Artwork by Victor Lee

Social Impact in Canada

In 2019, Thomson Reuters Foundation and Deutsche Bank’s global survey saw Canada named as the best country to grow businesses seeking to tackle social problems. Canada claimed the top spot in three of the survey’s six assessment categories: ease of access to investment (debt and or equity), ability for social entrepreneurs to make a living from their work, and for momentum of social entrepreneurship. In Ontario, for example, The Social Venture ConneXion (The SVX), an impact-first platform led by MaRS and the TMX group, connects social enterprises with impact funds and investors. Naturally, with more funding opportunities it becomes easier for socially driven business leaders to make a living. Perhaps most importantly, however, is the momentum fuelled by government support, a highly skilled labour force, and socially conscious talent in post-secondary institutions and research centres.

British Columbia has helped drive momentum from all fronts. It was the first province to champion the idea of social enterprise and government support for it. Further, UBC Sauder’s Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing and UBC’s Social Impact Fund have allowed students and members of the UBC community to take action towards social impact goals. Last semester, NBR established its official blog Pitch Deck to explore Western Canada’s startup ecosystem; this semester we hope to highlight the leading social impact players within it. 

As of this semester, Pitch Deck features profiles of UBC Alumni leading socially innovative startups based in Vancouver, that like the first batch of individuals interviewed, are similar or related. NBR was grateful to interview: Dr. Zac Hudson, Chief Scientific Officer at NEXE Innovations, Aaron Friedland, CEO and Co-Founder of Simbi, Madison Guy, Founder of GrantMe, and Praveen Varshney, Director at Varshney Capital Corp. Together and on their own, they have helped redefine the role of business in Canada. 

NEXE Innovations: Rethinking What’s Possible

Dr. Zac Hudson is a UBC Professor in Chemistry and Canada Research Chair in Sustainable Chemistry. His research specializes in polymer chemistry, with applications in developing compostable plastics for consumer products and energy-efficient displays for cell phones and television screens. Zac has always been a strong advocate for chemistry’s power to make the world more sustainable, whether it's through clean energy, efficient electronics, or renewable bioplastics. That’s why he jumped on the opportunity to join NEXE Innovations as its Chief Scientific Officer, spending the last three years developing a fully compostable coffee pod that is compatible with leading coffee machines. The NEXE pod composts completely in as little as 35 days, while single-use coffee pods made from traditional plastic can sit in landfills for hundreds or thousands of years. Every year, 40 billion single-use pods are dumped into landfills. When lined up end to end, this figure would wrap around the earth 11 times.

Zac persisted in developing several prototype pods before finally settling on the final specially engineered components: an outer fibre jacket made from bamboo that both looks and feels like plant fibre, and a bioplastic inner capsule designed to break down into carbon dioxide, water, and organic biomass — leaving no microplastic behind. Multiple iterations were necessary to overcome the challenges of developing a pod suitable for mass manufacture that also met consumer preferences. Coffee drinkers are sensitive to packaging that alters the taste of coffee, and this has been a historical barrier to the adoption of compostable pods. NEXE has launched its in-house coffee label, XOMA Superfoods, and sold it direct-to-consumer, which should help accelerate consumer (and corporate) adoption of the new pods. Hopefully, bioplastic material will dominate the global coffee pod market, which is forecasted to reach USD $29.2 billion by 2025. 

Zac’s work demonstrates the power of social innovation; when purchasing products, consumers should not have to choose between products that achieve Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals and products that perform well. The two qualities are no longer mutually exclusive. Already, we are seeing signs that companies that fail to take responsibility for the social impact of their products and place the onus on consumers to be creative in dealing with an unsustainable product are at a competitive disadvantage. Zac encourages aspiring scientists and business students alike to collaborate to reimagine a more sustainable future. 

Simbi: Reading for Impact

Like Zac, Aaron Friedland, Co-Founder of Simbi, found his way into entrepreneurship via an academic background. Aaron worked on his Master’s thesis in rural Uganda, examining the positive influence that concurrent reading and listening to an audio narration of the same text had on one’s fluency — the same approach that taught Aaron, a student with dyslexia, to read. When Aaron decided to execute on his findings and create a prototype for the technology he was using to run his initial research, Simbi was born.

Simbi is an eReading platform with the mission to cultivate a lifelong passion for reading at a young age. Currently, the platform engages over 130,000 learners across 66 countries through its proprietary technology and global library of books. With Simbi, a student in Vancouver can record their narration of a book that is then played back by a student anywhere in the world to help them learn how to read (or vice versa!). Simbi’s process has helped students double their reading fluency in just three months while simultaneously empowering them to contribute to a global community built on improving literacy. Readers can track their fluency progress as they read books out loud, and see the extent of their progress with weekly progress reports detailing the number of individuals across the world who have benefited from their narrations. 

Recently, Simbi has entered an exciting phase of growth as the need for engaging online learning platforms has become increasingly prevalent. Last year, Simbi signed an agreement with the United Nations to bring their product to an additional 1.3 million learners in refugee settlements across the world. Both Vancouver’s startup ecosystem and global literacy rates are elevated by Simbi’s innovation and purpose-driven mission. 

GrantMe: Empowering Students’ Financial Futures

Similarly, Madison Guy found herself leading an edtech platform informed by her experiences as a student, while still a student at UBC Sauder. After her final season as the Team Captain of the UBC Women’s Soccer Team in 2016, she started to build GrantMe: an edtech platform that aims to increase scholarship accessibility for students, ultimately increasing access to education. GrantMe was inspired by her experience of applying to external scholarships; although the scholarship she received to play on the soccer team was substantial, it did not cover rising textbook prices and rent in Vancouver. During the process of applying, she discovered that the average student in Canada graduates with $26,000 in student debt, while $10 million worth of scholarships go unclaimed annually. Despite the abundance of financial aid, a lack of transparency made finding and applying for scholarships a significant investment of time — something that not all students have the luxury to spend. 

This motivated her to bridge the gap between the millions of dollars worth of unclaimed scholarships and the hardworking students she knew could benefit from increased clarity and access to them. GrantMe has helped students win over $4 million in scholarships by matching students to scholarship opportunities, organizing applications, and creating application templates. By increasing accessibility to scholarships and coaching students in the application process, GrantMe empowers all students, especially those from low-income families and marginalized groups, to attain higher education. Madison’s powerful work has helped equalize access to education in Canada, earning her recognition on B.C. Business’ and Forbes’ 30 Under 30 lists.

Varshney Capital: Creating and Supporting Innovation

When Praveen Varshney read about Madison Guy’s story of founding GrantMe in a magazine, it instantly resonated. He recognized the impact of her idea and immediately sent her an email offering to help in any way that he could. This speaks to Praveen’s character and philosophy of life. As a Director at Varshney Capital, a leading Merchant Banking and Venture Capital firm in Vancouver, he believes one of his greatest value-adds to the entrepreneurs he supports is his ability to form strong teams of people to build a startup that can accomplish its mission. He does so by leveraging the extensive network he has cultivated over the years by thoughtfully investing in his relationships and genuinely seeking to support others. It has made him one of the most revered and active angel investors in B.C.

Today, Praveen is a proud Advisor of GrantMe because of Madison’s strength as a founder and GrantMe’s social impact. On Praveen’s path from accountant to serial entrepreneur to esteemed angel investor, he developed many important values that have led to his success and that he looks for in founders. At the top of his list is integrity. Acting with integrity, he notes, creates leaders who act according to principle and not simply as a result of what a situation provokes. This is a value that makes entrepreneurs more adaptable and ultimately makes them coachable. 

Early into his investing days, Praveen recognized the growing importance of socially driven enterprises. Today within Vancouver, few individuals have made as much of a social impact through business or daily life as Praveen and Varshney Capital Corp. In 2000, Varshney played a huge role in Victoria-based Carmanah Technologies becoming the largest solar-powered LED lighting company in Canada. Praveen recounted that this venture was life-changing since it was the first time he had positively affected the planet and given value to his shareholders concurrently. That awakening helped shape the Varshney Capital portfolio; it now holds several social enterprises such as Little Kitchen Academy, a franchise of cooking schools for kids, and NEXE Innovations.

Varshney Capital has built a portfolio with unique breadth: cryptocurrencies, resource exploration, compostable single-serve coffee pods and more. Praveen admitted that he is no expert on each and every business sector. However, his experience of building companies has given him the foresight to invest successfully in unknown industries by leveraging three main pieces of criteria: strong financial control, qualitative factors (such as the founder’s vision), and recognizing market timing. 

The Evolved Role of Business in Society

Market timing for social enterprises could not be stronger, with 86% of millennials thinking that business success should be attributed to the extent of its service to society at large, not just profit generation. It is clear that Michael Porter and Mark Kramer’s ideas of Creating Shared Value' and Stakeholder Capitalism, “the notion that a firm focuses on meeting the needs of all its stakeholders: customers, employees, partners, the community, and society as a whole,” will be of increasing importance in our currently polarized global economy. NEXE, Simbi, GrantMe and Varshney Capital have exemplified that success on the local and global stage is derived by keeping these ideas central to a business model or purpose. Further, they have highlighted that this success is driven by demand for social innovation from investors and consumers alike. We hope to see more businesses solve problems by having social impact philosophies truly synonymous with business operations, not simply a project on the sidelines.