COVID-19, meet your match: the Accelerator Centre’s newest startups battling coronavirusJackie Gill - June 17, 2020
Mike Feldstein thrives in chaos.
In the wake of the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire, which forced 88,000 people from their homes and left an almost 6,000 sq. km trail of destruction costing an estimated $9.9 billion, he jumped in to clean things up.
“We’d go to a home, we’d clean that home and about a week later, I’d get a call: ‘Baby’s in the hospital,’” he says. “And we’d go back to the home, we’d test the air quality and the home was, in fact, heavily polluted again.” The problem wasn’t that the houses weren’t thoroughly scrubbed, but rather that the air in the city itself was contaminated from everything that had burned. “No matter what, the ambient air in the city was polluted for many months after a wildfire.”
It took two commercial air scrubbing units in a home to keep the air quality at habitable levels, he remembers. “We obviously couldn’t leave loud industrial machines there forever. People needed a solution that’s more integrated in their home, that can help them when they need it and be quiet and pretty when they don’t.”
Today, Feldstein is still cleaning up, but amid a different kind of chaos: COVID-19. In the aftermath of the Fort McMurray fires, he was inspired to build JASPR, an air purification system that traps dust, mold, airborne pathogens and bioaerosols – basically, harmful chemicals and particles floating around you – while measuring air health, which includes temperature, humidity, contaminants and carbon dioxide levels.
That’s an important mission today, especially when businesses like dental offices are starting to reopen in the pandemic, adds Ryan Collins, JASPR’s director of scientific research and development. “If there’s a lot of dust and mold and pollen, and you have someone with irritated lungs in the first place, and then you remove all the irritation, there’s a good chance you can get a better outcome from that.”
And they’re getting help on that mission from the Accelerator Centre, as one of eight companies selected to receive $30,000 in funding, $10,000 in in-kind business supports and 60 hours of one-to-one mentorship in the new 10-month COVID-19 Support and Recovery Cohort of its AC JumpStart program – an effort the accelerator pulled together while dealing with the chaos of COVID-19 themselves.
More than a new normal
Travel back a few months – to March 14, 2020, to be exact. The spread of COVID-19 would soon prompt non-essential Ontario businesses to close their doors and essential services to practice new restrictions, leaving owners and employees worried about what their future would look like… or if there was a future for their company at all.
Waterloo’s Accelerator Centre was not immune. On that day, they announced what their future – at least, for the short term – would look like. A mandatory work-from-home policy for all staff and mentors. Cancellations for all in-person events. A shift to virtual programming via phone or video conferencing. Limited building access for clients and tenants only (and even they were strongly encouraged to stay home). A mandatory 14-day quarantine period for anyone returning from international travel.
The AC needed to figure out its own response to keep clients, staff and the community as safe as possible. At the same time, those clients needed support in solving the same kinds of problems, too.
“Every organization is facing some sort of uncertainty. When are we going to open up? Are we still going to be able to offer all of our programs the same as usual? How is our funding impacted with everything?” says programs and client experience coordinator Chris Leclerc.
The accelerator wanted to step up. They started with a series of free webinars, open to entrepreneurs across Canada, on topics ranging from the foundations of remote work to continuing product development during a crisis.
“When you are in a position to help, you should. That’s our philosophy, and that’s what we do.”
– Paul Salvini, CEO of the Accelerator Centre
But they had another opportunity to help: an upcoming cohort for AC JumpStart, a seed funding and mentorship program that gives selected startups $30,000 in funding from FedDev Ontario, along with access to an in-house team of mentors, market research and investor connections.
Why not specialize that cohort for businesses working on problems relating to COVID-19, they thought. “When you are in a position to help, you should. That’s our philosophy, and that’s what we do,” says Accelerator Centre CEO Paul Salvini. “The COVID-19 cohort of our AC JumpStart program was really a no-brainer for us. Beyond being the right thing to do, it’s also enabling economic prosperity for the betterment of our community, which has been a priority of the AC since it opened in 2006.”
Fortunately, the pivot worked in the Accelerator Centres’ favour. FedDev was on board, and the AC team had, by then, adjusted to a new way of working together. “It didn’t take us long to figure out things virtually. Once we got in the remote groove, we found it to be incredibly efficient,” says Leclerc.
Seeking: Companies fighting COVID-19
Typically, the Accelerator Centre keeps JumpStart applications open for a couple months. Then, they take another month to review applicants before announcing and onboarding their new clients. The COVID-19 cohort was different. In a new normal where things were changing by the day, “We wanted to make sure we could support COVID-19 inspired innovators as quickly as possible,” says Leclerc.
On April 21, they put out the call to innovators in southern Ontario: if you have a pandemic-inspired product or service, apply. It doesn’t matter if you’re in automation, education, food, health, medicine or any other industry. It doesn’t matter if it’s a new business built for COVID-19 or an existing one that can pivot to help with the crisis. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Windsor or Ottawa. Apply.
A week later, applications closed – and the number of applications they received rivalled their typical numbers, despite the shortened timeline.
Selection took another week. Picking just a handful of recipients from an overwhelmingly positive response was hard work, says Leclerc, but it helped to have a goal. “We had an incredible amount of amazing applications, so we were just hoping to pick the cream of the crop and try and have it as diverse as possible,” he says. “We tried to choose companies that it wouldn’t just be a little blip on the radar. We don’t want to make a difference in this very short time period that won’t have some effect later on.”
“We wanted to make sure we could support COVID-19 inspired innovators as quickly as possible.”
– Chris Leclerc, Accelerator Centre programs and client experience coordinator
On May 12, the AC revealed the eight newest JumpStart companies, including JASPR.
“We have a company that’s developing a phone sanitization system because [the founder] was noticing that his wife would use the Lysol wipes on his phone and it was disintegrating all the protective film on the screen and the back of the phone,” says Leclerc.
“Solutions aren’t all targeted to the virus itself. When social isolation was introduced, rates of domestic abuse rose significantly towards women at home, because everybody was always at home together, including abusers. We have a company that we brought on board that is working with women to find affordable and safe residential homes.”
There’s a company working on a courier system for retail, which recently pivoted to helping pharmacies. A fashion designer working on medical gowns and masks. Companies building tools for secure communication and easier collaboration. A social enterprise that’s all about identifying and eliminating discriminatory practices in schools, workplaces and communities.
“There tends to be a lot of innovation in times when things are difficult. A lot of people have stepped up and either pivoted their opportunities that they were working on, or are working towards new opportunities,” adds Leclerc. “Everybody’s struggling with something, so we’re just trying to make it a little bit easier for Canadians.”
Stronger together into the future
For JASPR, the Accelerator Centre’s hitting that goal of making their life easier – working remotely and all. Feldstein and Collins joined the accelerator’s TD Sustainable Future Program, geared for incubating cleantech startups, last November. Being a part of the COVID-19 Support and Recovery Cohort brought them more of a good thing.
“My previous venture was able to make several million dollars in 2016, and I was already in the environmental space,” says Feldstein. “What I hadn’t ever done, though, was actually have a structured company at scale.”
The extra program gives them extra mentor hours and funding, which Feldstein and Collins say helped them invest in research and development, hire two interns and build a back-end for business-to-business sales.
They’re solving problems much faster, too. “I needed to find a [third-party logistics] shipping facility. I Googled around, reached out to my network. [AC mentor] Don Thompson was able to hook me up with someone in 24 hours who was able to hook me up with two facilities in another day,” says Feldstein, adding, “The mentor team has really tangibly saved us in at least one case where they recommended we had a third-party inspector go into our manufacturer in China and look at things before they ship, and he actually did find defects.”
This is exactly the kind of support the AC is proud to provide, says Salvini, especially in a time of crisis. “Canadian innovators are playing an integral role in the fight against COVID-19. From preventing, detecting and treating the virus to rethinking how various sectors operate, there’s no shortage of innovation coming from Canada.”
“Everybody’s struggling with something, so we’re just trying to make it a little bit easier for Canadians.”
– Chris Leclerc
And it’s helping the AC innovate as well. Since mid-March, they’ve provided more than 1,500 hours of mentorship to companies as far away as New Brunswick, something that’s possible only through their new remote approach.
“Pre-COVID, they would have had to move to or close to Waterloo Region to receive our programming,” Salvini adds. “It’s a really interesting time for us as we see what is possible remotely and we’re considering many options moving forward.”
Ready to accelerate your big idea? The AC is here to help. Apply today.