4 innovators fighting the climate emergency and their vision for a greener future
As part of Earth Day 2021
The climate crisis should be on everyone’s mind: the World Health Organization stated the climate crisis is the biggest health concern of the 21st century and in 2019, UBC declared a climate emergency recognizing the imminent threat climate change poses to people on both a local and global scale.
In order to address this emergency, there is a critical need for entrepreneurial thinking and action, new technologies, as well as accelerating proven climate solutions to market. entrepreneurship@UBC’s Climate Venture Studio was launched in 2020 in direct response to this need, catapulting climate research and innovation coming from the university to action, through venture creation. Co-led by Entrepreneurs in Residence Dr. Shannon Bard and Paul Needham, the Climate Venture Studio works with innovators, faculties and leaders across the university and provincial landscape to propel innovative solutions into the world that have economic, social and environmental impact.
The theme for Earth Day 2021 is “Restore Our Earth”, focusing on the natural processes, emerging green technologies and innovative thinking that can restore the world’s ecosystems. In this vein, we wanted to recognize (some of) the amazing ventures at entrepreneurship@UBC who are creating solutions in response to the climate emergency and learn their thoughts on the future of entrepreneurship and climate innovation.
Co-founder and CEO Dr. Reza Rezaei
Aqua Intelligent started out as an idea Co-founder & CEO Dr. Reza Rezaei had as a Postdoc in 2017. A graduate of UBC’s Chemical and Biological Engineering department, Reza wanted to solve drinking water problems through affordable and innovative solutions sharing that "solving the problem requires an accurate and detailed analysis that was missing."
Thus began Aqua Intelligent, an efficient and reliable platform that identifies any existing and potential problems in drinking water systems, helping local water operators to effectively solve problems through their app. Since launching, Aqua Intelligent has been named to Rocket Builder’s Emerging Rockets 2021 Cleantech list, is a finalist in round 2 of the New Ventures BC Competition presented by Innovate BC and has been a recipient of NRC IRAP and Innovate BC’s B.C. Fast Pilot Program, receiving funds to design, build, and operate a pilot of their technology in real-world conditions. The team has been able to develop and test not one, but three pilots in total so far, a huge success for the venture in its early stages.
At entrepreneurship@UBC and as part of the HATCH Accelerator, in partnership with the Institute of Computing, Information and Cognitive Systems (ICICS), Reza and Aqua Intelligent have been able to dive into the deep end of venture creation, taking advantage of the resources and in-depth mentorship offered through our network of experts, industry and academic mentors and Entrepreneurs in Residence.
Amongst many things, climate change may affect water quality, which is exactly where Aqua Intelligent comes in. Reza shared "although some areas may experience increases in runoff caused by shifts in the spatial and temporal distribution of precipitation, some areas may experience droughts resulting in elevated levels of potentially toxic algae and high concentrations of organic matter, bacteria, and so on. Predicting the high fluctuation of water quality impacted by climate change, and effectively managing drinking water utilities to protect these vulnerable communities, will be mandatory."
When asked about the role Aqua Intelligent is playing to create a more sustainable future, and their impact on people worldwide, Reza said: "Small communities are at risk of water crisis/boil water advisories and climate change. Our solution can help these communities to sustainably make safe and affordable drinking water and protect them from climate change impact."
Founder & Director Dr. Mirjam Mai
Fibrilex Founder & Director Dr. Mirjam Mai heard about sand shortages for the first time in the summer of 2019. Shocked at both the environmental and social devastation caused by the overexploitation of sand (particularly marine ecosystems), Mirjam became infatuated with the problem, finding herself reading every article she could find on the subject online. Mirjam even interviewed two environmentalists that had been active in Cambodia supporting people who’d been affected by collapsing riverbanks. She knew she wanted to help find a solution to access under-utilized sand sources for the construction industry, and thus, Fibrilex was born.
Fibrilex provides a dry admixture that allows low-quality and smooth sand types, such as desert and dune sand, to be used in concrete with improved mechanical strength, reduced cracking and is easy to recycle. Fibrilex is contributing to a more sustainable sand supply chain for the concrete industry. A Postdoc alumni of UBC’s Forest Science program, Mirjam began fleshing out her business plan for Fibrilex during her time in the Social Venture Stream with entrepreneurship@UBC in the Spring of 2020. Now, she is in Phase 3 of entrepreneurship@UBC’s Lab2Launch program, growing as a founder and improving her understanding of the market and steps she needs to take to create a thriving business.
Mirjam has leveraged her experience across entrepreneurship@UBC’s streams and programs, working with the incubator’s fleet of Entrepreneurs in Residence and mentors who have been "invaluable in providing important tools and roadmaps as well as constructive feedback".
So far in her venture building journey, one of her greatest successes has been "initiating partnerships with concrete and sand companies who want to collaborate with us." The team has also been selected to present at a number of pitch competitions across the innovation ecosystem, recently winning not 1 but 2 categories in SFU’s Coast Capital Savings Venture Prize: The Research & Development Category Prize and the Female Founder Award! Additionally, Fibrilex was just recently announced as a finalist for round 2 of the 21st Annual New Ventures BC Competition presented by Innovate BC!
On her thoughts around innovator’s responsibility to create sustainable solutions, Mirjam replied: "I believe that we need the innovation of entrepreneurs to challenge the status quo in supply chains and promote more sustainable solutions. This can be through greener products or a business model that generates value for all stakeholders." Fibrilex is helping to do just that, with Mirjam sharing “with our solution, concrete producers will not need to import construction sand, they will be able to use their local sand, which will reduce GHG emissions from shipping. The use of low-quality and smooth sand types will also relieve some of the pressure on rivers and ocean sand sources, so that those ecosystems can heal."
Co-founder and CEO Marc Wandler
Susgrainable Co-founder and CEO Marc Wandler describes his journey into entrepreneurship as an "accidentally on purpose" story, sharing the opportunity to start Susgrainable "sort of found me". Graduating from UBC Sauder’s MBA program in 2019, he was distinctly attracted to Sauder because of the entrepreneurship and innovation stream, allowing him to explore this as a potential career path through his Masters, saying "the added sustainability focus was a differentiator UBC had over other (MBA) programs." From there, the rest is history.
Susgrainable is building a business that bakes sustainability into every bite of our food. The company turns beer "waste" into health baked goods and baking mixes. Beer waste (or spent grain) is the single largest produced food by-product, accounting for 3% of total global food by-product. Susgrainable rapidly dehydrates this product before it spoils, creating their "Upcycled Barley Flour" - a product high in plant-based protein, fibre while being low in sugar. Fibre is notoriously missing in most Canadian’s diets, being correlated with the rise in many chronic health conditions.
An early-stage venture a part of the HATCH Accelerator program, Susgrainable has worked tirelessly on moving their business from idea to market, leveraging the training and entrepreneurship@UBC’s network to connect in with advisors that have helped them create processes that provide value as they look to scale their business.
This past year, the team navigated the ongoing challenges of COVID-19, with Marc sharing: "We were just beginning to scale within the food service industry. There have been many big challenges, but this one caught us off guard and really challenged our entire business model."
Despite the pandemic and its effects, Susgrainable has been able to pivot their business: the team announced today (on Earth Day) their new goal of upcycling 10,000kg of rescued spent grain before 2021 year end and broke the news that they are launching their first line of retail ready baking mixes alongside their signature Upcycled Barley Flour (a Chocolate Chip Cookie Mix, a Pancake & Waffle Mix, the Upcycled Barley Flour and another product launching this fall). Marc said "this is a very exciting time for Susgrainable. The new packaging will allow us to partner with established retailers throughout BC while also finally being able to meet demand and requests for our products that have come in from across Canada."
When asked about what role entrepreneurs need to play to create more sustainable solutions, Marc answered: "Innovation! Early-stage companies are able (and expected) to try new and bold things. To fight the climate crisis, this is more necessary than ever. Susgrainable is battling food waste by taking the largest produced food by-product and upcycling it – creating an item of higher value. The best part is what’s healthy for the planet in this case may also prove incredibly valuable to our individual health as well!".
Co-founder and CEO Arthur Chen
Arthur Chen knew from the start of his entrepreneurial journey that he wanted to help fight climate change and increase sustainable development. Starting with non-profit and social enterprises, his first venture attempt was building a freelancing platform for sustainability projects sharing, “although we failed, it was a tremendous learning experience.” Now, at the helm of Verdi, a venture climate-proofing crops by customizing growing conditions for every plant, he’s taking another approach to climate change through agtech.
A graduate of UBC’s Engineering Physics program in 2020, Verdi joined entrepreneurship@UBC’s Lab2Launch program and has since connected into our pool of mentors, talent and investors within the community. As an early-stage venture, Arthur is no stranger to challenge: "agriculture is a complex market and harsh environment for hardware products. Navigating and overcoming these barriers have been our biggest challenges."
Nevertheless, the company has seen great success so far, being recognized on Rocket Builder’s 2021 Emerging Rockets Agri-Food list, and sharing “it’s been a blast seeing the concrete impact of our technology on crop growth and working alongside some of the world’s largest companies to help them optimize farm productivity and climate resilience.”
On the role innovators can play in helping to solve the climate crisis through new venture creation, Arthur shared “solving climate change is a tremendous market opportunity. For the first time, we’re starting to see the profound impacts of climate change on supply chains (ex. water shortages affecting the chip industry, Texas windstorm knocking out plastics factories), and investment from corporations in carbon offsets (ex. through regenerative agriculture)." Noting that things are likely only going to get worse from here, Arthur added “this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for entrepreneurs to not only save the world, but also build the next billion dollar business while doing so.”