- Innovating new solutions to accommodate your product’s needs is key to being able to scale up an idea into a concrete product.
- Access to funding is essential for startups to be able to iterate an idea properly.
- Support programs can dramatically bolster an entrepreneur’s or a startup’s ability to scale up and gain the connections they need.
Startups working in the same sector can benefit from connecting to create collaborative facilities, projects, or efforts. This interconnectedness can help drive down costs and build a network that will significantly bolster a business’ ability to scale up.
What does Solistra do?
Solistra is a cleantech startup from Toronto that is trying to commercialize a solar-activated nanomaterial that can convert both carbon dioxide and methane gas into synthesis gas, which is an intermediate product in the petrochemical sector used for the production of over 30,000 different commodity chemicals. Solistra recycles greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that often occur as a result of industrial work or organic waste degradation and use that as a clean feedstock for petrochemical processes.
“Solistra recycles greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane that often occur as a result of industrial work or organic waste degradation and use that as a clean feedstock for petrochemical processes.”
The main use of synthesis gas in the industry today is as a source of hydrogen, but 98% of the hydrogen on the market today comes from coal or natural gas. What we can do is retrofit those facilities and recycle the carbon dioxide that comes off of those systems so they can make more hydrogen on-site with the existing natural gas that they have. Eventually, they will transition to a truly circular operation where they can use biogas or landfill gas instead of coal or natural gas.
What has been your experience so far in growing and scaling Solistra?
Solistra is about two years old now. We spent the last two years building our first mini-pilot and you are right—it did come out of a very deep tech tradition, out of Geoffrey Ozin’s solar fuels laboratory at the University of Toronto where I did my PhD. The challenge with scaling a technology like Solistra’s is that it is a novel material that also requires novel equipment to operate. A traditional chemical reactor is normally just similar to a metal tube that you light a fire underneath to heat, but if you put all of our material in a tube like that and shine a light on it, the light would only reach the very outside. We have had to invent and innovate these new surface structures that allow maximum light absorption by the catalyst, which is a new way of thinking for the chemicals industry.
What have been some of your main challenges and how have you overcome them?
The first major challenge was figuring out what chemical we would take to market. As I mentioned, synthesis gas is used to make several different commodity petrochemicals, including methanol, ammonia, and hydrogen. Eventually, we figured out that if we were going to make such a fundamental change to the petrochemical supply chain, we might as well start with the most fundamental chemical component, hydrogen. The hydrogen economy is gaining a lot of traction these days because there is a lot of excitement around potential natural gas usage being mixed with hydrogen or being completely replaced with hydrogen.
Has Solistra faced more traditional entrepreneurial challenges?
We have been lucky to not have a challenge in looking for capital. There are a lot of people looking to get into cleantech these days and are excited about joining an early-stage startup, so we have been pretty lucky with the people we have brought on board. Since we are in a slower economic period, the investment into longer-term plays like commodity chemicals tends to go up because people do not really see a short-term return on their investments in a situation like we are in now. Our main challenge was centered on the product-market fit. The product-market fit when it comes to commodity chemicals is just how cheap they are. The big challenge with starting a new commodities chemical company is that because you only have one component of a system that requires many components, you are fighting against the petrochemical sector that greatly benefits economically from the fact that a lot of its processes are collocated at the same facility. I would like to see something like a carbon dioxide refinery where different startups can create a massive facility together, because that will drive down all of our costs and prices in that community.
How do you assess the support systems put in place by governments and other organisations for companies like Solistra?
This particular government has been very good at providing funding for cleantech. Solistra would not exist without some of the programs that they have put in place, specifically the Women in Cleantech Challenge from Natural Resources Canada that we were lucky to be funded by. We have also been supported by the Materials for Clean Fuels Challenge that the Natural Resource Council of Canada runs, as well as some of their recovery policies. We have been seeing the government look towards longer-term bonds, which might indicate incoming infrastructure funding. That is going to be the main driver for the economy for the next 10 or 15 years. In building out that infrastructure, if we want to do it sustainably, those policies are building the road ahead of us well.
Who have you surrounded yourself with at Solistra?
It is really important to me, at this stage, to bring on people who are motivated by our cause, perhaps in a more practical sense because we do not have enough money to pay them more for them to want the job for any other reason. I am surrounding myself with a diverse team of self-starters. It has been really good. Most of the people that work at Solistra had their own projects on the side like science labs in their basement and things like that, and so it really takes a creative attitude to make a company like this go at such an early stage.
What advice would you give to other female entrepreneurs who are building science-based businesses?
I was lucky to be in chemical engineering in my undergraduate years, which is colloquially termed “FemEng” because it has the most women out of any of the other engineering disciplines. When I transitioned to graduate school, I found that I was one of the only female PhD students in the entire material engineering department at UofT. Through the Women in Cleantech Challenge, I came to learn that only something like 2 or 3 percent of cleantech startups are founded by women. That was a really good initiative to develop the cohort of people that they chose as leaders over three years, which makes it a really long program.
“Only something like 2 or 3 percent of cleantech startups are founded by women.”
For other women, I would say it takes strength to wade into a world where you are a little bit different from everybody else. My biggest advice would be to stereotypically say, “Believe in yourself.” It is difficult and you will face a lot of pushback on some of your ideas, but women can definitely do the work and just need to make themselves more present in those communities.
What more could we do to support women in science and scientific entrepreneurship?
I would advise against trying to find a quick fix. Some organizations have realized that they do not have a lot of women in leadership and have responded to that by just finding a woman anywhere they can put on their board. It is less about getting a woman you can use to show to the public that you have a diverse team, and it is more about building the cultural infrastructure within your organization to grow those women from junior positions to leadership positions. That growth will make them better leaders and also create a more inclusive atmosphere. We need more authentic fixes.
What and who would you pitch about improving Canadian companies’ ability to scale up?
Waste producers such as landfills, people who deal with agricultural waste, farming communities, and more, need to get in on the cleantech action and really start working towards our circular economy. As I mentioned before, technologies like Solistra’s and a lot of other cleantech technologies will benefit from a supply chain network that will actually build up the circular economy. It is all about connections, networking, and collocation.