Addressing the climate crisis is a huge undertaking, requiring systems change across culture, policy and markets – including major advances in innovation and technology. Earth Tech is a 6-month cleantech accelerator program founded in 2020 by Climate Ventures to help fast-track the success of early-stage ventures focused on climate and water solutions.
Now a part of Social Innovation Canada and a joint initiative with Foresight Canada, Climate Ventures originally grew out of the Centre for Social Innovation, a Toronto-based nonprofit established in 2003 to offer workspace, community, and support for organizations working for people and the planet.
After three cohorts including 49 ventures have successfully completed the Earth Tech accelerator, Senior Programs Manager Shea Sinnott reflects on the program’s wins and lessons learned.
An accelerator focused on connection and impact
When it launched, Earth Tech’s mission was to support the growth and impact of early-stage cleantech ventures, as measured by an increase in income, jobs, technology readiness levels (TRLs), and environmental benefits.
“I’d say Earth Tech’s original value proposition rings true,” Shea said. “Cleantech ventures needed and wanted a longer program, offered online across Canada, that meaningfully supports their business and technology growth and their environmental impact in a supportive, community-centred way.”
Earth Tech also aimed to differentiate itself from other accelerators by being more inclusive – by prioritizing diversity in cohorts, welcoming nonprofits, offering the program for free, and fostering connections and community. And this focus on diversity was reflected in their support for underrepresented entrepreneurs, with 69% of ventures in the program led by women or BIPOC-identifying founders.
When asked if the program was a success, Shea noted that the numbers speak for themselves. Participants reported a 31% increase in income and jobs compared to the same period before the six-month cohorts: during the total 18 months of Earth Tech programming alone, ventures raised nearly $17M and supported 253 FTE jobs. The ventures have now gone on to earn and raise over $59M! The program also earned a positive reputation among ventures – its Net Promoter Score is an exceptional 73 – and the cleantech community at large.
“Earth Tech was very supportive and brought in a wide array of experts to help with different aspects of building a successful startup. We found the program very helpful as we took our first steps, and we were very happy to meet lots of other entrepreneurs working towards a brighter, sustainable future.” – CERT, Earth Tech 2020 Alumni
Supporting startups in a changing landscape
The first Earth Tech cohort started in January 2020, and so by the time pandemic-related closures hit in March, the Earth Tech team had built a solid foundation on which to continue the program. In response to COVID-19, the accelerator moved online and extended its length to nine months instead of six.
“It was a really difficult time, and I’m glad we extended the program so that our entrepreneurs had us and their advisors to lean on,” Shea said. “Investors weren’t even taking meetings, supply chains were compromised, and there was a sense of having to wait it out for several months. That can be disastrous for an early-stage startup.”
The program had to sacrifice some early in-person community building they’d been planning, including coworking at the Centre for Social Innovation in Toronto. But there were benefits as well: as a fully online accelerator, Earth Tech is now accessible to more ventures across Canada and in rural and remote areas.
In a broad view, things are looking up for climate action and for impact-focused entrepreneurs. When the pandemic began, the Earth Tech team worried that Canadian cleantech would suffer as health and economic crises drew more attention. But in the past two years, they’ve seen a world that’s increasingly worried about the climate crisis and is doing more about it.
Cleantech entrepreneurs enjoyed a record-breaking US$60bn of funding in the first half of 2021, according to PwC’s State of Climate Tech 2021 report, and the UN reports that corporate net-zero pledges tripled between 2019 and 2020.
“We’re still woefully behind where we need to be,” Shea said, “but experiencing the shift in the last couple of years has been surprising and incredible, and I think and hope it will only pick up from here.”
What sets Earth Tech apart
As the team behind Earth Tech has adapted to the pandemic and learned from the first three cohorts, they continue to focus on what separates them from other accelerators: impact and community.
On the impact side, Earth Tech pushes ventures to incorporate their goals for environmental impact into their business models and strategic planning. This starts during the screening for the program, when the team asks difficult, yet important, questions of founders. The focus on impact continues through the program’s coaching and training. Sean Hazaray, CEO of Haze Automotive Corporation, recalls how Earth Tech pushed him to truly understand his product’s sustainability impact and gave him the tools to do so.
“Before Earth Tech, the impact of procurement was our biggest weakness in our our business plan. With their help through a series of workshops, we were able to better measure impact, and identify actionable goals. It felt like overnight, we turned that weakness into one of our team’s strengths.” – Haze Automotive, Earth Tech 2022 Alumni
To foster community in an online program, Shea and fellow Climate Ventures staff put extra effort into building relationships with founders, facilitating welcoming online environments, hosting virtual socials and events, and connecting ventures that are near one another. She also credits Earth Tech’s fantastic Entrepreneurs-in-Residence (EIRs) – industry leaders who regularly coach the ventures one on one – and advisory network with helping program participants face every challenge that’s thrown their way.
“The Earth Tech program helped us bring our solutions to the next level, and gave us access to top support and guidance to walk us through our challenges. The Earth Tech team was exceptional, they went above and beyond to help us with our different milestones.” – Permalution, Earth Tech 2022 Alumni
What’s next for Earth Tech?
After three successful years of Earth Tech, Shea says they’re just getting started. “We have another three years of programming planned at least, thanks to our partners at RBC Foundation, the Peter Gilgan Foundation, and Bullfrog Power,” she shared.
Looking ahead, the Earth Tech team will be working closer with their partners at Foresight Canada to further grow the program, leveraging Foresight’s cleantech expertise while bringing their social innovation values and methodologies from their home base at Social Innovation Canada. Together, they’ll continue their Accelerate from Anywhere initiative: a range of programs to support early-stage cleantech entrepreneurs from ideation to commercialization, anywhere in Canada. Earth Tech is one of the programs in this “ramp” of support.
“We have this cultural notion that entrepreneurs are lone wolves going at it alone,” Shea said. “But in reality, many founders really crave community and benefit from support, especially when they’re trying to make the world a better place. I’m so happy that we can provide that through Earth Tech and Accelerate from Anywhere.”
Earth Tech is led by Climate Ventures, an initiative of SI Canada and Foresight Canada. It’s made possible through the generous support of the RBC Foundation, the Peter Gilgan Foundation, and Bullfrog Power. Contact us if you’re interested in learning more or partnering with us: firstname.lastname@example.org