Vice President of Venture Services at MaRS Discovery District
Li-Cycle is a fast-growing business tackling a fast-growing problem. The Mississauga-based company recycles the lithium-ion batteries that power smartphones, laptops and electric vehicles. Founded in 2016, the company is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, is valued at $1.5 billion USD and plans to build two new recycling facilities by 2023.
A few years ago, this would have seemed impossible. Venture capitalists saw clean technology companies as too capital-intensive and too slow-growing to hit billion-dollar valuations. But with the world facing a lengthening list of crises, investors, potential customers, and the government are realizing the value of our homegrown solutions.
There is a growing realization that social purpose and solid profits are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they go hand in hand. Last year, MaRS Discovery District created the Momentum program to support Canada’s future economic stars. We work with 70 scaling companies that are all on course to make $100 million in annual revenues. Collectively, these ventures are working toward addressing the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Social purpose is not a sidecar project for these companies, it is fundamental to their business models. In Southwestern Ontario, NRStor has partnered with the Six Nations of the Grand River to build one of the world’s biggest clean-energy storage facilities. It could eliminate up to 4.1-million tonnes of carbon emissions and provide employment opportunities for the Indigenous community. Ecopia is creating incredibly detailed 3D maps to enable more accurate modelling of floods and stormwater runoff, as well as better planning for disaster relief efforts and vaccine delivery programs.
Meanwhile, Precision Biomonitoring is helping businesses reopen with rapid on-site COVID testing, and companies such as Altus Assessments, which provides evidence-based screening tools for university admissions, are helping address long-standing inequalities.
When COVID struck, there were concerns that a wave of closures would hit Canada’s startups, setting back progress on vital issues. Instead, the collision of a pandemic, economic crisis and climate emergency has focused investors’ minds on what matters. The past year has seen record activity in health care, with Canadian firms AbCellera, Repare Therapeutics, Fusion Pharmaceuticals and Dialogue all going public. Money is also flowing into other sectors that offer innovative solutions to ongoing issues. Prodigy, which helps improve math outcomes by gamifying education, recently began hiring 400 more staff after raising $159 million in one of the largest-ever funding rounds for a North American education technology company.
Being a good corporate citizen used to be the benchmark — now it’s the baseline. Consumers want companies to focus on more than just profit. Recent research shows that 80 percent of people expect businesses to act on issues like climate change and inequality. Some firms have even appointed chief purpose officers to guide their efforts.
This change is good news for Canada. Our tech sector excels at creating businesses that use deep technological expertise to solve big, important problems. And those are exactly the companies the world needs right now.