After years of talk about a sustainable economy, investment in clean technologies is taking off. According to a new report by PwC, venture capital investment in startups with climate-related technologies soared from U.S.$418 million in 2013 to U.S.$16.3 billion last year. A string of pledges on carbon neutrality from more than 30 countries, including China last week, has persuaded investors of the growth potential in clean technologies.
Normally, these investors would flock to dozens of cleantech industry events each year. These conferences are the speed-dating venues of the VC world, bringing entrepreneurs and investors together over paper cups of coffee. But COVID-19 has brought the real-life conference circuit to a halt and a digital one is emerging instead.
At the end of November, MaRS will make its mark in this new world with Impact Week, an immersive online conference focused on rebuilding a more sustainable economy after the pandemic. Alongside high-profile speakers and in-depth workshops, the five-day event will feature more than 100 of Canada’s most innovative ventures.
Deal-hunting VCs are starting to embrace online events like Impact Week as they offer unique advantages, such as enabling investors to meet more ventures than they could in person.
Shirley Speakman, a senior partner at Cycle Capital and veteran cleantech investor, feels she can she can cast her net wider online. “I have the opportunity to see companies I typically wouldn’t,” she says. “At the last digital conference I went to, the companies were very geographically spread out. I don’t think I would have been able to attend a physical conference and get that same coverage.”
Impact Week draws together two of MaRS’ marquee events, the Cleantech Summit and Social Finance Forum, enabling investors to meet impact-focused ventures that approach environmental issues from a range of angles.
“Impact Week is a must-attend event for any investor who is interested in the technologies, companies and ideas that are helping build a better, more sustainable future,” says Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS.
Each day starts with talks on the major challenges facing the world. Speakers lined up include The Atlantic political commentator David Frum, who is discussing Donald Trump’s impact on America’s innovation economy, and author Margaret O’Mara, who explores whether Silicon Valley’s formula can and should be replicated elsewhere. Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute at Memorial University, explains ecological grief (the link between environmental health and human wellbeing) and former astronaut Nicole Stott shares what she learned working on NASA’s space program.
Each afternoon, in-depth sessions homes in on important environmental and social themes, including women in cleantech, the future of cities and industry, as well as bringing impact investing to the mainstream.
One of the biggest virtual gatherings of Canadian cleantech ventures this year, Impact Week offers VCs numerous opportunities to electronically rub shoulders with founders. Daily presentations and pitch competitions allow CEOs to showcase their companies and field investors’ questions. Among the ventures featured are Swirltex, which makes highly efficient water treatment systems; Effenco, a maker of hybrid engine technologies for heavy vehicles; and Li-Cycle, which recycles lithium-ion batteries. Meanwhile match-making sessions will enable ventures and investors to meet one-on-one by video.
VCs are now getting into the swing of meeting companies digitally. Tom Boddez, a partner at purpose-driven fund Active Impact believes pitches can work almost as well online as live. “I can’t meet the founder in person, but I get most of the same information,” he said. “Usually the companies we invest in have $200,000 to $2 million in revenue, so they have product-market fit. They have happy customers you can talk to, a list of clients and a funnel of opportunities you can look at.”
Laurie Menoud, a partner at At One Ventures, has assessed countless online pitches. The biggest drawback she sees is that, with everybody confined to their own Zoom box, it’s more difficult to get a feel for a company’s team dynamics. It can also be harder to see a prototype product, so high-quality photography and videos are more useful than ever.
But, she says, these aren’t deal killers. A few weeks ago, the fund made its first investment without having met the team in person or touched the technology. Menoud says the team has to work harder to build a relationship with the company’s founders over video calls, but it is not a major issue. “So far, it’s working out fine.”
MaRS Impact Week runs from November 30 to December 4.