Ideas for great companies that last and make a mark are often preceded by a plethora of other concepts that, for one reason or another, didn’t work out or ended up successful and gave the founder leverage to start something new and do it all over again.
That’s been Mike Kelland’s experience. He’s an Ottawa-based serial entrepreneur who’s now the co-founder and CEO of Planetary Technologies, a cleantech startup poised to make a literal splash in saving our oceans and fighting climate change. But he’s spent years launching and fostering businesses.
“I had a lawn care company with my brother Richard and my friend Adam. We called ourselves ‘ARM,’ an acronym for our names. I was 12,” he says. “But I started what I’d call my first real business when I was in my last year of high school with my friend Jason. I was building and designing websites and put myself through university doing that.”
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Perhaps one of his most interesting companies — it almost made the big leagues — was one that checked CDs, DVDs and game discs for issues.
“You’d put in a disc, close the drawer and within 15 seconds it would tell you whether a disc was too scratched to play on a typical player,” he explains. (If you were around in the 1990s and early 2000s, you’re acutely aware of the genius behind this product.) “We were the industry leader in a very small space and we were on the verge of selling.
“Then Blockbuster went bankrupt and that was the end of that. It was a two-year run, really fun, really interesting. We made zero dollars, but we learned a lot.”
You can chalk those businesses up to learning experiences that made Kelland the entrepreneur he is today. With a degree in electrical engineering and a background in software, his last company prior to Planetary Technologies was a hit. BoldRadius, a super-niche software consultancy, was acquired by Lightbend, a Silicon Valley startup, after five years in business.
After that success, he started searching for his next venture. Kelland knew he wanted to develop a company that would make an impact protecting the planet from climate change. He was initially inspired by a longtime mentee at his alma mater, Carleton University.
“I was working with Brock Battochio, who was a climate change engineer and passionate about sustainable and renewable energy. I was in a space where I knew I could do a lot of good and do something I cared about,” he says.
For Kelland, an environmentalist, pairing his love of nature with his interest in innovation and technology was a no-brainer. “So, we spent a year talking to scientists and looking for technologies that had potential.”
One of the scientists they spoke with was Greg Rau, who had spent decades researching the global carbon cycle and started studying ocean alkalinity enhancement in the early 2000s. Kelland was inspired by and interested in Rau’s work and the three ended up launching Planetary Technologies in 2019.
In Planetary, Kelland and his partners hit the criteria they were looking for: the ability to develop a technology that has a direct link to climate change that can work now (it’s not decades away from being viable); address large markets; and serve an area that has previously been underinvested. The company focuses on removing carbon dioxide, which is an acid, through ocean alkalinity.
“Excess emissions of carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels dissolve into the ocean and end up making it more acidic. Every time someone drives a car or runs a BBQ, they’re essentially adding acid to the ocean. When you have too much acid, you need to add an antacid to clean it up. That’s what we do, we basically put Rolaids into the ocean to neutralize it,” Kelland explains.
The Planetary team also knows that the atmosphere and oceans mirror each other when it comes to CO2, so when you neutralize carbon dioxide, roughly the same amount will be pulled from the atmosphere to keep balance.
“When we get rid of carbon in the ocean, it’s replaced by carbon in the atmosphere. And when carbon dioxide is neutralized in the ocean, it’s transformed and stored as bicarbonate, which is just like baking soda.”
That’s another piece of the puzzle. “Not many people realize carbon is stored in the chemistry of the ocean as part of the saltiness of the ocean. This bicarbonate is vital for marine life; shellfish and microscopic plankton need it for their shells and fish use it to form their bones,” he says.
“Oceans make up two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. Most of us don’t understand just how vast they are. They’re also our biggest buffer against climate change,” he explains. “They not only suck up a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions, but they also absorb most of the extra heat caused by greenhouse gases. That’s a lot of extra acid. Areas of the Pacific Ocean in North and South America are reaching crisis levels; the government of British Columbia has declared this issue one of the top five threats to the province. The oceans are 30 per cent more acidic now than they were before the Industrial Revolution.”
Kelland and the team’s commitment to making a difference hasn’t gone unnoticed. Last year, Planetary Technologies won the $1-million CDR XPRIZE milestone award, a competition Elon Musk and the Musk Foundation funded that called for innovative ways to capture and remove CO2 from the air.
They’re also benefiting from $152 million from the federal government that supports research and tech developments in the field, currently being conducted with partners at Dalhousie University in Halifax.
Support from the angel investing community has also been robust. “It’s awesome. When we started, a lot of people thought we were crazy, but the bet is paying off with all the attention that the field is getting these days. So many angels have put their faith in me and us as a company. The fact that they’re willing to take risks based on how much we believe we need to try this means a lot to me,” Kelland says.
Angels from across the province, including early investors based in his hometown from the Capital Angel Network, have been eager to support and engage. “Everyone’s been willing to help.”
At this point in the journey, Kelland has lofty plans. He wants to pull a gigaton of carbon out of the air per year by 2045, so it makes sense he’s excited about pilot trials taking place in Halifax.
“I told my team, ‘You guys are making history. If this turns out to be a real high-impact solution, you are part of it,’” he says. “Really, it would be nice not to have to do this, we should’ve done a better job of reducing emissions decades ago. But that’s not where we are. It’s early days yet, but this has so much potential to be a real climate solution. We’re making strong progress and I’m optimistic that this can be something that makes a real difference.”
Suzanne Grant is an entrepreneur who has built bootstrapped and equity-financed businesses in Canada, Australia and Qatar. Today, she supports business growth and positioning while sharing insights to demystify early-stage fundraising. Grant leads the Capital Angel Network as part-time executive director.