Natural Products Canada releases its latest report recognizing more than 100 trail-blazing companies owned and led by women
In 2017, Luna Yu was thinking about food waste.
She and her team were working in the labs at the University of Toronto, when they stumbled upon a new application of a class of biodegradable, biobased polymers called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs).
“We believed it was a very promising way [to reduce the billions of pounds of plastics polluting the Earth’s oceans],” Yu says. She would soon launch a biotechnology company called Genecis Bioindustries Inc., with a biological process that converts food waste destined for landfills into ecofriendly, biodegradable PHA plastics for packaging, food services, agriculture, textiles and many other sectors.
Genecis is just one of the many companies included in a new report launched today that recognizes women-owned and women-led companies like Yu’s that are leading the charge in this field of bio-based innovation. Game Changers: Leading Companies. Powered by Women is the brainchild of Natural Products Canada, a national not-for-profit whose focus is on biologically based technologies that are healthier and more sustainable for people and the planet.
“Luna’s company is using advanced bio-based technology to solve the critical global plastics issue and she is the driving force behind that company,” says Shelley King, chief executive officer of Natural Products Canada. “When we looked at our roster of over 1,300 companies, we saw many similar stories and decided to develop an open call to shine a spotlight on these female-led companies.”
The Game Changers report contains a diverse array of companies from early-stage startups still in the R&D phase to others that, although young, are creating a real presence in the market. Each entrepreneur was asked to provide information on three areas – innovation, sustainability and growth potential – and was evaluated on performance relative to their individual stage.
“You’ll see companies that are not yet in market or are under $500,000 in sales, and those that are further along, in the millions of dollars of revenue, with no signs of slowing down,” King says. “Some companies’ contributions to sustainability are as simple as sustainable packaging, while others have built their entire technology to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs). The point is, the report shows the incredible range of companies powered by innovative women committed to bio-based solutions in their sectors.”
King says that range is also reflected in the broad array of products the companies are creating. For instance, Synergia’s natural blue food colouring is derived from CO2, MycoFutures’ leather-like material for the fashion industry uses the root system of fungi, and Dispersa’s technology transforms food waste into natural soapy ingredients for cleaning and personal care products.
Another distinction around this group is the number of companies addressing the needs of female consumers, which make up more than 60 per cent of the buying population. In particular, several of the products are aimed at women’s health. Companies such as AIMA Inc., Ruth, SweetSpot Labs and Au Naturel Solutions Inc., are focused on meeting needs around topics such as menstruation, menopause, vaginal health and breast prostheses.
Bringing innovation to market
Krystal Van Westerop, national manager for Women in Enterprise at TD, the financial sponsor in the Game Changers project, says she rarely sees an initiative that generates the level of excitement among her staff the way NPC’s opportunity did.
“There was an instant, passionate response after the conversation [with NPC],” she says. “In this case, it’s about really empowering women, giving the stage to women, talking about what they’re doing and elevating their success, opening doors that might not necessarily have been opened in the past.”
“[Being named a Game Changer] definitely means a lot,” Yu says. “NPC has a great network of entrepreneurs in the biotech space, so we really feel proud to be part of that. It helps us get that recognition out there. … Especially in the biotech field you can’t just move alone, you have to be able to partner up with other companies and move forward well, since that can help your process.”
Investing in and helping to nurture natural, biology-based companies to help Canada seize the trillion-dollar industry is why NPC was created in 2016.
“We are the only Canadian organization exclusively focused on biologically based solutions,” King says.
“We are very specific in this field and what we do. Our focus is on early-stage Canadian companies that have innovations, products, technologies that are better for people, animals and the planet.”
And the interest in this type of bio-based innovation is only getting bigger. Back in 2017, Yu thought it would be 10 years before the impacts of PHAs really took off, but then an image in National Geographic of a seahorse lugging a Q-tip in the polluted waters near Sumbawa Island in Indonesia went viral that year, shining a spotlight on the dire state of the Earth’s oceans.
“Those seahorse images came online, and I think that’s when we started to see a shift in the market,” Yu says. “People started to wake up. I think it’s going to be a pretty good paradigm shift as we enter the next couple of years especially.”
King agrees, stating key issues such as the plastics crisis, soil degradation and climate change are creating demand from consumers, government and large corporations. “These corporations and governments have set high goals for addressing GHGs and other sustainability challenges. They’re coming to us and looking at things like our Game Changers reports to find the innovations.”
NPC’s previous Game Changers reports have been focused on Canada’s alternative protein industry, nutrition and supplements, and the burgeoning insect agriculture industry. They are developed as a resource for investors, funders, corporations and retailers looking for their next investment opportunities, suppliers and partners.
The reports are just one way that NPC helps advance Canadian early stage innovators in the natural product space. It also offers in-depth advice and a suite of commercialization programs to tackle such things as clinical trials and regulatory approvals, and has launched Natural Products Canada Ventures, a $50-million fund investing in early-stage companies developing naturally derived alternatives to synthetic products.
“The timeline from concept to market can be quite lengthy,” King says.
“These small companies need support along the way, like financial support, industry introductions, connections with the ecosystem, so that they can get through their commercialization journey in hopefully a more efficient and effective manner.”
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio and Natural Products Canada. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.