Green giants: Ottawa cleantech entrepreneurs land coveted spots in MaRS accelerator program

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Hyperion Global Energy's Heather Ward, shown with company co-founders Jerry Flynn and Luke Tucker, is one of 10 women entrepreneurs from across Canada taking part in the RBC Women in Cleantech Accelerator hosted by the MaRS Discovery District.

A pair of Ottawa entrepreneurs who founded pioneering green-energy startups are hoping to boost their scaleup bids with help from a Toronto-based innovation hub.  

Hyperion Global Energy co-founder Heather Ward and Victoria Xu, who helped launch CleanInnoGen Energy Solutions, are among 10 entrepreneurs from across Canada taking part in the RBC Women in Cleantech Accelerator hosted by the MaRS Discovery District. 

Participants in the year-long program will be connected with business mentors and investment advisers who are experienced in building and funding cleantech enterprises. They will also work with advisers from federal research labs and federally funded R&D programs such as Ottawa’s CanmetENERGY.

“MaRS is one of the leading cleantech hubs in North America, so it’s really exciting to be part of that,” says Ward, whose firm landed a seed funding round worth nearly $2 million last spring and expects its patented system to be ready for market by early next year.

Hyperion, which is based out of Invest Ottawa’s accelerator at Bayview Yards, appears poised for a breakout after years of toiling in the shadows. 

The seven-person company is closing in on a deal to test its “carbon recycling” system at a major Canadian cement plant. The mobile unit is designed to collect waste carbon dioxide from factory smokestacks and turn it into valuable materials such as calcium carbonate, a key component of products such as plastics, cement, paint and even animal feed.

'Tough tech'

Ward says she hopes the MaRS accelerator will help catapult Hyperion to the “next level” as it looks to make its mark in the emerging carbon-utilization space. 

One of the biggest stumbling blocks for the nascent industry is its reliance on what Ward calls “tough tech.” Complex carbon-capture systems typically require thousands of hours of work and millions of dollars’ worth of research, development and testing to become commercially viable – if they ever get there at all.

But Ward is confident her firm has figured out how to crack that elusive revenue-generating code. The additional market exposure that comes from being part of the latest MaRS cohort will only help Hyperion’s cause, she adds.

“This program gives us an opportunity to expand that national network and presence,” Ward says, adding the company plans to pursue a series-A funding round in the near future.

Meanwhile, Xu sees the MaRS accelerator berth as something of a coming-out party for her fledgling firm, which officially launched late last year.

Green fuel alternative

The firm’s system uses waste heat from industrial plants to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen, which is becoming an increasingly sought-after green alternative to fossil fuels.

The technology is the brainchild of Xu’s business partner Kamiel Gabriel, an engineering professor at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa. Xu, a biomedical engineer who was born and raised in China, met the pioneering clean-energy researcher at a Startup Canada conference in Ottawa five years ago and was instantly captivated by his work.

Gabriel and his team continued to hone the technology in southern Ontario, while Xu – whose previous career stops included stints as a software engineer at Nokia and Ericsson – moved to Ottawa with her family in 2018 to tap into the capital’s vibrant tech startup ecosystem.

"It is not that easy to commercialize science like this."

Last year, the pair joined forces to launch CleanInnoGen. While the startup’s technology has been in development for years, Xu notes that it’s still unproven in the real world. 

“Now it’s time to get it out of the lab, to commercialize it,” she says. “But it is not that easy to commercialize science like this.”

Like many cleantech entrepreneurs, Xu says a lack of capital remains the biggest hurdle to achieving a commercial breakthrough. She estimates it will take at least a “few million dollars” to fund a pilot project with an industry partner, but finding well-heeled investors willing to back an unproven commodity is an ongoing challenge.

“Unfortunately, we are not in a position to say, ‘Hey, this is certain,’” she explains. “It’s a tech startup – it’s risky.”

Xu, who’s also an investor in Hyperion as a member of the Capital Angel Network, is now leading the charge as the young startup – which now has a handful of employees, mostly in Ottawa and Toronto – scours for seed funding. 

She’s hoping the MaRS accelerator opens more investors’ eyes to the potential of CleanInnoGen’s tech.

“We can really tap into great networks, which is very important for us.”