Keith Ippel on the impact of impact investing. Plus, Sumreen Rattan on the moment she knew she wanted to build Moment Energy
The National Impact Investing Challenge, ran by the Ippel-led Spring Activator, recognized Rattan’s Moment Energy. But, the award represents a win for the entire tech ecosystem.
Keith Ippel took to LinkedIn in mid-June with brass on his mind. “Canadians tend to not toot our own horns,” he wrote. Spring Activator, a Vancouver-based organization in place to support early stage ventures of which Ippel is at the helm, had just run its National Impact Investor Challenge. The Challenge was Spring Activator’s first Canada-wide offering and Ippel was reflecting on it. He shouted out the winners and noted all those who helped along the way but not before continuing his thought: “One example is in the way ecosystems work, and how we often collaborate quietly behind the scenes to help build impact companies,” read the next line in his post.
It all has a bit of an orchestral feel to it. The innovators who make up the horn section, though spurred on by investors acting as conductors, can’t quite be heard in the balconies and mezzanines of public discourse. A quiet horn section in the orchestra of tech is a sentiment I hear not just about innovation at the Federal level but at the Provincial and Municipal levels, too. With this in mind, we should be tooting the horn of Spring Activator and their Impact Investing Challenges. Impact Investing, at least in this context, means funding companies that positively impact societal issues such as racism, sexism and climate change. Ippel paints us the picture.
“In the last five years, we have seen this acceleration in momentum, this growth of cleantech and climatetech. Do you remember the photo that came out 30 or 45 days after the initial lockdown from COVID? It was the first time that in India that they could actually see the Himalayan Mountains in like 30 years,” he regaled.
“That really, I think, was a catalytic moment. Combine that with the fact that for a lot of cleantech and climatetech, the economics are starting to work. So poof: now we see everybody in cleantech, climatetech. We in Vancouver have really benefited tremendously, in part, through catalysts like Foresight [Cleantech Accelerator] and Active Impact Investments,” he continued.
In addition to cleantech and climatetech, Ippel sees impact investing trending towards circular economies like sustainable food production and plastic waste. At the people level, Ippel also notices a long overdue trend: “the opportunity to support gender lens founders, women leaders and BIPOC leaders; really resetting on equality and equity. I think the innovation sector has always proven that we can lead in change. All of that—cleantech, food and sustainability, education, healthcare, circular economy, gender, bipoc—screams impact investing. Impact investing is the fastest growing sector of early stage investing. And the reason that we at Spring Activator got into it is because, interestingly enough, impact investing historically has had an arc that is exactly opposite to tech,” he noted.
Spring Activator ran a pilot Impact Investor Challenge in 2019 with that arc in mind.
“In tech, you would have tonnes of pre-seed and seed money. And then it would start to dry up at A Round, especially in Canada. In Impact at A Round, there's lots of cash around. But there's nothing in pre-seed and seed and so we saw that as a huge opportunity.” Ippel and his team had hoped to run another challenge in 2020. But, as COVID dawned, they were unsure how the pandemic would affect interest. To their surprise, interest was strong. Spring Activator have overseen five of these challenges in the past 12 months, a point of pride for Ippel. “It’s a really amazing time to be in the space and we're proud to be in it,” he justifiably gushed.
This most recent Challenge—the National Impact Investor Challenge—was also the Challenge that spurred the LinkedIn post. Moment Energy came away $100,000 richer. But perhaps grander than that dollar figure is the support Moment Energy won from the entire ecosystem. Ippel connected the dots for us. Moment Energy traces its roots to SFU’s entrepreneurship programs—SFU's Coast Capital Savings Venture Connection, namely. Dr. Sarah Lubik, the school’s Director of Entrepreneurship, received a deserved shoutout. Moment was then connected with the Jeanette Jackson-led Foresight which gave them the boost they needed to enter the Challenge.
The growth of a startup certainly takes a village. Which is good because that’s exactly the community Moment is working to support.
Moment repurposes electric vehicle batteries. Currently, they are working to replace the diesel generators often called upon in small, remote villages. These generators provide power, sure, but their more notable output is pollution, both air and noise. Combine that with a pair of astonishing facts about electric vehicle batteries and you get a pretty robust raison d’etre.
First, electric vehicle batteries are oftentimes shelved with 80% of their capacity still intact. This is a staggering amount akin to taking only two sips of a bottle of beer before throwing it in the bin. A second fact Ippel brought to my attention: “...what a lot of people don't know is if you buy a Tesla today, you're also signing on for a $4,000 cheque. This is to dispose of the battery at the end of life of the car,” he informed me.
To paint the broader picture, Moment Energy is a burgeoning cleantech company at a time when sustainability-focused innovation is greatly needed, what with this climate crisis and all. This passion for electricity first stemmed from electric car racing during the founding team’s early days at SFU. Co-founder Sumreen Rattan filled me in on how their Electric Vehicle Racing Team, Team Phantom, got its start.
“Every other school has a race car team except us. We just decided that day, ‘Let's do this. Let's actually look into it and start the team.’ We started doing some fundraising and research, quickly realizing there's like a million things you have to learn. Imagine a group of students that know nothing about how to make a car. And now you're sitting there saying you're gonna make one,” Rattan reflected. “I think we co-founded the team around 2016 or 2017. Today, we've graduated, but there's still over 40 students that are a part of it. They're designing a race car right now to compete in next year's competition.”
Despite this experience and legacy, Rattan and co.s’ first foray into entrepreneurship was in the drastically different space of mental health services. Moment Meditate actually predates Moment Energy. SFU’s engineering students are offered an avenue that sees them spend their degrees creating a product they then market together with the help of senior business students known as a capstone. Rattan and her co-founders set out to design a brain stimulating device that you can use to help relieve anxiety and stress, another passion—like electric vehicles—that was at the centre of their collective venn diagrams.
As graduation loomed, the device hadn’t truly taken off. They poured four more months into it post-graduation. Then, Rattan and her co-founders did some soul searching. “We realized that as much as we love the idea, it just wasn't a good founder fit for us. Because of our expertise, we thought we could leverage our skills in a different way. At the end of the year, we sat together and we're like, ‘Okay, so who out of the four of us is serious about entrepreneurship?’” she recalled asking her three fellow co-founders. “I remember sitting there like, ‘Do I even want to do this?’ I actually went on vacation with my family to Mexico and I'm sitting on the beach to try to think it through.”
The sand and surf brought Rattan the clarity she needed.
“I basically came back from a vacation, talked to the team, and I was like, ‘Hey, I'm in. 100%,’” a smiling Rattan tells me. Her excitement was infectious. All four sought to continue. No rest for the wicked: “The four of us that weekend went through the whole brainstorming process. We went back and thought, hey, people have constantly been telling us ‘You guys love electric vehicles. You co-founded an electric race team, people teamed up with you, why don't you do something in that space?’” Moment Energy was born.
With their mission set out and their devices defined, Moment Energy and its founders were taken under the wing of Foresight and launched into the fray of the National Impact Investor Challenge. According to Ippel, they were a natural fit. Investors like the industry (renewable energy), they are a circular economy play through their refurbishment prowess of used batteries and Moment possesses a global use case—even off grid establishments need power. “How they got in is a no brainer. How they won the thing, that’s the bigger story,” he recalled.
“They made demonstrable progress every single week. They also showed a high level of coachability. Those two things combined really help the investor to answer one very simple question in early stage investing: do I trust you and your team with my money? Because intellectually I can see it's a big market. But intuitively, it's early stage so it's high risk.” Ippel points out. “Sumreen and Eddie [Chiang, fellow co-founder] did a phenomenal job of really understanding that each week they needed to reinforce, convey and build trust.”
They were able to build that trust in a truly hands-on way. Rattan mentioned in our conversation that an early aim for Moment Energy was to implement its refurbished batteries at music festivals. Stage equipment and food trucks rely on their outdated, greasy, diesel counterparts. It was a natural fit for the young entrepreneurs. Unfortunately for them, COVID brought music festivals to a record scratch like halt.
This is when the startup cast their net wider and looked towards rural areas. Ippel recalls a moment from the Challenge when the team beamed themselves into the investors’ home offices. “They did a call in rural Alberta, north of Edmonton, and they're like, ‘Hey, we're on site!’ You could see their equipment in the background. People really resonate with that.”
“Impact is core to Moment’s DNA, so we’re incredibly excited to be awarded the top impact startup in Canada,” Rattan wrote in the wake of the award. The company's next destination? No, not a return trip to Mexico. The team seeks to arrive at an ambitious funding goal. Investment is a focus for Spring Activator, too, among other priorities. Plus, a hug or two, hopefully. “The big one [on our radar] is the fall Impact Investor Challenge. I think we're especially excited about it, because we're going to be able to do some hybrid events. We’re really excited about bringing people back together.” These events should be a raucous affair when you take into consideration the astonishing financials from Spring Activator Challenges: $350,000 in direct investment, $1.7 million in additional, post-Challenge investment, an 80% success rate of finalists in the Challenges, usually a shortlist of five, receiving funding.
What’s more, the impressive funding numbers are headed the way of startups with diverse leadership. “What's interesting is that of all of the finalists that have gone through on average, we've had four out of five finalist companies be either BIPOC or women led. All of the last four winners are women-led ventures,” Ippel shared. The overall approach is a staunch commitment to the much needed hallmarks of impact investing.
As we follow the growth of the companies in the Challenge cohorts, may we all keep our ears open for tech’s conductors and horn sections who deserve amplification. To do so would raise the awareness of innovation stemming from our backyard. “Putting Vancouver on the map; I think that's, collectively, what we want to do,” Ippel said.
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