A look back at the tech startup competition in Atlantic Canada

By Laurence Basso October 14, 2020

The Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge

A look back at the tech startup competition in Atlantic Canada that incorporated environmental, technological, and entrepreneurial outcomes

September 18th marked the end of the Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge with the virtual Final event and awards ceremony wrapping up the 8-month long competition. This edition of the AquaHacking Challenge was co-delivered by the Atlantic Water Network and Aqua Forum with many Challenge partners involved along the way.

5 new water tech startups were established in this AquaHacking Challenge and are currently going through the intake processes in incubation programs throughout the Atlantic region.

In this blog post, we outline the process that brought these 5 startups to where they are today. The adventure started in early 2020 when COVID-19 was not yet part of our lives.

The Kick-off and announcement of water issues – Where it all started

The Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge was officially launched on February 26, 2020 at an event at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS. At the kick-off event, the water issues were announced by the water issues leaders during a panel discussion. The 5 problem statements had been selected by a multi-sectoral advisory committee. An important part of the assessment had been to ensure representation of the 4 provinces throughout Atlantic Canada in the selection of the issues. Other considerations involved identifying local issues that had the potential for solution development that could be scaled on national and global levels.

The Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge was therefore launched in the presence of 100 people at an in-person event – one month before COVID-19 changed everything.

Watch the recap video of the Launch event here

Thank you to the 8 water issue leaders that championed the Atlantic Canada AquaHacking problem statements. Their involvement in this Challenge was greatly appreciated, particularly by the teams who sought guidance from them in framing their proposed tech solutions.

  • Roxanne MacKinnon (ACAP Saint John) – Algal blooms and eutrophication (webinar)
  • Angela Banks and Mary Finch (PEI Watershed Alliance) – Sediment and pesticide runoff (webinar)
  • Stephanie Gora (York University) and Mike Chaulk (CBCL Limited) – Treatment of drinking water in rural and Indigenous communities (webinar)
  • Gavin Kennedy (Nova Scotia Energy & Mines) and Gordon Check (Nova Scotia Environment) – Private well safety (webinar)
  • Ariel Smith (Coastal Action) – Microplastics from fishing Gear (webinar)

Thanks to the water issue leaders, Challenge participants learned a lot about critical and complex water issues that impact the Atlantic region. We are happy that, through the Atlantic Canada AquaHacking Challenge, greater attention was drawn to these issues and that 3 of them were addressed by the Finalist teams through 5 bold and promising solutions.

The Semi-Final Event – A pivotal event for AquaHacking participants

In the months following the Kick-Off event, thirty teams were formed. Throughout Phase 1 of the Challenge, they had 4 months to embark on the ideation stage of their solution, start developing a prototype, and consider their product/market fit – all while continuing their studies and/or professional lives. It wasn’t easy for everyone. The pandemic added many unforeseen challenges that impacted everyone.

Nevertheless, on June 17, sixteen motivated teams from all over Atlantic Canada and beyond competed in the virtual Semi-final event, which involved pitching their solutions to 15 judges with expertise ranging from business, technology, and the water sector. The judges were tasked with selecting the top 5 teams to continue on to Phase 2 of the Challenge.

Five Finalist teams were selected to continue :

  • ExTech MIP
  • Well Warriors
  • Clean Catch Baits
  • What the Well and
  • Water Innovators (who later became WIDE – Water Integrated Design and Empowerment)

Their solutions addressed 3 of the 5 Challenge issues: private well safety, treatment of drinking water in rural and Indigenous communities, and microplastics from fishing Gear

All Semi-Finalist participants are invited to become part of the AquaHacking Alumni Program regardless of whether they continue on to Phase 2 of the Challenge or not. Being part of the Alumni Program allows AquaHacking Challenge participants to continue to access business development support, so even those who are not selected at Finalists can continue to develop their solution. Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge Semi-Finalist team “Fight Against Microplastics” did just that – although they weren’t part of the Finalist cohort, they have been connected to subject matter experts through the Alumni Program and have continued to work on their app which helps commercial fishers report instances of lost fishing gear in the marine environment.

To watch a recording of the Semi-Final event, click here !

Mentoring – Relationships that opened up opportunities

In Phase 2 of the Challenge, many finalists come to the realization that their tech solution projects are on the right track and that the idea of establishing a company is not so crazy after all. However, being an entrepreneur is not easy and there is a lot to learn.  So, to optimize the Finalists’ chances of success,  in Phase 2 of the Challenge, they are connected with mentors from the water, technology and business sectors, some of whom come from the Atlantic Canada AquaHacking Challenge funding partners.

“Loved meeting with different mentors and industry connections, this was so valuable to us!” Participant of the Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge.

“The support we received exceeded my expectations. The connections with the mentors and their willingness to support our development surprised me. » Participant of the Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge.

In addition, thanks to our regional supporter, Ocean Supercluster Canada, each Finalist team received $2,000 in Phase 2 of the Challenge to support the continued development of their solution and business plan in preparation for the Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge Final event. i

The eExpedition- An engaging and collaborative online skills-building workshop

Soon after the Semi-Final event, the Finalist teams participated in an intensive series of skills-building activities and discussions with water stakeholders and experts through the Atlantic Canada AquaHacking eExpedition. The objective of the eExpedition is to take the Finalists out of their comfort zones in exploring their roles as part of a team and as communicators, to strengthen their relationships with the water issue leaders and other Challenge Finalists, and to share with them perspectives from various water stakeholders.

“I saw the benefit of working beside mentors and other Finalists [in the eExpedition]. It made it less about the competition and more about the cause at hand.” – Mudiwa Mharapara, Atlantic Canada AquaHacking Challenge Finalist with team WIDE.

Led by Waterlution, the eExpedition is typically delivered in-person adjacent to a body of water surrounded by nature. With the impact of COVID-19 global pandemic, the Atlantic Canada AquaHacking Challenge eExpedition had to be adapted to a virtual format.

Thanks to the Waterlution team who were able to adapt to the situation and even convinced some of the participants to compose and sing an original jingle. Watch the summary video of the Atlantic Canada eExpedition to get a glimpse of it!

The Final event – Pitch competition to win seed funding and a spot in a local incubator

On September 18th, the Finalists of the Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge presented their innovative solutions to a panel of 6 expert judges in the virtual Final event. The teams all shared a common hope: to win some of the $50,000 seed funding to help them propel their start-up.

The Clean Catch Baits team and their 100% biodegradable recreational fishing lures placed 1st, winning the grand prize of $20,000 in seed funding in addition to the $1,000 Audience’s Choice Award! A double win for this team from Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, NS!

“It was really motivating for me to ask my friends and colleagues to attend the virtual Final event and to vote for my team for the Audience Choice Award. And they were surprised that such a competition exists and they thought the ideas presented were of really high quality.” Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge Finalist.

Here is the final ranking and associated seed funding awards:

1.Clean Catch Baits $21,000

2.Well Warriors $15,000

3.WIDE $10,000

4.ExTech MIP $2,500

5.What the Well, $2,500

Aside from winning seed funds, as part of their AquaHacking prize package all Finalist teams have been secured a spot in a local startup incubator to support the continued development of their solutions and to start accessing their respective markets.

Additionally, through the Aqua Forum partnership with Mitacs, if eligible Finalists can also access additional funding to double their seed funding award. In addition, the top 3 Finalist teams win credits for legal services with the Aqua Forum partner Lavery Avocats.

The Finalist teams will continue to stay engaged through the AquaHacking Alumni Program.

We would like to congratulate all the Finalists for the quality of their solutions, their great pitches, and especially for their dedication to finding solutions to address challenging water issues.

“I salute your ingenuity and commitment to a better future by solving water problems. I am particularly pleased that for the first time in the history of AquaHacking Challenges, a solution that addresses the critical issue of microplastics wins. I look forward to seeing what the future holds for you and all the Finalist teams. Thank you again for your dedication and participation“. Désirée McGraw, President and CEO of Aqua Forum.

For more details about the program for the Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge Final event, click here.

To listen again to the Final event and the pitches, click here.

“I truly believe the solutions presented in this year’s AquaHacking finale are positioned to make a difference for Atlantic Canada’s waters and carry strong potential to scale beyond the region” Emma Wattie, director Atlantic Water Network.

The AquaHacking Challenge is just the beginning of an even greater adventure. We have delivered a virtual but human-sized challenge to address real water issues on a global scale, taking into account the potential development of startups and their solutions.

“What a great cohort. I salute their courage, tenacity, and determination. Launching a startup is not an easy thing to do, especially in the water sector. But doing it at this very particular time [during the global pandemic], it’s even harder… I mean, it’s inspiring. Well done everyone! We now have 5 more water tech ventures to help us protect our water.” Anne-Pascale Richardson, AquaHacking Program Manager

We encourage all of you to follow these young innovators and entrepreneurs as their solutions will certainly make a difference for many communities in Canada and beyond.

Stay tuned and visit the AquaHacking Alumni blog for news from the Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Finalist teams as they continue on their start-up development journey.

Atlantic Water Network – A partner of choice to host the Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge

Special thanks to the Atlantic Water Network (AWN) team for their dedication, passion and professionalism in coordinating and deploying this the Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge. We are very proud of the collaboration we have developed together.

“Thank you to the entire AWN team. You have brought out the best in Atlantic Canada for water protection. You have been an outstanding partner. The quality of the solutions resulting from this challenge is very impressive. Today, the big winner is water.” – Anne-Pascale Richardson, AquaHacking Program Manager

Emma Wattie, AWN’s Executive Director, first became involved with the AquaHacking Challenge in 2019 when she agreed to be a judge for the Semi-final event of the 2019 Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin Challenge in Toronto. 18 months later, she played a key role in the delivery the Atlantic Canada edition of the AquaHacking Challenge with Aqua Forum. The Atlantic Canada 2020 AquaHacking Challenge is part of a national strategy, with 2 other AquaHacking Challenges being delivered simultaneously alongside partners in British Columbia and Manitoba/

Our partners – All united for one cause

The delivery of an AquaHacking Challenge involves many partners, supporters, sponsors and collaborators. To all of you who have been involved in one way or another in the success of this Challenge, we thank you. Thank you for contributing to a positive impact for water in Canada.

National Financial Partners

de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation | RBC Foundation | Lavery Lawyers | Ovivo | Mitacs |IBM

Local Financial Partners & Supporters

Saint Mary’s University | The Echo Foundation| Canada’s Ocean Supercluster| S.M. Blair Family Foundation| MEOPAR| Clean Foundation| The John and Judy Bragg Family Foundation| Atlantic Canada Water & Wastewater Association

Academic Partners

Saint Mary’s University| Dalhousie University| University of New Brunswick| University of Prince Edward Island| Memorial University of Newfoundland

Implementation partners

Waterlution| Hackworks| Saint Mary’s University Entrepreuneurship Centre