Mark Zekulin knows a thing or two about steering young companies through the wild west of emerging industries.
The former chief executive of Canopy Growth spent half a dozen years at the Smiths Falls-based cannabis firm, helping raise a massive $5-billion investment that transformed the firm into a pot powerhouse employing thousands of people.
After stepping down as Canopy boss in late 2019, Zekulin took his time before making his next move. He says he was seeking a venture that would do good and was in a field that was “as exciting and as dynamic” as the topsy-turvy world of cannabis.
With climate change and its potentially devastating effects now on virtually everyone’s mind, he thinks he’s found it.
Zekulin is executive chairman of Ottawa-based Invert, a startup that began life a year ago as the Net Zero Co. Its goal is to make it easier for individuals to invest in initiatives that help offset the harmful effects of greenhouse gas emissions.
"It’s very hard to pick up a paper and not say, ‘This is what we should be spending our time trying to help.’"
“It’s very hard to pick up a paper and not say, ‘This is what we should be spending our time trying to help,’” says Zekulin, whose new team features a bevy of Canopy Growth alumni, including Andre Fernandez, Canopy’s former chief operating officer, and Rade Kovacevic, who served as the cannabis company’s president. Fernandez and Kovacevic are now co-CEOs at Invert.
The company is currently in the midst of a campaign aimed at raising millions of dollars, capital it plans to invest in projects such as facilities that capture and remove carbon from the atmosphere.
Some of that cash is coming from big corporate players. Earlier this month, for example, Invert announced it landed $5 million in financing from Newfoundland-based mining company Altius Minerals.
But Zekulin really envisions Invert as a vehicle for individuals to help make the world a greener place.
He says the platform allows people to really put their money where their mouth is when it comes to environmental stewardship. Individuals can pay a monthly subscription fee to invest in carbon-cutting projects and accumulate credits that help offset the carbon emissions they generate through their daily activities.
The idea is to attack climate change on two fronts, Zekulin says: funding technology that actually reduces the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, and allowing people to buy credits that ensure their greenhouse gas contributions are offset by equivalent reductions in other areas.
“All of these things need to happen, and for those (carbon-reduction projects) to be economically viable, they need a carbon credit to be issued so that they make economic sense and people will actually do them,” he explains.
But the platform is more than that, Zekulin adds. The company is also developing an app that will allow consumers to track their carbon-reduction efforts and help them understand how their spending and consumption habits affect the environment.
The average Canadian, Zekulin notes, has relatively few clear options for reducing their individual carbon footprint: maybe switching to high-efficiency LED lightbulbs, or perhaps buying an electric car.
“Those are nice steps, but you probably don’t know holistically how much you are contributing to this problem,” he explains. “We’re trying to create a place where you can come and be involved in a community. You can say, ‘OK, this is what I’m contributing, this is my CO2 emissions, here are some things I can do to fix it and here are some projects I can invest in to make myself carbon-neutral.’”
Invert is hoping to unveil the app by the end of the year. In the meantime, the firm is poised to start making its first investments and is combing through a list of about 40 potential projects in Canada, Africa, Asia and South America.
“We have a great pipeline of things to invest in, and now … it’s just a matter of putting the cash in and making it happen,” Zekulin says.
Invert employs 28 people, about a third of whom previously worked at Canopy Growth.
Zekulin notes there are “great parallels” between his new venture and the cannabis industry. Like cannabis, the carbon credit industry is a new frontier, a young space with seemingly limitless upside. Competition is already fierce, with each venture trying to make sense of a hodgepodge of provincial and federal regulations.
What the market will look like when the dust settles is still anyone’s guess. But Zekulin has seen this movie before, and he thinks Invert is a strong contender to land a starring role.
“There’s a ton of regulatory unknowns in terms of how the markets are going to shape out,” he explains. “This is exactly what cannabis was like.”