Susan Blanchet comes clean
The co-founder and CEO of Victoria-based Origen Air is working to bring fresh air inside.
If you were walking in downtown Victoria, say on a weekday morning, and a bike raced past you at the intersection of Bay and Government Streets, you perhaps didn’t clock the gravity of your close call. There's a non-zero chance that it was Susan Blanchet, the lawyer turned soccer coach turned real estate agent turned cleantech entrepreneur. She would have been peddling to that latest venture where she is co-founder and CEO of Origen Air.
The startup provides “clean-air-as-a-service,” a clever way to say it has manufactured hardware and developed software in the name of healthier air. Origen’s scalable fleet, the Pinnacle and the Sentinel, provide clean air for any size commercial space at a monthly fee. The devices also report back real-time air quality data, as if your favourite house plant became proficient in data analytics and learned how to present it’s findings with you.
Lately, though, Blanchet hasn't been able to speed through Victoria's downtown on her way to grow her cleantech startup with as much regularity. When we connect, she's just returned from a three-week tour of California promoting Origen Air’s Pinnacle device. “It's been a whirlwind month. As you know, that's nothing new in the entrepreneur world. Three weeks in a van—we're the garage band of entrepreneurs. We brought our actual Pinnacle Air Purifier with us, which is wood and glass. So we had this makeshift little crate that we built out of wood to hold all the glass. It had the good bed. I was up in the pop-top,” Blanchet jokes.
Back from her album release, err, cleantech tour, Blanchet is working to grow both personally and professionally. A recent experience in this was the Women in Tech California Program. The home of the organizer is Palo Alto, a stop on her California tour. “I was actually in Palo Alto in meetings on the Friday. So, I probably should have just stayed for the weekend,” Blanchet suggests. Despite her proximity, the accelerator program ended up shifting to a virtual delivery.
Even with digital introductions, she was able to work through the program and connect with a group of B.C. founders including Michelle Morgan of Advanced Alternative Investment Systems, Cassandra Hui of Heal Mary and Pocketed CEO Brianna Blaney. Similar to what I’ve heard from other members of the cohort, Blanchet speaks highly of her experience in the program. But, she did present a notable caveat.
“They're all doing really kick-ass things but many of them are a year ahead of where I'm at,” Blanchet tells of the cohort. This delay, however, can be easily forgiven. Blanchet has spent decades working in other fields before she even started Origen Air.
“In nature nothing exists alone.” ― Rachel Carson, in her novel of New Yorker excerpts, Silent Spring. Blanchet cites Carson as her hero.
An October 2020 conversation with Startup Canada brought her a first-time realization—at the ripe age of 47—that she had always been an entrepreneur. She was born in New Brunswick, but her family moved to Victoria at a young age. It was there where she launched her first two entrepreneurial ventures: rounding up neighbourhood animals and “treating” them in her veterinary clinic (the driveway) before moving on to run a gymnastics school (the backyard). But as she grew and graduated from high school, she felt compelled to head into mom and dad’s field of choice for her. A law degree from UVic and a move to Toronto followed.
“It’s always been in my mind that I had to go to university straight out of high school. I didn't really even think starting my own company was an option. Especially in the 90s, right?” she says. She became a mother in law school. After the move to Toronto, Blanchet had her second son right after law school and her third during her articling year—the legal equivalent of a practicum.
Blanchet doesn’t mince words when she speaks of the next chapter in her life. “And then I was a lawyer. And then my marriage ended. So I was like, ‘Hey, I have to continue being a lawyer. I've got this house, I've got to pay for it.’” She had a house, sure, but she was compelled to come home. “Once you grow up on the coast, it's pretty hard to live in winter. So as much as Toronto was beautiful, and had tons of opportunity, we came back fairly quickly. So I've been back, gosh, 18 years now.”
When she moved back, Blanchet’s drive to lead, to manage, was tested close to home. She had been coaching her sons’ soccer teams. Blanchet played basketball as a kid and passed down youth sports to her children. On the soccer sidelines, Blanchet faced an unwelcome but predictable pushback.
When her eldest son turned 13, the local soccer organization decided they didn't want a woman coaching the boys. Blanchet was shocked. So, she went back to school, not for a third UVic degree but to complete the courses to match the coaching credentials of her male counterparts. “Next September, I’m like, ‘Hey, guess what? I have the same credentials as you, the head of the whole organization. Who's going to be the coach? Yeah, I am,” she claps back.
The experience made Blanchet reflect about her life away from the soccer pitch, too.
“The cases I loved—contaminated sites, environmental, riparian rights, anything to do with making the world a little bit better—were kind of drying up when the economy dried up,” she says. The cases she was working on were important, but didn’t match Blanchet’s passions. It was shortly after that she lost her father.
He spent decades suffering from dementia, and environmental concerns and air-based toxins took up real estate in Blanchet’s mind. “To prove environmental causes or prove that the disease was from toxins in the air was pretty much impossible,” she points out. “It’s always like, ‘Oh, it could have been those cigarettes you smoked when you were a teenager that caused it right?’ There's no way to prove a direct causal link.”
“A Who's Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals, eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones—we had better know something about their nature and their power.” ― Carson
Opting for a change of scenery, Blanchet flew to Cambodia on a whim and ended up teaching english. The school was run out of a home rather than a building large enough for the student body, so Blanchet added further to her work history, this time with experience in commercial construction by helping build a proper schoolhouse.
When she returned to Victoria, Blanchet again tried something new. She traded all of those thoughts taking up mental real estate for the physical version. Blanchet passed the realtor’s exam and sold real estate while she was still practicing law. “But none of it was enough,” Blanchet admits. She was finally ready to become an official entrepreneur, all due respect to the neighbourhood animals she treated in her childhood driveway.
Origen Air launched three years ago. It’s a culmination of all the experiences Blanchet has had. Motherhood, a legal career, caring for her father, building schools in Cambodia, all in an entrepreneurial stew. Part of the California trip contributed to an understanding of her larger raison d’etre.
“We drove through Death Valley,” she recalls. “The air quality is horrific. Obviously, no one's living in Death Valley. But there are lots of communities around the world that really need good air quality. A big focus that we want to do is when we sell 10 units, we want our clients to be able to have another one to give to a community that needs it. That's a big way that I would like to continue what I was doing in Cambodia. I don't want to just make this for rich people, I want [Origen Air] to be for the people who need it. Most of the time, people with the poorest air quality are living in the poorest neighborhoods.”
While Blanchet’s empathy shines through, she has recently felt a justified need to look internally. “Last year, I was just working way too much. We were launching pilots, we were building our product, we were moving offices, we were bringing on a third co-founder. I wasn't taking care of myself like I should have last year,” Blanchet says.
One such entry on her Life Resume, a program Blanchet points to as a work-life balance crutch, is commuting to work by bike. “The office we're at now is about a half-hour bike ride from my house. I'm starting to cycle [more.] I used to cycle every single day because with little kids, it’s the only time I had to exercise. I can't sing, but I usually wear headphones, listen to music and sing at the top of my lungs,” Blanchet laughs.
With that image—Blanchet pounding the pavement—one can’t help but feel transported back to Government and Bay on a weekday morning. Coffee in hand, waiting at the light, you’d watch (and hear) her peddle past you, feeling a whoosh of fresh air in her wake. It’s fitting, too. Fresh air is the latest in a life of many pursuits for Blanchet.
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