Economic Development

Innovation will drive the green economic revolution

Startups that are starting to make a difference

Economic Development

Innovation will drive the green economic revolution

Canada’s entrepreneurs are increasingly diverse and opening more businesses today than in the past decade. That’s according to a study by the Business Development Bank of Canada in 2019. Among its key findings: more women, newcomers and younger Canadians are creating new companies, and this burst of entrepreneurial activity is “changing the face of entrepreneurship” in Canada.

That’s certainly good news for the country’s economy. Even more promising perhaps was a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey last year that ranked Canada as the best country for entrepreneurs seeking to tackle social and environmental problems, such as climate change.

Supporting innovation and entrepreneurship is therefore essential, which underscores the importance of Zone Learning at Ryerson. It’s a model of experiential learning that enables participants to develop new products, explore innovative solutions or embark on ventures to change the world.

Two of Ryerson’s zones have been particularly critical to the success of companies that are poised to help individuals find greater agency in their green decision-making and accelerate the adoption of sustainable alternatives — factors that are fundamental to developing Canada’s green economy.

Turning green choices into informed decisions

What makes a product green? If it is labelled “all-natural,” “organic” or “eco-friendly,” do we know what that means? We might assume the product is helpful — or at least not harmful — to the planet in some way, but is it really?

And what about the company that makes the product? Is it trustworthy? If a product we’re considering comes at a premium, or a portion of its sale will somehow support a green initiative or social cause, how confident can we be that it’s not all just “greenwashing” to mislead consumers about a company’s environmental practices generally?

These are all legitimate concerns, and, in fact, they often prompt consumers to mistrust green labels or lose faith in brands.

For Akhil Sivanandan and Navodit Babel, who met while pursuing MBAs at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in 2011, these were also the questions that informed their research to understand why more consumers aren’t making greener choices.

They concluded that three key issues prevent greater green adoption: price, understanding of a product’s environmental impact and the lack of an emotional connection.

That, in turn, led to the creation of Green Story, a data-driven online platform that generates eye-catching, interactive visuals to help consumers make informed — and confident — green purchasing decisions.

a diverse team smiling around a table with laptops open
Green Story team in action: target 1 billion greener decisions

It is the only solution of its kind in the world, and it received early help from Ryerson’s Social Ventures Zone (SVZ) — an incubation space that caters to aspiring changemakers.

“From mentorship to training and research support, the SVZ did a lot to ensure we were in a position to succeed,” says Sivanadan. “The team there helped us win new clients, grow our network, win grants and really get ready to scale up.”

We believe there is as much potential for us in almost every green industry, from foods to travel — you name it.
Akhil Sivanandan, Co-founder of Green Story

Since starting out in 2017, with Sivanadan at the helm as marketing lead and co-founder Babel guiding development, Green Story has focused on the eco-fashion industry. Today, it works with 80 brands in 15 countries.

In January 2020, the company partnered with thredUP, the world’s largest online consignment and thrift store, to launch a Fashion Footprint Calculator. Green Story’s work in developing the online tool drew attention from CNN Business, Fast Company and other media outlets.

Now, the company is looking at expanding its reach.

“Our visualization system has been tested by over 10 million consumers globally, so we know how to reach a green demographic,” Sivanadan explains. “We believe there is as much potential for us in almost every green industry, from foods to travel — you name it.”

Number of brands that Green Story works with across 15 countries

Indeed, as demand for greener products and green transparency increases, the company is well-positioned to be at the forefront of enabling consumers to know the true environmental story behind products and services they are evaluating, so they can identify with the choices they ultimately make.

To mount a serious defence against climate change over the next decade and beyond, arming consumers with this knowledge is key to instilling a culture of sustainability and to fostering environmental responsibility on a global scale.

Making EV charging available to everyone

Electric vehicles (EVs) can help save the planet by reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. So, for all their green appeal, why aren’t more people buying or leasing them?

For both consumers and business customers, lack of exposure to the experience of driving an EV — let alone leasing or owning one — is a factor. So, too, is resistance to change.

When an EV is seriously considered as an option, concerns start to operate at a deeper level. They revolve around selection, price and range anxiety (the latter is a worry specific to EVs, but it can be regarded as an expression of durability or performance, which are measures for all products).

No less important for many potential EV owners is access to charging. That’s not an issue for those who live in single-family homes and can purchase a 40-amp charger for installation in their garage or driveway.

It’s a different story for those who live in urban multi-tenant settings, such as condos and apartment buildings, and operators of commercial office buildings, warehouses and depots, for example. There, electrical infrastructure upgrades can be prohibitively expensive and challenging to manage. The lack of suitable local charging options precludes investing in EVs.

underground parking lot with electric chargers
Six (6) SWTCH EV chargers in Ryerson’s new Daphne Cockwell Complex (DCC)

Enter SWTCH, a Toronto-based company that provides end-to-end electric vehicle charging and energy management solutions designed specifically for multi-unit residential and commercial buildings. Its smart EV charging platform “streamlines the charging experience for drivers while optimizing usage and revenue for building owners,” according to Thomas Martin, the company’s director of business development and a graduate of Ryerson’s Master of Engineering Innovation and Entrepreneurship program.

“Our technology is based on open communication standards to ensure scalable, future-proof solutions. Ultimately, our mission at SWTCH is to improve EV charging accessibility and ensure effective integration of EVs in our clean energy future,” he adds.

a closer up shot of electric chargers
Two (2) SWTCH EV chargers for shared use in uptown Toronto condo

Founded in 2016, SWTCH emerged from Ryerson’s Clean Energy Zone — an incubator focused on sustainable energy innovations, including electric vehicles, renewable energy, energy storage and distribution, microgrids and net-zero city building.

Number of homes SWTCH EV charging units are installed in multi-tenant residential, workplace and retail settings across North America

“The Clean Energy Zone gave SWTCH a home in its early development stage, along with all kinds of invaluable resources, including workshops, networking opportunities, industry partnerships and access to capital and talent,” Martin explains.

Now, according to Martin, SWTCH’s EV charging and energy management platform is fully commercialized, with 400-plus units deployed across more than 100 multi-tenant residential, workplace and retail settings in North America.

“By improving EV charging and energy management in urban multi-tenant settings, SWTCH is helping promote widespread EV adoption and ultimately contributing to the development of a cleaner transportation system.”

Given that transportation is a leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, the future impact of radically improved charging infrastructure is tantalizing. If enough people have access to such technology, EVs just might just help rescue our planet, after all.

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