Lab closures. Skittish investors. Cancelled conferences. During the first weeks of the pandemic, founders of early-stage startups had their hands full. But the lockdown also provided a rare opportunity: a chance to reflect and reassess their business plans.
For the finalists in the Women in Cleantech Challenge this meant 16-hour days, raising seed rounds virtually, refining their product market fit, and researching potential customers.
In advance of their upcoming talk at MaRS Mornings, we spoke with the finalists about what has helped them navigate this tumultuous period. Here, Luna Yu of Genecis, Nivatha Balendra of Dispersa, Julie Angus of Open Ocean Robotics, Amanda Hall of Summit Nanotech, Alexandra Tavasoli of Solistra; and Evelyn Allen of Evercloak, share the hurdles they’ve faced and the silver linings they’ve found during COVID-19.
Nivatha Balendra: Having to face a lab closure for more than two months, our team really had to think outside the box. We identified areas where we could develop further and that allowed us to make good use of the two months. In fact, we are accelerating our tech development right now because we prepared a lot during those two months.
Luna Yu: On the business side, it has actually done us a huge favour. It really forced us to slow down. We’ve done more planning work than we’ve ever done since the inception of the company. And it’s really helped us get priorities straight.
Amanda Hall: That’s what I’m finding — the funny thing about COVID is that it really forced us to find our critical path and stick to it in a really lean fashion. We were booted out of the national lab. But we found a lab closer to home. It also caused us to invest in our own equipment and so, going forward, we can do whatever we want to do and we have everything we need to do to it. It cut the apron strings and made us grow up really fast.
Julie Angus: We faced challenges with the closure of the U.S.-Canada border, travel restrictions and cancelled conferences. We were supposed to do a deployment in the U.S. that was altered so we could do the project here. There’s really been the need to think creatively.
Evelyn Allen: Working remotely worked out really well for us. It made it easier to re-evaluate our I.P. We were able to hire — we’re now a team of nine. And we were able to open and close a seed round.
Alexandra Tavasoli: The pandemic delayed our mini-pilot deployment by roughly six months. To be completely honest, it was not the end of the world, because the pandemic also delayed a lot our suppliers — even if our deployment site had been ready, we would not have been ready.
Evelyn Allen: It’s challenging — I have two school-age kids at home, so especially when they were doing school online they needed a lot of help and attention. I feel there was a lot of treading water early on instead of driving forward.
Amanda Hall: Oh, I cry every once in a while, it’s hard. I’m a single mom. And just the lack of connection has been hard to deal with. The support is there, but it’s virtual support. I work 16-hour days and it’s not enough.
Nivatha Balendra: There is so much to worry about — is the company going to make it through? How are we going to make payroll? There are so many questions that come into a leader’s mind. I’m very solutions-oriented. I like to find what it is that we can do rather than worry.
Amanda Hall: The pandemic did make investors a little bit nervous. When I announced my seed financing round in January, I had tonnes of interest — I was oversubscribed. And within a month of the pandemic, two-thirds of those investors backed off. What that did, though, was screen out investors who didn’t believe in me. And the ones who do believe in me stayed. It took me nine months to close a $1.5-million round. It feels good to be secure again financially.
Julie Angus: It’s definitely been much more stressful, we’ve had to adapt our business plan to take into account reduced revenues, due to not being able to do some deployments and to customers being more conservative with their cash. There’s just so much uncertainty.
Alexandra Tavasoli: We’d been rushing through certain parts of our engineering work because we didn’t have time to do it thoroughly and a weird silver lining of the pandemic was that we were able to iron out those unknowns.
Luna Yu: We thought we had everything figured out. It wasn’t until Q1 of this year that we realized how little we knew about our customers. We examined everything from our technical development to our customer pursuits.
Amanda Hall: It gave us a lot of time to do modelling and to file our patents. Now we have a way stronger product market fit, our relationships with customers is a lot stronger, because we took our head out of the lab and stuck it in the market.
Nivatha Balendra: A startup’s biggest strength is flexibility — being able to pivot to market demand. When I started the Women in Cleantech Challenge, the main focus of Dispersa was remediation of oil spills. At the start of the pandemic, it was very apparent we had to focus on the cleaning product space and sanitation. The demand for cleaning products is huge right now — there has been more and more interest by cleaning companies and by chemical companies in adopting green chemistry technology and integrating natural alternatives to synthetic chemicals.
Alexandra Tavasoli: Weirdly enough, working from home gave me an opportunity to analyze my own work patterns and the ways I prioritize different aspects of my work — it’s allowed for some solid self-reflection.
Julie Angus: A lot of events have gone virtual so, in many ways, it’s easier to attend events and connect with people you wouldn’t necessarily be able to meet in person.
Luna Yu: And it’s been quite easy to get in touch with people — everybody has 15 minutes in their day to spare.
Amanda Hall: People are desperate for work right now, especially in Alberta. All of a sudden, all of these talented professionals and engineers are looking for work, and I was able to cherry pick the ones I wanted. Our team has grown from five pre-COVID to 11.
Amanda Hall: Last November, an investor asked to see a financial plan with an optimistic case, a regular case, and a worst case going forward. And I was like, “Oh this is so stupid. That worst case scenario is never going to happen.” Sure enough, three months later, guess which case we were working with. That exercise was really valuable and we’re continuing to build that uncertainty and pessimism into our model — just in case.
Julie Angus: It’s a challenge building a startup — it’s like that saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, it takes a village to grow a startup. Our advisors offered a lot of guidance early on. There really is so much generosity.
Luna Yu: All six of us finalists hopped on a phone call right away on a Zoom call to talk through everything that we’ve seen and share tips on how we can get ourselves back on track. I’ve called them up in the middle of the night to seek out advice on basically anything from payroll systems to legal matters. I’m super grateful for their help.
Evelyn Allen: I can ask the other women in this challenge anything: Does this sound right? Have you done this? Have you heard of this person? Using them as a sounding board, and knowing that there’s other people who are doing what you’re doing has been so helpful.
Luna Yu: We’re definitely in the scaling up phase. But with exciting things, there’s always a lot of things that can go wrong. We want to make sure we’re as sharp as possible.
Nivatha Balendra: We’re already manufacturing our soap-like compounds called biosurfactants at the lab scale. Currently, we have signed on LOIs with five to six different companies in North America, who are interested in adopting our ingredient.
Evelyn Allen: We’ve had so many milestones. We were selected as one of the finalists for Breakthrough Energy and NRCan’s project (backed by Bill Gates). We closed a seed round. And we are in the process of building out our first field demonstration unit for our technology.
Amanda Hall: We landed a pilot partner in the U.S., which was awesome. We are through the worst and I’m excited about what comes next.
Julie Angus: I feel fairly confident. We have a good runway, we’re secure financially, we have a great team. Of the many things that we can recognize from this pandemic, is that environmental sustainability is crucial — the health of our planet is critical to our own survival and prosperity. I’m very optimistic that we have the technology to help our planet.
Alexandra Tavasoli: The pandemic showed us that if we take action how quickly the beneficial response can be. In many ways, I’m excited about the future.
Hear more about their entrepreneurial journeys at this Friday’s MaRS Mornings Online discussion.