Cooling down is warming us up – and Evercloak wants to break the air conditioning cycleJackie Gill - July 16, 2020
Verkhoyansk is a land of extremes.
The arctic town in Russia’s northeastern Sakha Republic is one of two Poles of Cold in the northern hemisphere, so named for recording some of the coldest air temperatures on the planet. Though its 1,311 residents won’t remember its coldest day – back in February of 1892, the mercury plummeted to a biting -67.8 C – they do know their daily life has challenges many of us will never know. Batteries last only a few minutes. Pen ink freezes before it can flow onto paper. Cars run all day to prevent engines from seizing.
Only Antarctica is colder. But it’s not the cold that landed Verkhoyansk a Guinness World Record. It’s the contrasting summer temperatures, which rest at an average 20 C but often reach over 30 C, making it the largest temperature differential on the planet.
This June, the region made headlines once more as it posted the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic Circle, at 38 C, as part of a warming trend in Siberia that was expected to spill over into Canada, Scandinavia and the United States.
Temperature spikes like this – and warming trends in general – don’t just spark discussion over climate change. They also cause many of us to flip on the air conditioner, says Evelyn Allen, co-founder and CEO of Evercloak. And that’s a problem.
“Building cooling is this vicious cycle where it only makes the world hotter, and the hotter the world gets, the more air conditioning we use,” she says. “As more and more people are entering the middle class and the populations are growing, more and more people are buying air conditioners.”
Allen believes she has the answer, or at least part of the answer, with a nanomaterial membrane that efficiently removes moisture from air – and curbs the air conditioning feedback loop.
“We’re reducing greenhouse gas while at the same time, making it more affordable for people to live in comfortable environments,” she says.
Putting a Nobel Prize-winning material to work
The key ingredient of Evercloak’s membrane is a material called graphene oxide. A derivative of graphene, a one-atom-thick layer of carbon known for its strength, conductivity and flexibility, graphene oxide has a unique property: “It’s been shown to be one of the most efficient membranes in the world at allowing water vapor to pass through it really quickly,” says Allen.
And its uses are many, she adds. “Essentially, we can remove water moisture from any gas. Removing moisture from hydrogen for fuel cells. The natural gas sector uses these big energy- and maintenance-intensive systems to dehydrate their methane gas, so we can use this in that place as well. And then there are other ways we could use it in terms of high-strength wastewater or other water applications.”
But for now, Evercloak’s taking it one problem at a time, by tackling cooling in our buildings.
“Building cooling is this vicious cycle where it only makes the world hotter, and the hotter the world gets, the more air conditioning we use.”
– Evelyn Allen, co-founder and CEO of Evercloak
Air conditioners really do two jobs, says Allen: dehumidifying air and cooling it down. “They remove that humidity by condensing it out of the air,” Allen says. “It makes that humidity change state, and when you change a state of something, it uses a lot of energy.”
Add a membrane to remove air moisture before it enters the cooling cycle, without changing state, and you make the unit more energy-efficient, she says. “The humid air passes across our membrane, and we’re able to pull through the water vapor only and keep it in vapor form, so we don’t have to condense it. That’s where the biggest energy saving is.”
While Allen didn’t discover graphene oxide, it did stand out to her as an engineer and entrepreneur looking for an opportunity to pursue. “I’ve always wanted to have a company. I’ve always been waiting to find that industry pain and that technology solution,” she says. “I’ve worked with most universities and hundreds of researchers in Ontario, learning about their research and some of the technologies they’re developing. Similarly, with big industry partners, I learned about their pain points and what types of innovations they are looking for. And it just never was the right time or the right technologies.”
She tracked different ideas through various stages of planning in her Google Docs, but nothing clicked… that is, until she learned about the MaRS-led Women in Cleantech Challenge, where she’s now a finalist competing for $1 million. Suddenly, the time was right – with her kids growing up, she had more capacity to take on new challenges that would create more impact in the world. She just needed that pain-solution pair.
“I’ve always wanted to have a company. I’ve always been waiting to find that industry pain and that technology solution.”
– Evelyn Allen
She approached the University of Waterloo, where she worked in corporate research partnerships, to see if they had any leads. They pointed her towards the work Evercloak co-founder Dr. Michael Pope was doing with graphene. She was interested right away.
“At the time, there had been no work on a commercialization strategy and around product-market fit,” she remembers. “Now, we’re in the process of demonstrating our membranes and building out a prototype of our system, as well as scaling our coating printing system to make that membrane.”
Building momentum by building a team
Since starting in 2018, Evercloak and its team have grown substantially, including full- and part-time employees, masters and graduate students who lend a hand, partners at the University of Waterloo and Hamilton-based CanmetMATERIALS, and the advisors and mentors she accesses through organizations like the Accelerator Centre.
“What I’m most excited about is now having this great team supporting Evercloak and the amount of momentum we’re getting with so many more people helping and moving us in one direction,” Allen says.
Most recently, that includes their new CTO, Dr. Ted Mao. Formerly CTO and vice president, research at Trojan Technologies, one of the largest cleantech companies in Canada based in London, Ontario, Mao was already familiar with Evercloak’s mission, having been an industry advisor on their team for over a year.
“I had a few other CEO colleagues who had brought on industry advisors, and I thought that was a really smart move to have somebody truly third-party and embedded within an industry,” says Allen. “Somebody suggested to me that I should just ask.”
So she did. “Evelyn and I knew each other for many years … She was with the Southern Ontario Water Consortium and I got to know her,” remembers Mao. “Then, just over a year ago we met at a conference. Actually, she reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in being an advisor.”
Mao lives and breathes cleantech, from the early 90s when he researched the processing and recovery of black liquor (a toxic waste product from the pulp and paper industry) to the last 14 years when he led research and technology for Trojan Technologies.
“If you think about the global drivers – climate change, population growth, now with COVID, pandemics, and sustainability – a lot are all pointing towards the need for innovative technologies in the cleantech area.”
– Dr. Ted Mao, CTO of Evercloak
But after a professional life in corporate intrapreneurship, he wanted to try something different. “I just thought, that’s life: to experience the startup environment. That would really enrich my experience,” he says, “and the broader impact that I can make working with startups and looking at the opportunities in the cleantech space.”
He’s also keenly interested in tackling cleantech’s biggest challenge: balancing the difficulty of bringing clean technologies to market with growing demand. “If you think about the global drivers – climate change, population growth, now with COVID, pandemics, and sustainability – a lot are all pointing towards the need for innovative technologies in the cleantech area,” he says. And core technologies like advanced materials are part of the solution, he adds.
Since joining the team five weeks ago, Mao’s already helped Evercloak make big leaps forward, Allen says. Not only is he there to support new R&D staff in their lab work, but he’s also provided much-needed direction to the team. “He’s been able to come on, look at all the projects that we have on the go and help us prioritize which ones are going to move the dial for our company, and how to allocate our resources better,” she says. “It’s a huge win to have him join our team.”
The right boost at the right time
Evercloak’s also found incredible support through their relationship with the Accelerator Centre, first as an AC JumpStart recipient and now as a member of the accelerator’s TD Sustainable Future Program, a cleantech startup program.
To Allen, the mentorship she’s received has been invaluable, especially in the early days of her company. Back then, despite having a small team, “as the only full-time founder, every event I went to, all the behind-the-scenes work, it was me. It was a big change from previously being part of a larger team,” she says. “It was really helpful to have a mentor’s thoughts and input.”
Today, those mentors are what Allen calls her safe space. “It’s the first place I go when I need help with something that’s early-draft or really rough,” she says.
Plus, they’ve received referrals that have made a big difference in their business. “We just recently secured $60,000 to support IP costs,” Allen adds.
Outside of the AC, Evercloak also announced their participation in an additional $1 million of projects, supported in part through NGen, an industry-led organization leading Canada’s advanced manufacturing supercluster, split between two projects they’re working on: one with NanoCnet to scale up nanosilver production, and a second with ZEN Graphene Solutions to help produce a thin-film graphene membrane for other cleantech applications. “Essentially we’re working with two different supply chain manufacturers,” says Allen, “and this funding will provide critical support for how quickly we scale our process, bringing in key personnel and IP development.”
“[The AC is] the first place I go when I need help with something that’s early-draft or really rough.”
– Evelyn Allen
All of that helps Allen, Mao and their team move forward toward their goal of making the world more livable, inside and out – whether you live in Vancouver, New York, São Paulo, Berlin, Johannesburg or even Verkhoyansk. And while she can’t single-handedly bring climate change – and all the weather swings it brings – to its knees, she and her team know they can make a difference.
“We’re using our technology to help improve the world, improve people’s health and give people a better quality of life.”
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