By launching its Impact Investor Challenge (IIC) series in 2019, Spring Activator set out to create new opportunities. “We realized that access to early-stage impact investing was hard,” recalls Keith Ippel, CEO of the Vancouver-based business incubator, accelerator and advisory firm.
Impact investing, which aims to deliver a social or environmental benefit as well as a financial return, is very different from its technology counterpart, Ippel explains. “With tech, there’s a lot of money pre-seed and seed, and then it starts to dry up,” says the startup and angel investing veteran, who was a three-time tech entrepreneur before co-founding Spring Activator in 2014. “Impact investing has been kind of the opposite.”
Spring saw an opportunity to address that lack of early-stage capital—and to open the door for would-be impact investors in Canada and elsewhere. “The Impact Investor Challenge is a great way to bring both of those two worlds together: people who are hungry to invest for impact and financial returns, and those companies that are seeking investment,” Ippel says.
The company, which has 20 full-time staff, also wanted to set an example. “For us, the program is designed to act as one part role model, one part community-building, one part education—and, of course, the last piece is activating deal flow and making investments happen.”
To that end, the Impact Investor Challenge is an 11-week program with an investor and an entrepreneur track. The first group awards $100,000 in investments to the top company from the second. So far, Spring Activator has completed five IICs, with the winners hailing from industries such as healthtech, cleantech and independent media. Besides training investors across Canada in 2020-21, the program catalyzed some $10 million in investments.
The winners of all five are led or co-led by women, Ippel says, noting that the traditional startup pitch works against female and gender-diverse founders. But because IIC investors spend quality time with the five finalists, companies don’t get just one chance to pitch. “That has made a massive difference for women-led ventures.”
At last count, Spring had six IICs slated for 2022. The Climate Solutions Challenge launched in January, followed by the Health Innovation Challenge, a partnership with the Telus Pollinator Fund for Good. This year, Spring expects to train 100 more investors and hit another $10 million in investments catalyzed, Ippel says.
COVID has generated much more interest in the IIC by highlighting the need for sustainable food, better health care and climate solutions, he adds. Spring has also seen people dig into impact investing online. “The unintended benefit of this process is that we’ve been able to attract investors across boundaries, whether it’s city, province or country,” Ippel says. “So that’s been a huge positive outcome."
The Dhillon Centre, a contender in our awards for three straight years, has championed responsible business practices since it launched in 2015. COVID created more interest than ever in such topics, says executive director Christie Stephenson. “The pandemic has been a profound wake-up call around injustice and inequity.”
The Dhillon Centre operates through three pillars: excellence in values-based research; increasing student connection to ethics and responsible business; and engaging and collaborating with the community, policy makers and business partners.
Besides doing more work around equity, diversity and inclusion in 2021, Stephenson and her colleagues pushed to bring environmental and social issues into the boardroom. Their goal: “In a time of multiple crises, whether it’s the climate crisis or the pandemic, ensuring that directors are front-and-centre equipped to oversee institutions they govern through this lens.”
On the ESG oversight theme, last year the Dhillon Centre developed and facilitated a two-day UBC Sauder Executive Education program for corporate board directors. Its research events included co-hosting From Ideas to Action: Governance Paths to Net Zero with the Peter A. Allard School of Law. And on the student engagement side, it hosted several events related to responsible investing. June will see the Behavioural Insights Into Business for Social Good conference, which “covers a wide range of topics connected to business and social issues,” Stephenson says.