Award-Worthy Impact: Recognizing the Social Good of Canadian Startups

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Most startups are created to fix a business problem, but there are some with a sole purpose of solving a social one. The Canadian Startup Awards has recognized three of those companies as finalists in its Social Impact category; Calgary’s CommonGood and Figure 1 and TranQool, both based in Toronto.

Below, in alphabetical order, is a look at how the founders of each social enterprise are making a difference in society:

CMNGD

CommonGood (known as CMNGD) describes itself as “a movement aimed at ending poverty through social enterprise.” The company, founded by entrepreneurs David and Hannah Cree, provides people living in homeless shelters with job experience through a linen laundry service tailored for the hospitality industry.

Hannah Cree describes how the company has been able to merge non-profit values and business to make CNMGD a success:

TV: What was the inspiration behind your startup?

HC: Dave took a leadership course about 10 years ago and one of the assignments was to be homeless for a day and beg for $15. It was a shameful experience — the way people on the street are treated. It creates incredible barriers to getting out of homelessness. This day forever changed Dave’s life and began the first steps of building CMNGD.

During the 2013 Calgary flood, Dave and I volunteered at the Calgary Drop In, the local homeless shelter, as a way to give back. We heard story after story of these men taking courses to upgrade their skills, but no one would hire them because they were homeless and had gaps in their employment history. That’s when we set out to create CMNGD. We spent a year doing market research and building deep partnerships before we incorporated in June 2016.

What problem are you trying to solve?

When you are running a social enterprise, there is always more than one problem you are solving and when you get deeper into it, more get uncovered. For us, it’s homelessness, unemployment while also helping restaurants with some of their business needs.

How is it going?

Truthfully, at times I feel like we need to pinch ourselves. The support from our community, board of directors, partners, suppliers and restaurants has been overwhelmingly positive. Our target market is local restaurants that understand the meaning of community. We only need 50 restaurants to break even. We have 15 restaurants. With additional funding we’ve just received, we are able to bring on enough to break even and build our laundry plant. It will be the first solar thermal commercial laundry plant in Canada with Eclipse Sustainability, a game changer in the industry.

Who was your first investor?

Dave and I bootstrapped the business from the start and we’ve since received support on the ATB BoostR crowdfunding platform. We exceeded our goal to raise more than $11,000, plus won the BoostR Stage pitch event with over $20,000 in prizes and services from ATB Financial. This only happened because of people supporting the vision of CMNGD.

We also secured the $300,000 loan from Social Enterprise Fund, which is imperative to our growth, which is a huge success. We’ve also received support from local investors who we have worked with previously in the startup community.

What is your biggest success to date?

We have employed 400 impact hours of people living in the homeless shelter from September to December 2016 and in January we did 400 in one month alone! We are on track to do 10,000 impact hours in 2017 and over 310,000 over five years across Canada.

What is your big goal for the future?

Oh please don’t get us started! We say that CMNGD Linens is our first venture.  We have plans to expand the linen business across Canada in the next five years, and employ more than 310,000 impact hours from our shelters.

Figure 1

Figure 1 is a healthcare platform for social learning, connecting more than a million healthcare professionals around the world to view, discuss, and share medical cases. Its users include not just individuals, but leading institutions such as Doctors Without Borders and New York’s Mount Sinai Health System.

CEO Gregory Levey describes how the company got started and how they’ve been able to help a number of Syrian refugees:

TV: What was the inspiration behind your startup?

GL: The idea for Figure 1 came from our co-founder Dr. Joshua Landy while he was conducting research at Stanford University as a visiting scholar. As a practicing critical care physician, Josh observed an interesting behaviour in his colleagues that he wanted to formally explore, which was physicians taking photos of their patients’ conditions and sharing them with their colleagues.

Sometimes the images were shared for the purpose of learning, and other times for a second opinion. While investigating this practice at Stanford, it became clear that sharing these cases in a privacy-conscious way wasn’t easy, and that there was a tremendous opportunity to share these case-based discussions with the wider healthcare community. This was what inspired the creation of Figure 1: To connect healthcare and democratize medical knowledge in a seamless and privacy-conscious way. We launched in 2013.

What problem are you trying to solve?

Communication in healthcare is painful. Whether you’re working in a busy hospital or a remote clinic, it’s not easy to reach out to colleagues. Dr. Landy describes this feeling of isolation as the existential dread of medicine — that you can be present in front of a patient but powerless to help them because you don’t know the right piece of information. Figure 1 changes that by giving every healthcare professional, regardless of location or resources, the ability to connect with specialists around the world at any time.

This enables real-time social learning and helps save lives. We’ve heard from countless doctors and nurses whose patients routinely benefit from our community’s professionalism and expertise.

How is that going?

Better than we could ever have imagined. Since launching, more than two billion medical cases have been viewed on Figure 1 by healthcare professionals in 190 countries. Last year we launched in Spanish and Portuguese, and today Brazil is our number-two market. The power of network effects means that every healthcare professional that joins makes Figure 1 that much better for everyone else, so we are very optimistic.

Who was your first investor?

Rho Canada and Version One Ventures co-led our seed round.

What money have you raised since then?

To date, we have raised more than $20 million in financing from multiple world-class venture capitalists including Union Square Ventures, the investors behind Twitter, Etsy, Kickstarter, and Twilio.

What is your biggest success to date?

One that really hits home for us is the number of cases of Syrian refugees we’ve seen shared and discussed on the platform. Doctors are dealing with this humanitarian challenge around the world, and we’re humbled that they’re turning to Figure 1 for help. I think of Dr. Rogy Masri, a Toronto emergency doctor who used Figure 1 to help treat a patient in a Doctors Without Borders refugee camp in Northern Lebanon.

In that case, Dr. Masri received helpful advice from a Vancouver dermatologist half a world away. That these kinds of interactions happen all the time and all over the world on Figure 1 is deeply gratifying.

What is your big goal for the future?

We aspire to be the central nervous system of global healthcare. This means transcending borders and empowering every single healthcare professional to connect, communicate, and collaborate.

TranQool

TranQool is an online counseling platform that connects users with therapists from the comfort of their home. The Toronto-based startup provides insurance covered, secure video calls with licensed and vetted therapists. TranQool was launched in February of 2016 but the company began building the platform in July of 2015.

Cofounder and CEO Chakameh Shafii describes how the company got startup and its role in helping to more people access mental health resources:

TV: What was the inspiration behind your startup?

CS: I had personal experience with anxiety and after doing cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and wanted to share the value of therapy with my friends and family. The responses as to why people wouldn’t try therapy were what you would expect: stigma, the struggle of finding the right therapist and the price of therapy. Not long after this, myself and cofounders Babak Shahabi and Saeed Zeinali left our jobs as engineers to start TranQool with the goal to change this.

What problem are you trying to solve?

TranQool’s main mission is to provide its clients with an accessible, affordable and personalized therapy experience. One in every two people in North America is living with mental distress; things like depression, anxiety and sleeping problems. Being able to speak with your therapist from the comfort of home, school study room, or office meeting room is what makes TranQool so appealing to our users.

How is that going?

TranQool’s growth in just one year in such a new industry has been incredible. We went from people asking us about what online therapy is to offering two tiers of therapists, having plans to grow nationally, and releasing an app in the next couple of months. We’ve been able to provide therapy to everyday Canadians who otherwise would not be getting help due to their busy schedules, the stigma of therapy, or waitlists at hospitals and campus wellness centres. We are a proud Canadian company who believes in dreaming big and pushing to provide services direct to consumers and our clients are helping us prove that point.

Who was your first investor?

It was a Canadian philanthropist who has long been a supporter of mental health and education. Even though TranQool is not a charity, she believed in our vision and has helped us make therapy accessible to Canadians. Nine North Capital Corp was our first investor and we love them and our other investors for believing in our ambitious vision of making therapy accessible to all Canadians.

What money have you raised since then?

We’ve raised $800,000 of angel and VC investment as well as government funding.

What is your biggest success to date?

We have had a few “oh wow” moments this year but one of the most recent and rewarding ones came following the spike in suicides at University of Guelph. Our University ambassadors asked us to step up and help the student body in any way we could. We then worked with our ambassadors and the university counseling centre to donate 45 sessions with TranQool therapists to the students as well as funds to hold educational anti-stigma incentives on campus. As a company that is just a year old it was a great to have the power to support our ambassadors and their classmates in dealing with the unfortunate events on campus.

What is your big goal for the future?

TranQool’s goal is to become the single stop for mental health resources for everyday people wanting to live happier and healthier lives. Delivering an AI-enabled experience designed around every individual’s needs when it comes to their mental health.

Choose Your Favourite

Make sure you vote for your favourite before February 19 at midnight to have your say in which startups should win in their respective categories.

The winners will be announced at a live gala on March 2 at Steamwhistle Brewery in Toronto.

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