If you’re ever looking for a temporary antidote to your anxiety about climate change, it’s useful to review some of the progress being made in cleantech. Brilliant minds are coming up with promising innovations that could provide meaningful solutions to urgent problems.
The challenge, says Mickael Kanfi, is turning those innovations into successful, thriving businesses.
Kanfi was the creative cornerstone of Montreal digital advertising agency Twist Image from day one. As founding partner and executive creative director, he was an essential contributor as the agency grew and expanded into one of Canada’s leading digital shops—winning acclaim and awards for big brands including Walmart, TD Bank, Unicef, Telus and Dairy Farmers of Canada.
He was with the agency through its acquisition by WPP in 2014 (and its subsequent rebranding as Mirum in 2015), finally departing in 2018 to look for a new challenge. He found it as chief operating officer at Montreal-based cleantech investment firm Inerjys.
Inerjys is a company that exists at the intersection of save-the-planet good intentions and solid business strategy capable of delivering real returns for investors. That mission drew Kanfi to the company last year, just a few months after earning his buyout following the Twist Image acquisition. He took some time off to consider what to do next before reaching out to Inerjys founder Stefan Ouaknine, who he knew from high school.
It was after first meeting with Ouaknine last September that Kanfi started thinking about the opportunity of putting his skills to work for brands that have real purpose but need to become profitable and successful in order to affect real change. “I felt like I had some of the skills that were required when Stefan made it clear to me that it was this kind of a commercial challenge,” he says.
Kanfi had been as concerned about the environment as most—he’d been a diligent recycler, his wife ensures they are eating healthy and, as a parent of young children, it was hard not to think about the planet’s future—but he hadn’t felt compelled to work in cleantech. In fact, he had been looking at tech startups and liked the idea of working in the music industry.
“But [Inerjys] just kind of resonated the most because I saw it as using my skills for a good cause, one that frankly we need for the future and for our kids. But at the same time, we need to demonstrate some returns and make this an actual profitable sector. And it can be,” says Kanfi, who recently spoke with The Message about his new life in cleantech.
Why did he join Inerjys?
One of the reasons he was drawn to the space was the opportunity to work with startups trying to break through against massive, global powerhouses like GE. “I like that challenge. I like being the underdog,” he says.
But isn’t cleantech a high-growth category?
It is in the consumer zeitgeist—people believe we need it and governments are encouraging development. “But when you look at it, and you try to analyze, ‘Okay why aren’t we getting there? Why isn’t it advancing fast enough?’ the real reason is because it’s the private sector that has to drive this. We need investors to put their money into cleantech, and that’s where the challenge is.”
Why aren’t they doing that?
“Investors are looking and saying ‘I can invest in an app or I can invest in a solar panel that I don’t understand.’ Everyone has got a phone in their pocket, so everyone is investing in apps.” This has been a well-documented issue for some time now. The New York Times just reported that $6.6 billion was invested in cleantech last year—just 15% of what went to software start-ups.
The business challenge for Inerjys, and part of the mandate for Kanfi, is to help these cleantech firms tell their story—to make the case for investors to get involved, and turn them into revenue-driving businesses. “We’re investing in these companies but then we’re helping them commercialize. Part of that is helping them with their marketing, part of that is helping them with their sales, and part of that is helping them actually getting projects,” he says.
Is it Canadian only?
No. And that’s one of the challenges at Inerjys, where Canadian institutional investors believe they have to invest in Canadian companies. “If we’re going to actually heal the world, solve climate change, we need to be looking at the best technology. We can’t just be looking at technologies in our backyard,” says Kanfi. “We are saying this is a global problem and we need global solutions.”
That said, of the six companies in the Inerjys portfolio at the moment, three are based in Canada:
Black Rock Tidal Power/Schottel: A business that is turning the power of tides into usable energy. Inerjys helped it launch an installation in the Bay of Fundy that will soon be sending power to the grid in Nova Scotia. Kanfi was on the tidal energy platform this week with a Canadian Geographic reporter. “It’s part of the commercialization,” he says. “If people are talking about the technology and learning about tidal [energy] that helps.”
AESP Green Energy: A 10-year old Montreal-based renewable energy firm. “Their technology is almost like a pop-up shop for electricity in Africa,” says Kanfi. AESP’s i-Kabin’s use solar energy to charge batteries and appliances, giving power to communities that have never had power before.
Still Good: Also based in Montreal, Still Good is focused on food sustainability—turning food waste into new food products. For example, it can recover pulp from juicing companies and combine it with spent grain from beer manufacturers to produce flour to make cookies, says Kanfi.
Kanfi was able to apply his core creative skills for Still Good. “They needed a new brand, they needed new packaging. I designed the packaging myself, I’m helping them with PR, we’re launching a new website.”
Inerjys invests in companies that are past the R&D phase, so the technology is well developed, says Kanfi. “The big hurdle that they have to overcome is commercialization.”
That usually means first finding investors before taking their innovation to market, finding and securing paying customers. These are sometimes raw, hopeful innovations in need of branding, business and communications help.
“They’re smart people with good ideas but there is a mindset shift [required], first and foremost,” he says. That shift—the big step from great idea to successful business—is what Kanfi specialized in for nearly 20 years in digital advertising. Now he gets to use those same skills to help save the planet.