Anchoring the New Bioeconomy
How the Verschuren Centre and partners are scaling cleantech in Nova Scotia
At the intersection of critically needing to reengineer a petroleum-free bioeconomy and sustainably feeding the world’s population, there is a huge pipeline of potential solutions. While there is no lack of ideas, there is a lack of resources to get those solutions — all of which require capital-intensive infrastructure and investment — into the marketplace.
Located in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, the Verschuren Centre is uniquely equipped to scale ideas and innovations, as well as address some of the most critical challenges facing the world today.
We spoke with four people who work closely with the Verschuren Centre to ask why the sector is exploding in popularity and how the Verschuren Centre and its partners help take cleantech companies from start to scale.
A beacon in a world demanding change
Paul Richards, Manager of Agtech & Industrial Biotech at Invest Nova Scotia, doesn’t mince words when describing the current climate.
“Cleantech, sustainability, and low carbon are the conversion points of rethinking how we structure a new bioeconomy and feed the nine billion people living in the world by 2050. Both of those challenges are converging and creating great opportunities for innovation.”
“This is a sector prime for disruption. The world and the markets are demanding change. That's where innovators and entrepreneurs live and want to focus, where solutions are global, and opportunities are great. These are transformative opportunities for innovators and ecosystems that embrace these changes and want to be part of the solution.”
“The organizations that take hold of these changes and recognize the transformation taking place will be the leaders going forward because it's not a want-to-have, it's a need-to-have. That's where the opportunities lie.”
Jennifer Fuccillo is an Investment Associate at Invest Nova Scotia. She explains from an investment lens that what used to be a vertical has become a horizontal, meaning cleantech plays across most, if not all, sectors.
“Sustainability continues to become more and more prominent across the investment landscape, and Nova Scotia is well-positioned to play a leading role in such investments. Supporting these investments is a win-win-win — we can grow our sustainable economy, support meaningful impact on society and the planet and make financial returns for the province all at once.”
Supporting these investments is a win-win-win — we grow our sustainable economy, support meaningful impact on society and make returns for the province
Jennifer Fuccillo, Investment Associate
Invest Nova Scotia
Perhaps no one is better suited to speak to the sheer volume of potential cleantech solutions and companies than Beth Mason, President and CEO of the Verschuren Centre.
“The focus on sustainability has been around for a long time and it’s ever-increasing. As a result, you've got all these cleantech companies developing solutions. So, there's a big pipeline of potential solutions. Now, we need to get those into the marketplace. We almost have a backlog of solutions, yet there's more every day, which is an amazing thing.”
“We’ve never advertised, yet we have companies from all over calling us, and that's just word of mouth. We’re looking for companies that have gone past TRL4, have been through an accelerator, and either have a potential for angel investment or already have investment.”
“We want to know, is the solution viable? Who’s buying? Have you already engaged with the end buyer? Does the solution fit one of our companies in Nova Scotia or companies in our ecosystem? We like them to be far enough down the de-risking pipeline that if we put all this investment and effort into them that it's likely to pay off.”
Commission a 10,000-litre reactor line for biomanufacturing
Unlike other industries, cleantech needs capital-intensive infrastructure to scale. The Verschuren Centre provides access to a shared infrastructure that is unique and novel within North America.
“If you're making a new green chemical or graphene, you need investment in big equipment. You can't just do that from your basement. And that’s the stage when the Verschuren Centre picks up companies. We try and build either collectively with the company a shared asset, or we build — in the case of biomanufacturing — the asset that can be used by multiple companies. That's the de-risking role of the Verschuren Centre,” explains Mason. “We’re a not-for-profit, so we're not rolling in money to do that. We’ll partner with those companies, and then stack funding around it, which helps to minimize their investment to get to the next stage of growth.”
“We’re hoping to commission our 10,000-litre reactor line for biomanufacturing this summer. That completes the journey to scale for a lot of our biomanufacturing companies. It’s a one of a kind in Canada and that attracts international clients and keeps our pipeline of clients moving to full scale while they build their plant, hopefully in Canada.”
“It’s a $10-million investment. This helps our clients move from the current pilot we've got, which is 1,000 litres, up to 10,000. In the next two years, our goal is to add decarbonizing technologies to our manufacturing, which would translate for other companies in other sectors. It's a marriage of our energy side with our biomanufacturing side.”
It’s a $10-million investment
Richards echoes the importance of access to not only infrastructure, but capital in general. “Deep technology requires a lot of capital investment. It’s a little bit of the chicken and the egg, where companies don’t have the equipment, capacity, or infrastructure to produce and scale at the level investors and corporate partners want. But they need that investment and market pull to get the investment.”
Dispersa is a client at the Verschuren Centre making biosurfactants from food waste to replace the $45-billion petroleum-derived market. They began scaling their automized process at the Verschuren Centre this past summer. They have exceeded expectations and already moved from a three-to-five litre reactor up to their first 100-litre reactor run, which was completed in January 2023. This provides Dispersa with enough sample product to secure additional large commercial partners and exemplifies the speed start-ups can achieve at the Verschuren Centre.
Nivatha Balendra is the CEO and founder of Dispersa. “We are involved with the Verschuren Centre through our production stream. Since we started Dispersa, we’ve been developing our process at the lab scale. When it came time for us to scale up our production, we struggled to find the right fit — finding partners who really understood our process who have scaled before, but who also understand the industry challenges — timelines, expectations of clients, and the market.”
“It was challenging to find people who really understood it from the business lens, as well as having all the equipment under one roof. As you can imagine, it is super-expensive to have all these reactors. Purchasing downstream equipment as an early stage start-up is just not feasible. Having the right partner with all these resources, coupled with experience, is what we were looking for.”
Read about Dispersa in Forbes: Dispersa Raises $3 Million & Seeks To Transform Clean Tech With Sustainable Biosurfactants
Create industry-specific programs
AscendBio is an ag and industrial biotech scale-up program that enables companies in the industrial biotech and agritech sectors to scale up their technologies and business operations. It brings together the Verschuren Centre’s scientific and technical expertise and infrastructure, along with Invest Nova Scotia’s sector expertise, business support and international networks.
Companies that join receive support to achieve technical milestones, raise the capital required, garner market insight, connect with potential customers and partners and join a community of like-minded companies. They can grow faster with less capital.
“AscendBio provides start-ups with investment readiness support when needed. This support might include fine-tuning their pitch deck, helping them define milestones or determining how much they should raise. When a company is ready to raise a round of financing, we work with them to secure this investment, whether it’s an investment from Invest Nova Scotia or connecting them with other investors — or both,” says Fuccillo.
The objective of AscendBio is to examine the challenges facing these disruptive technologies to help companies progress through the technical stages towards commercialization.
“I always say we want to create bridges, not wharfs. If we only take companies half the way, then we haven’t fulfilled their mission, and we haven't fully captured the value proposition they have as economic development opportunities. We want to have those companies scale up and achieve their investment potential,” says Richards.
I always say we want to create bridges, not wharfs. If we only take companies half the way, then we haven’t fulfilled their mission
Paul Richards, Manager of Agtech & Industrial Biotech
Invest Nova Scotia
“AscendBio support services involve a tremendous amount of commercial grade infrastructure, and that is what leap frogs start-ups through that valley of technical difficulty. All along, we’re able to support the stages of growth by connecting them to investment, and connecting investment technical milestones to financial milestones, so the companies are raising money at the appropriate stages.”
Balendra echoes the effectiveness of this unique approach. “Paul Richards was our champion in helping us get into the Nova Scotian landscape and getting connected with the right people. We were a part of AscendBio at the same time as being introduced to the Verschuren Centre. They really complemented each other because after that, we also applied for Invest Nova Scotia’s GreenShoots program. That was kind of our first entry point into understanding the different stakeholders in the province.”
“What we try to do is create the winning conditions and the value prop that we brought to companies to want to jump into this ecosystem. Every development, every service delivery, every company needs a value prop. We can help companies go from angel [funding] rounds to Series A with less money required. We do that because of that shared infrastructure and that team-oriented approach,” says Richards.
Build a province-wide supportive and flexible ecosystem
Not only does the Verschuren Centre bolster economic development in rural Nova Scotia, but it also supports the growth of venture grade companies following the power law curve, which means everyone has the potential to create an outsized number of jobs and returns for investors. This is on top of the use of local feedstocks and other resources. The Verschuren Centre is a key player in attracting and building the pipeline of innovative and sustainable start-ups in Nova Scotia.
“We are an independent not-for-profit, but we operate as a service-based model. And because we’re a not-for-profit, we can offer a smorgasbord of opportunities for companies. We’re not an incubator, but we operate like an open-access facility. You can build your team here. You can access our labs. We pull a lot of resources from our partners for companies when they come in. It’s a unique business model that’s hard to find anywhere else. This is a big attraction for companies from across North America and it really builds on the strengths of Nova Scotia,” says Mason.
You can build your team here
“We must think of our region as an ecosystem, a destination, a beacon. Our core objective is to create the value proposition where companies say, ‘That is the place where you do that type of business,’ whatever it is. That’s what we want to replicate in Nova Scotia — where companies from outside are attracted because it has the winning conditions,” says Richards.
“Because we focus on venture grade opportunities, companies have the potential to see a billion-dollar opportunity. They have the potential to disrupt verticals and have a touchpoint of billions of people. Since our lens is on disruptive technologies and disruptive companies, it’s exciting to see the collection of companies that have that level of impact. These are not just innovative companies with innovative products. These are companies that have the potential to disrupt the vertical and play a significant role.”
“We’ve built an ecosystem responsive to industrial biotech companies, that understands their milestones. We’ve built a financial continuum that helps companies move through it and understand the stages of growth better and faster.”
Make it happen quickly
Speed matters — moving through the stages and delivering on a product impacts investment decisions.
“We want companies to demonstrate technical milestones, and they do that through iteration. They’re able to work on the equipment. They have more run times and have more access to testing and utilization of specialized equipment that a private sector company, or a company not connected to a Verschuren Centre or Verschuren Centre-like organization, wouldn’t have,” says Richards.
Fucillo expands: “The Verschuren Centre is unique in that they take no equity from the company, and they have teams and expertise to fill in gaps often present in very early stage technology start-ups. This helps to move companies forward faster and with less capital than they would otherwise require — good for companies and investors alike.”
Balendra has seen the impact of this focus on speed. “They just have an amazing team there. We work with the fermentation team — they're just pushing things along on time. It's incredible what they've built, and it deserves to be featured and shared more for people to recognize just how excellent the service and the value is.”
Looking ahead and keeping the ball rolling
The word is out and AscendBio is growing fast.
“Precision fermentation demand has exploded, and this is an area of our investment portfolio we plan to expand. At the same time, AscendBio and the Verschuren Centre are focusing on expanding other key strategic areas, such as carbon transformation — also areas of interest for Invest Nova Scotia. Like other sectors, the plan is to gradually build a diverse portfolio of agtech and industrial biotech companies across various stages of growth and sub-verticals,” says Fuccillo.
“You can’t find it anywhere else in Canada. That’s the novelty of it. You’ve got lots of universities that generate innovation, but never materialize it. That's the difference. They don’t have an interest, let alone the capacity, to scale up clean tech. Their interest is in research and that's great, but when they exit university, where do they take their technology?” says Mason.
You can’t find it anywhere else in Canada. That’s the difference
Beth Mason, President and CEO
“This last year, our first companies from Toronto reached Series A [funding] and are now deploying with partners in Nova Scotia. Kraken Sense, AlterBiota and Cotex are partnering with large manufacturers, which ultimately is where we want that technology to get to — uptake of their product and the ability to build their first plant.”
Richards summarizes the importance of building the ecosystem and the positive outcomes. “Our objective is to continue to enhance our relationships in the investment community. The pandemic in some ways was a great equalizer. Everyone was communicating on the phone or on Zoom. We had equal opportunity to tap into the financial ecosystems and financial markets. Companies were able to access, and we were able to facilitate relationships with San Francisco, Boston, India and Toronto that changed the way start-ups finance their growth.”
“Mobility of money has changed in the last three years. We need to further enhance those relationships so other investors see the value prop of capital efficiencies, velocity, and an overall supporting ecosystem. They start seeing their money being better utilized and better deployed by tapping into the AscendBio and the Verschuren Centre value proposition and services.
“Nova Scotia is never going to be big, so let’s get good at being small. We know the winning conditions a company needs to fall in love with Nova Scotia. They’re going to fall in love with the research collaboration, where they know this is how they’re going to build their technology platform. They’re going to fall in love with feedstock producers. They’re going to fall in love with a market opportunity or an offtake agreement with a large corporate partner. And they’re going to fall in love with the talent and teams they develop here. Our objective is to really anchor and weave those pillars into their corporate strategy. That’s how we build and maintain the winning conditions.”
Dispersa is just one success story out of AscendBio and the Verschuren Centre.
“The Verschuren Centre has been an excellent partner and nothing short of amazing for us. We’re so happy to be able to work with them. Countless people over our production capacity search recommended the Verschuren Centre to us. Naturally, we reached out to them, and it’s been amazing since. From the day we had our first contact, it’s been so efficient and incredible what they’ve been able to help us with as we scale. That really solidified for us that we found the right partner and allowed us to then think about our expansion in Nova Scotia.”
“We’re now partnered with the Verschuren Centre, and we want to grow this partnership in the long term for many years to come. We really feel like they are now a core part of Dispersa in many ways. We consider their team our team, and that’s really what it comes down to.”
“We can’t do any of this without having the support of the Verschuren Centre, AscendBio, and Invest Nova Scotia. They give us the resources to do what we do. Ultimately, we’re thrilled to be able to provide this ingredient and see it as a real product on the shelf. It’s a full-circle moment for us and at the end of the day, contributing to a sustainable future is why we do what we do.”
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