These four new(ish) CEOs are recharging Atlantic Canada’s economic energy with everything from award-winning gin to bionic knees
Here at Atlantic Business Magazine, we know it’s as important to look to the future as it is to live in the present. Which is why, in an issue dedicated to current Top 50 CEO award winners, we also went in search of the next generation of corporate all-stars. From those only a few years into their career to those who jumped straight from university to head of the class, the new wave of CEOs is as fierce as the breaking tide. From clean energy and bionic knees to record-smashing spirits and janitorial software, there’s a whole lot going on in those new c-suites. Here are four CEOs you should be keeping an eye on.
Co-founder, president and CEO, Spring Loaded Technology
Bringing bionic technology to sports enthusiasts and putting a spring in the step of people with knee injuries
What happens when a neuroscientist, an engineer and a business student take an entrepreneurship class together? They create a bionic knee, of course. Halifaxbased Spring Loaded Technology was created in 2013 by a trio of knee-injury sufferers: Chris Cowper-Smith (the scientist); Bob Garrish (the engineer); and, Shaw Kewin (the business student). The trio’s communal pain inspired Cowper-Smith to create a brace “that could assist with mobility, rather than just providing stability.”
The basis of Spring Loaded Technology is the spring inside: “We just had the small task of reinventing the spring,” Cowper-Smith explains nonchalantly. After four years of development and prototypes, they created a compact spring small enough to fit inside a conventional knee brace. The Levitation bionic knee brace hit markets in 2016 with a sales model focused on selling directly to the consumer through digital advertising. Upon determining the user is a good candidate for getting the spring back in their step, a bracing specialist works with them remotely to measure for the right fit.
Next came the million-dollar contract with the Department of National Defense in which they produced 190 military-grade knee braces for the Canadian Forces. The yearlong pilot project concluded with positive reviews from injured military members and the company hopes to be supplying braces in forthcoming contracts. In the summer of 2017, they received $2.45 million in funding through ACOA’s Atlantic Innovation Fund, which they are using to build a human factors testing lab to assess actual usage of the brace. Currently the Levitation is 100 per cent assembled onsite by the company in Dartmouth’s Burnside Industrial Park: the only part brought in is the brace’s casing.
For Ontario ex-pat Cowper-Smith (Garrish and Kewin are no longer with the company), the transition from scientist to CEO has been a challenging endeavor: “There’s always that little bit of uncomfortableness, a discomfort, with being a little bit out of your realm,” he says. For him the key lies in creating support, and not just with the knee brace. Reinforcing the company’s leadership team has been at the forefront of his agenda: “There’s been incredible support in the community, and we’ve managed to attract some people who are a lot smarter than me that help me fill in the holes.”
“I think a background in science can be really useful for an entrepreneur starting a company, because ultimately what you are trying to do as an entrepreneur, at least in startup, is do a lot of different rapid experiments to figure out how this business is going to work,” says Cowper- Smith.
It looks like 2018 will be an aggressive scaling-up year: four of the 33 employees are currently setting up temporary sales locations across the country. The U.S. and international markets are next.
Co-founder and CEO, Swept Technologies
The Halifax cleaning company turned software developer that’s resetting the norm for janitorial services
There’s no sweeping it under the rug for Michael Brown. When the co-founder and CEO of Swept was growing up, he couldn’t help starting businesses. Heeding the advice of many to learn a trade, he spent a few years as a mechanic before attending SMU’s Sobeys School of Business as a mature student. And then he started another business.
The Parrsboro, Nova Scotia native and his business partner, Matt Cooper, initially started a cleaning business (Clean Simple) as a way to combine Brown’s trade background and Cooper’s software and marketing experience. The Halifaxbased company developed an app to help the client have a smooth booking process while simultaneously providing cleaners with more information so they could do a better job. Throughout the first year and a half of cleaning and expanding into three cities, Clean Simple got down and dirty: “I would be the person, if the cleaner didn’t show up at 2 or 3 in the morning, I would be the one to go out and clean that office or that restaurant, so I have had many shifts, many hours scrubbing toilets,” says Brown.
By 2015 they realized it wasn’t cleaning that was their business; it was the software they had created. “Swept, essentially, is remote team management. Think of Slack (the internal team messaging app), but on steroids, focused specifically on the janitorial industry,” explains Brown.
Shifting gears necessitated completing the ACOA-funded THENEXTPHASE program (which helps entrepreneurs with growth and financing) as well as the Propel ICT accelerator (where “we went in as a cleaning company and came out as a software company,” says Brown). Making the switch from janitorial company to SaaS (Software as a Service) facilitated the attraction of venture capitalists like iNovia Capital, which invests in early stage entrepreneurs, and San Franciscobased Afore Capital. Between the two, Swept attained more than $2.5 million in investment.
The companies using Swept are typically small to medium-sized operations located all over the world: 90 per cent are in the United States with the remainder in seven other countries. While international in use, the 20 employees working for Swept are based in Atlantic Canada—something Brown is really proud of. Rather than brush off its Nova Scotia roots, Brown wants to expand his company and its employee base in the province.
For Brown, maintaining the human connection is as important as the software: “If we can ensure cleaners want to use this, that’s our way in. How do we support the cleaner?” As CEO, Brown is focused on building a strong leadership team for the company as they attempt to make Swept the industry standard in janitorial services.
Co-Founder and CEO, Stash Energy
Saving the planet—and consumer wallets—one heat pump at a time
Jordan Kennie wants to get rid of the baseboard baseline for energy consumption in Atlantic Canada. While electric baseboards and oil heat have historically been the norm in home heating on the east coast, Kennie saw the rise in popularity in heat pumps (a home heating/cooling device) as a way for his company’s energy storage system to save money and the environment. As CEO of Stash Energy, one of Atlantic Canada’s newest tech startups, his career turn has found him moving from a student’s desk to the C-suite without much time in between.
Unlike Stash co-founders Daniel Larsen and Erik Hatfield, Kennie wasn’t passionately tinkering with technology throughout his undergraduate degree in electrical engineering at UNB. It wasn’t until the Stash trio started the Technology Management and Entrepreneurship (TME) Program at UNB that things started to click. “That’s where I fell in love with engineering as a business,” says the 25-year-old Frederictonian.
What sparked the idea for Stash? A radio interview with Maritime Electric about how heat pumps were taking over P.E.I. The pumps were efficient but required electricity to operate and the island burned oil to generate electricity. Realizing Maritime Electric was proposing to build a $70-million diesel-run plant that would cost $1 million a year to operate provided Kennie et al with the opportunity to develop an alternative.
“We are trying to make the next standard for heat pump,” says Kennie. Stash’s product stores energy to reduce demand for electricity during peak periods of the day—when people first wake up in the morning and when they come home from work at night, blasting the heat while they cook supper. “The biggest motivation for us is renewable energy,” he explains. “We are trying to make sure we use as much wind and solar and non-carbon emitting power as possible. Storage is a very key piece in doing that. You can’t just turn on the wind, right?”
While completing their masters in TME, Stash Energy secured a pilot program with Summerside Electric; owned and operated by the City of Summerside on P.E.I., the utility is one of the most environmentally-advanced energy producers in North America (46 per cent of their energy comes from wind power). Stash found that using their device with a heat pump could save consumers on their home heating costs: from $400-$500 using heat pumps to upwards of $1,500-$2,000 with oil heat. After progressing through a series of startup accelerators and leveraging funding through Opportunities NB and ACOA—as well as a $200,000 investment from the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation—Stash plans on launching more programs with Maritime Electric in P.E.I. in the fall of 2018 and with New Brunswick Power in 2019.
Kennie, Startup Canada’s 2017 Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the Atlantic Region, is currently participating in the Canadian Technology Accelerator (CTA) in Denver, Colorado, cavorting with other tech startups focused on clean energy. “That’s the two biggest things for us. Make sure there is clean technology in the world and try to get rid of coal and diesel generator plants as much as we can. And try to save people money while doing it so we can grow our economy.”
Co-founder and president, Nova Scotia Spirits Company
This rapidly-growing Pictou County spirits company is bringing Nova Scotia flavours to the international cocktail scene
‘Willing to Learn’ is more than just the name of the gin he makes, it’s a way of life for this research-driven company. After spending years working in the hospitality and food and beverage industries on the west coast, Alex Rice wanted to head home. He was impassioned by the idea of investing in the economy of Atlantic Canada.
In 2014, Rice and his business partner, Evan MacEachern, started their distillery just outside Trenton in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. Inspired by a job notice on the door of their rental, the names of the booze came from “Local lobster fisherman from Ballantyne’s Cove, Antigonish Co. is interested in hiring a helper for the summer. Basic requirement: sober, alert & willing to learn.” With that notice in mind, they named their new products Blue Lobster Vodka, Fisherman’s Helper White Rum, and Willing to Learn.
“We hit the market at the right time. We had an everyday-priced product, which was our target. A product with a price point that’s approachable to people within the market is something that you can afford to purchase as opposed to just at Christmas or a birthday.” Winning three awards at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2016 also helped: “We noticed an immediate lift in our sales. It kind of gave us credence as to the quality of our product.”
Local spirits take on a whole new meaning for Nova Scotia Spirits: 100 per cent of the workforce are Atlantic Canadians and Rice is emphatic they will stay true to their roots. “We are able to create domestic jobs here in rural Nova Scotia that means a lot to the economy, and we’re replacing an international brand with some made here locally.” Their plans are to expand and become a bar staple across Canada, while staying Nova Scotia proud with their branding and product.
Their business model is working: Nova Scotia Spirits was ranked 13th on Canadian Business’ Canada’s Fastest Growing Companies in 2017 list with a laughingly appropriate 902 per cent revenue growth in 2016 (the area code for Nova Scotia is 902).
With stable revenue flowing in, Rice is taking his company to the next level with a new venture and a new town. Painted Boat Beer Company, now in the final planning stages, will focus on the one-beer model (think Steam Whistle or Alexander Keith’s) with a few small-batch offerings at their new brewery in Stellarton, Nova Scotia. They have recently purchased old Scotsburn dairy facilities to serve as the new location and have even rehired some of the previous facilities’ workers.
They currently have 16 full-time employees who are all from Nova Scotia (with one in PEI), and 15 part-time seasonal workers. In the new facility, they hope to hire at least 20 more people and 30 more in the tourist season. “We’ve been super lucky to find the skill, the hardworking team of people right here regionally. We haven’t had to look that far,” says Rice.