2020 Women of the Year Awards: Innovator

Our first annual Women of the Year Awards.

Winner: Julie Angus

Co-founder and CEO, Open Ocean Robotics

Julie Angus has long been interested in the ocean and how small boats perform in it. That makes sense, given that the Victoria resident says she has spent more than 10,000 hours in such vessels, becoming the first woman to row across the Atlantic Ocean from mainland to mainland, when she and her husband, Colin Angus, made the trek in the mid-’00s.

All that experience has come in handy with her latest venture, Open Ocean Robotics. Founded with Colin in 2018, the company develops autonomous un-crewed boats equipped with sensors, cameras and communication devices to collect data and instantly relay it. 

“Over 80 percent of our oceans are unmapped and unexplored,” says Angus, who holds an MSc in molecular biology from UVic. “That poses a lot of challenges, but with autonomous, renewable technology like ours, our boat can go offshore at all times, in all conditions, and collect that data,” adds the CEO, whose nine staff work out of the Vancouver Island Technology Park, a UVic-sponsored venture that houses some 50 companies. “It’s greatly increasing our ability to understand the environment and help industries operate more sustainably, and also offers an alternative to be able to collect this information without greenhouse gas emissions and risk of oil spills.”

Currently, Open Ocean is moving into the pilot stage and toward prototyping some vessels. This spring, it will also do mapping with the coast guard, using acoustics and multi-beam sonar to capture the sea floor so ships can avoid running aground. 

“Canada has the longest coastline in the world, and to be an innovator in this space is really important for the country,” Angus says. “Autonomous technology can overcome a lot of the challenges that we currently have protecting and monitoring our coastline.”

Finalist: Carlyn Loncaric

Founder and CEO, VodaSafe

The idea first popped into Carlyn Loncaric’s head when she was lifeguarding to support herself through an engineering degree at SFU. The biggest fear for her and colleagues: “If you were guarding a camp and you see a child go under, the chance of finding them felt hopeless. I thought we could do better.”

So in 2014, after earning a master’s in microelectromechanical systems, Loncaric founded Vancouver-based VodaSafe, whose handheld AquaEye lets rescuers assess a scene and identify potential victims within seconds of entering the water. Since the full product launched last year, Coquitlam-raised Loncaric has been working with the Vancouver Police Department and Central Fraser Valley Search and Rescue, among others, to perfect it. She also hopes to bring the AquaEye to the consumer market.

“I feared business because I thought it was ruthless and everybody was out to get you,” Loncaric admits. “But it’s so supportive. You make a phone call and ask for help, and people are offering their time just to give you a hand.”

Finalist: Toni Desrosiers

Founder and CEO, Abeego

In 2015, seven years after founding Abeego, which doubles as the name of the company and its product–reusable beeswax food wrap–Toni Desrosiers thought her fate as a business owner might be sealed.

“People were coming around to the idea,” recalls Desrosiers, an Alberta native whose only formal education is in holistic nutrition. “I got a loan, hired people, really thought it was going to take off, and it didn’t. Ended up having to lay off my entire team, six or seven people; probably the most difficult thing I’ve had to do.”

But it wasn’t the end. Desrosiers raised some money and rebranded her product by using a different manufacturing technique. Then, most important, the market started shifting for real. Abeego now sells at B.C. retailers from health food shops to lumber stores, and Desrosiers, who oversees 16 employees at the Victoria outfit, feels like she’s ready for a bigger step.

“I think we’ve nailed it on the product side, but our larger mission is to keep food alive and help people understand what that actually means–what fresh food is, what alive food is.”

Finalist: Shevy Levy

Co-founder and CEO, Lambda Solutions

Born and raised in what she calls “the country of innovation,” Israel native Shevy Levy came to Canada in 1993 to do a master’s and a PhD in science at SFU but never banked on becoming an entrepreneur. She ended up merging the enterprising spirit of her homeland with academia by launching Vancouver-based Lambda Solutions, which helps businesses develop e-learning platforms.

Levy was part of a research group at SFU looking to improve distance education. In 2002, it brought its findings to businesses around the province, including ICBC, one of Lambda’s first clients. The company has since grown to about 50 people, split between Vancouver and Serbia.

LMS [learning management system] has been around for about 20 years,” explains Levy, who likens it to a car engine. “Now the question is, which car is better, and how do we make sure you get the best performance? This is where Lambda comes in. What we’ve done in the last five to seven years is looking for better ways to understand what’s under the hood in e-learning.”

Finalist: Brianne Miller

Co-founder and CEO, Nada Grocery

A marine biologist by trade, McGill University grad Brianne Miller moved to the West Coast in 2013 to study the effects of shipping noise on the local killer whale population. She soon became obsessed with some of the problems facing the ocean—overfishing, agricultural runoff and so on—and saw that they had a common denominator.

“Over time, I learned just how intricately linked the health of our oceans are to our food system,” Miller says. “And the interplay between our food system and climate.” After years of planning, Miller co-founded Vancouver’s Nada, a package-free grocery store that opened in 2018 to much fanfare and broke even after nine months. When it comes to making an impact, she sees Nada as more than just a retailer: “We also do a lot of workshops and community education events.”

Miller isn’t sure what the next step is, but she knows she has options. “The plan is definitely to fine-tune what we have for the next year and figure out where we’re having the biggest impact and scale through that.”