Women in Cleantech Challenge selects 10 innovative semifinalists
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By Elicia Maine and Janie C. Béïque
After a lengthy summer selection process, the review committee for the Women in Cleantech Challenge has picked 10 inspiring women to compete in the competition’s semifinal round, being held on Sept. 18 at MaRS Discovery District in downtown Toronto.
They are a diverse group of women, representing a mix of ethnicities, ages, technologies and provinces. These 10 exceptional innovators (see below for a description of each) must now pitch their ideas in front of a live audience, as well as the jury of which we are a part.
Together, we have the honour of deciding which five women will go on to participate in an intensive 30-month company-building program, during which they’ll work closely with MaRS advisors, federal lab researchers and outside experts to accelerate R&D and advance their business plans.
From this cohort, the female entrepreneur that has made the most progress and demonstrated the highest commercial potential by the end of the program will be awarded $1-million to invest in the growth of her game-changing business.
Decisions like these are never easy, particularly when the quality of applicants is so strong.
After a two-month national call, a total of 147 applications were received, far exceeding expectations. Each was rigorously screened to make sure eligibility requirements were met. For example, did the proposed project meet the Challenge’s definition of “cleantech” and “hard tech”? Was it at the right stage of development? Was the innovation unique or potentially disruptive? Could it be patented?
Importantly, was there likely to be enough global demand for such an innovation, or was it a solution looking for a problem?
From this initial screening, our review committee – composed of members of the MaRS Venture Services team in consultation with market intelligence and program development colleagues – brought the number of applications down to 50. They then did a second round of screening, diving deeper into each remaining application, consulting with outside experts, and conducting secondary research as necessary. At this point a key objective was to uncover probable barriers to commercialization, such as manufacturing risks, regulatory obstacles, and overreliance on behavioral changes in the marketplace.
As the list narrowed, the quality of applicants improved and the selection process got much more difficult. Still, there was eventually agreement on a short list of 33 women, all of whom were invited to give a videoconference presentation and take questions from the committee.
During this interview stage, the committee evaluated presentation skills and determined the “coachability” of each applicant – for example, how openly did she respond to the kind of constructive feedback that would come from advisors, mentors and other seasoned experts? Natural Resources Canada was also consulted to make sure applicants could be adequately matched up with federal lab resources.
This, after a multi-stage review process lasting several weeks and consuming 250 person-hours, is how the committee determined the 10 semifinalists who will pitch on September 18. As jury members, we look forward to meeting each of these brilliant women and learning more about their cleantech innovations.
Our 10 semifinalists
And who are these cleantech leaders of tomorrow? What are they working on? You’ll learn more about them as this Challenge unfolds. For now, see below for a brief description of each:
Evelyn Allen (Ontario)
Evelyn is working on an additive manufacturing platform for printing large-area nanofilms made of graphene and other 2D “wonder” materials. Such films are increasingly used in cleantech applications, including water purification, energy storage, corrosion prevention, sensing, and smart packaging. Evelyn will lead the development of a process that is more energy-efficient and aims to be dramatically less costly than existing approaches.
Julie Angus (British Columbia)
Julie is leading the development of autonomous energy-harvesting boats that will transform oceanographic research, marine transportation, oil and gas, and defense. The boats will carry environmental sensors, cameras and communication devices allowing them to make oceanographic observations, act as communication gateways for sub-sea sensors, and detect environmental accidents or anomalies that might otherwise go unnoticed. (B.C.)
Nasim Arianpoo (British Columbia)
Nasim is building an AI-enabled platform for industry that provides process manufacturers with real-time data monitoring and process failure prediction to reduce waste and fuel consumption while increasing production by a remarkable margin.
Nivatha Balendra (Quebec)
Nivatha has created a sustainable way of remediating oil contamination, such as spills or tailing ponds, using biodegradable lipids produced by a specific strain of bacteria. The lipids act as a surfactant capable of breaking down hydrocarbons in a sustainable manner, unlike conventional approaches that rely on chemical detergents that are harmful to the environment.
Bethany Deshpande (New Brunswick)
Bethany uses deep-learning technology to keep cows healthy, reduce waste in the supply chain, and help farmers run more profitable operations. Using proprietary sensors and artificial intelligence, the technology can identify disease and other sources of contamination in milk before extraction so that farmers can take preventative measures to reduce the volume of “spoiled” product, ultimately improving farm efficiency.
Amanda Hall (Alberta)
Amanda is developing an economical process for extracting lithium from produced brine waters. The approach has the potential to create 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.
Sidney Omelon (Quebec)
Sidney is working on a better, more sustainable way to capture phosphorus, an essential non-renewable resource, from municipal wastewater treatment and agriculture operations. By reclaiming phosphorus nutrients from waste, this innovation reduces the need to mine and process phosphate rock to produce phosphorus fertilizer for agriculture.
Gem Shoute (Alberta)
Gem’s cleantech solution reduces the consumption of energy and raw materials in research and development and manufacturing. Using predictive algorithms, she is developing a way to simulate the growth of materials and discover ways to optimize product development and the overall manufacturing of advanced materials essential to many clean technologies.
Alexandra Tavasoli (Ontario)
Alexandra is advancing a GHG-to-fuel technology that converts waste CO2 or methane into syngas using solar energy and novel, nanostructured, light-activated materials known as “photocatalysts.” The approach promises to be a powerful, energy-efficient way to turn CO2 captured from power plants or the atmosphere into clean chemicals and fuels.
Luna Yu (Ontario)
Luna uses a novel blend of microorganisms to economically convert organic waste into a type of bioplastics called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). PHA bioplastics are fully biodegradable in marine and terrestrial environments. Products that can be manufactured from PHA bioplastics include packaging films, bags, containers, utensils and 3D printer filament.
On behalf of all jury members, we would like to congratulate these 10 innovators for making it to the semifinals. It is a major achievement, especially considering the strong competition they faced. While only five of them will go on to compete in this Challenge, we believe all of them are destined for great things.
Thank you also to all the women who applied to participate in this challenge. You are an inspiration to us all.
See you on Sept. 18!
Elicia Maine is Academic Director of the Invention to Innovation (i2I) Program and Professor of Innovation & Entrepreneurship at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University. Janie C. Béïque is Executive Vice-President, Investments of Fonds de solidarité FTQ, an institutional investor supporting local businesses in Quebec. Both are part of the Women In Cleantech Challenge jury.