who spoke at the National Impact Investor Challenge.
“Moment Energy and Heal Mary are two excellent examples of companies moving the needle in the social impact space, and both are poised to drive significant social and financial returns,” he said.
For both Heal Mary and Moment Energy, impact investment is vital, providing the funds to grow their businesses and scale their solutions. At this key stage of the companies’ development, what will the new funding mean for the startups’ growth and the issues they’re looking to tackle?
Off the grid
Chiang met his three co-founders when they formed the university’s first electric vehicle racing team, through which they became close friends. After the 24- and 25-year-olds earned experience working at places like Tesla, Apple and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, they soon tried their hand at being entrepreneurs.
The four became aware that EV batteries were often being disposed of or recycled when they were retired from a car, yet they still had 80 percent of their life left. Meanwhile, places off the grid – such as remote communities, lodges and resorts – were desperate for energy storage solutions beyond environmentally-unfriendly diesel generators.
“We saw that there’s a huge opportunity actually to ensure that they don’t end up in landfills or prematurely recycled,” said Sumreen Ratta, Moment Energy’s co-founder and COO. “Plus, with the influx and popularity of EVs coming in, there’s going to be a large amount of these batteries that need a place to go.”
By using Moment Energy’s repurposed batteries for energy storage, she said those off-grid can transition to renewables by charging their batteries using solar during the day and then using this clean power at night. With four pilot programs across Canada, they are also looking to provide clean energy storage to commercial facilities to help them remain operational during power blackouts.
With the new investment, Ratta says they will be able to move into a bigger warehouse and hire more staff members. “It helps us scale faster and essentially serve the demand that’s coming in,” she said, adding they have around $1.2 million sales in letters of intent.
More than that, though, the new impact investors have been essential in introducing them to potential customers and more investors, Ratta said. During the Challenge, they were also offered valuable advice from investors, such as to quantify their impact in terms of greenhouse gas emissions for interested investors and customers.
“A company like Moment Energy not only has one investor but has a community of investors that actually make them stronger,” said Hilary Kilgour, Investment Program Director at Spring Activator, pointing out that the investors learn from each other too.
“What angel investors or certainly early-stage impact investors are able to do is step up earlier, offer capital and offer expertise to help get the ventures to that next stage,” she said.
And winning this kind of investment can also act as a catalyst for more investors to join in, Kilgour added. “It sends a signal to investors that these are investable companies.”
Life-saving clinical trials
Heal Mary, which hopes its technology can transform the health outcomes of patients by matching them to clinical trials – from rare forms of cancer to COVID-19 – was the second big winner in June.
Nearly half of new medicine fails to make it to market due to low patient enrolment in clinical trials, according to Heal Mary. By servicing this market, they hope to save lives and build a commercially viable business in the process – the global clinical trials market is estimated at USD$44.3 billion in 2020 and is growing quickly.
“One of the things that I realized is there’s not a very strong patient-centric model that helps engage patients and keep them informed about clinical trials,” Hui said.
Launched in May 2019, the app aims to match patients to one of hundreds of thousands of clinical trials which take place globally each year. Free to use for patients and paid for by trial recruiters, Heal Mary uses machine learning to translate difficult medical jargon into plain language for its 350 weekly users, and its recommendation engine helps patients view and apply for relevant trials.
The name comes from a bold, all-out team play in American Football, the ‘Hail Mary’, which is usually employed once other plays have failed. “Typically, especially when it comes to serious diseases, [patients] are more open in looking for other options,” Hui explained.
During the process, members of the public in Campbell River on Vancouver Island were invited to take part in choosing an impact startup from entrants across the province which they believed could most benefit the community. All investors were also Campbell river-based or had strong ties to the community. They collectively narrowed down the applicants to the ventures presented on pitch night and demo day, and ultimately selected the winner to invest in.
And in the midst of COVID-19, the merits of Heal Mary were particularly salient. In fact, the app pivoted to help with COVID-19 trials and studies from April 2020, attracting a thousand visitors to the app in just the first week after launching this work.
Hui said the new impact investment will be crucial to help them accelerate their work. “It shows us that there are investors who are aligned with similar beliefs in terms of doing what’s right for the patient first,” she said.
“The investment is going towards the next phase which allows patients to set up profiles and have multiple trial matches,” Hui explained. “It’s going to help us build out the second piece of technology, which is going to make effective matching for patients much faster and much more accurate.”
Fortunately, her family members are now all safe and healthy. Hui hopes that the funding and mentorship from new investors can help them ensure many more families enjoy the same outcomes.
“Yes, the prognosis for my three family members, luckily, was good, but there are other families out there that are looking for options, and so that’s really what drives me in the morning,” she said.
Local and global
As Canada and the world look to build back healthier and greener, Kilgour says that encouraging early-stage impact companies and investors can lead to much-needed new solutions brought forward by new people.
“Not only are we seeing a diversity of investors stepping forward but we’re also seeing a diversity of solutions getting funded,” she said, pointing to new impact investors entering the field from various personal and professional backgrounds. “The companies that get invested in are ultimately the type of companies that we’re going to see define our future.”
And by offering new technology as part of the solutions, Kilgour says these companies can look for both deep impact – such as creating local jobs and improving lives in specific communities – while having the potential for impact at scale around the world. “If we think of the scale of the climate challenge, [Moment Energy] has the ability to really make a dent in what can feel very big,” she said.
Speaking to the company’s founders, that level of ambition is clear. “We have a mission to repurpose all electric vehicle batteries for second life use by 2030,” said Ratta. “We want that to expand not just in North America but worldwide.”