Velocity Founders Story | March 6, 2020
It was a typical August morning at Mel’s Diner in 2019. The popular local spot in Kitchener-Waterloo was filled with regular patrons ordering their favourite breakfast meals: eggs, home fries, toast for the adults, milkshake for the kids, and Huevos rancheros for the more adventurous. The restaurant was abuzz with families chatting about their remaining summer weekend plans.
To the pair of co-founders of Evercloak, that morning at the diner was anything but typical – seated at table five near the diner’s entrance, they were deciding on a pivotal, urgent startup matter.
“Are we going to do this? I think we should. But we only have two weeks.” asked Evelyn Allen, the Co-founder & CEO of Evercloak.
“Well, I think so. We have to. It’s a lot of work, but we can do it,” responded Dr. Michael Pope, the CTO of Evercloak.
Allen had been searching for additional funding to commercialize Evercloak’s manufacturing platform for producing advanced 2D nanomaterials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes. She had just learned that the startup would be eligible to submit a proposal to Breakthrough Energy Solutions Canada. This is a Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) program with support from Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy and the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC). NRCan led the call for proposals to leverage financing and expertise to support the advancement of Canadian clean energy and climate technologies (i.e., cleantech and climate tech) that can significantly reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
After Allen made the final call to compete, it was time to buckle down. From developing the final proposal to chasing down letters of support, the Evercloak team was pressed for both time and resources. However, as Allen recounted her background and experiences and how her team managed to meet the proposal deadline, it became apparent that Allen was uniquely prepared for a moment like this.
(Note: Evercloak was chosen as a finalist of the NRCan program, securing a $1.2M project to accelerate their technology development. More on this later.)
Making entrepreneurship and motherhood work together
Evelyn Allen wears the “founder’s hat” and “mother’s hat” equally. As a mother of two young kids, she tells Velocity that it’s a constant juggling act to manage the demands of Evercloak and her family. (In fact, this interview almost did not happen due to her daughter battling a bout of sickness.)
Allen’s work schedule is typically very full, so she has to strategically choose how and where to work in order to maximize her output. At times, she also has to be decisive, eliminating things from her schedule that do not have an immediate deadline.
With regard to the ever-popular work-life balance conversation, Allen does think about balance from time to time, but she believes that it is more effective for her to seek flexibility and integration instead. She feels fortunate that she has options as she looks to maximize her productivity and takes breaks as necessary.
“I think this applies to most women who are working and are in an occupation with flexibility – not just entrepreneurs,” Allen explains. “It won’t be 9-to-5 anymore, but it does mean I can get more work done. I do work for an hour while my kids are swimming!”
In a sense, this might be a more realistic version of work-life integration compared to the one offered by the legendary Marissa Mayer.
Like many working women, Allen recognizes that she needs all the help she can get. Allen is looking to hire 3 more people to ensure that there are enough resources to balance the workload. She also credits her supportive husband for ensuring that she has the option to move Evercloak forward as far ahead and as fast as possible. “Who you marry is really important. Having that person in your life with an entrepreneurial mindset and who can support you while you’re off travelling and he’s taking care of the kids really helps,” explains Allen.
A tough, rewarding decision — 15 years in the making
Entrepreneurship for a working mom is not an easy route to take. Evelyn Allen did not make that decision lightly.
Allen has always had exposure to entrepreneurship in her life as she grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Her father was a chemical engineer who founded a successful manufacturing company and sold it in the early 2000s, while her mother had her own business as well. She saw the sacrifices that entrepreneurs often have to make first-hand.
My work at the University of Waterloo was certainly important. I learned about securing IP, funding, and I was supporting all kinds of ventures. But I wasn’t building anything anymore and I really wanted a change.Evelyn Allen, Co-founder & CEO of Evercloak
Despite the inevitable sacrifices, Allen was very prepared to start her own tech company. She accumulated over six years of engineering experience where she learned everything from designing components and systems to scoping engineering projects. She gained exposure to the business side of tech, engineering and system level projects. She was building products. She soon learned that she really “liked the big picture stuff”. Later, she found herself working at the University of Guelph and subsequently the University of Waterloo, where her core responsibilities were driving innovation and technology commercialization. The roles at the universities lent her opportunities to talk and work with hundreds of companies, from early-stage startups to multinationals.
“I saw and learned a lot, and I definitely applied some of the best practices into my own startup,” Allen says.
Allen shared with Velocity that entrepreneurship was actually in the back of her mind since the very beginning of her career. “I’ve always been looking. When I was at Waterloo Biofilter, I began keeping a notebook of problems and potential solutions,” Allen acknowledges. “My work at the University [of Waterloo] was certainly important. I learned about securing IP, funding, and I was supporting all kinds of ventures. But I wasn’t building anything anymore and I really wanted a change.”
With over a decade of experience in innovation, engineering, and tech, Allen knew what it would take to succeed if she were to start a startup. She was also torn as she was well aware of sacrifices that she would need to make.
Birthing Evercloak: connecting the Toronto-Waterloo corridor
While the moment of clarity came for Evelyn Allen at a sustainability conference in Vancouver, bringing Evercloak to the world was as much a serendipity as a sheer force of will.
Allen recounted that all keynotes at the conference were delivered by young women. They were all inspirational. “One by one, they made me realize that I wasn’t at my full potential. I care about sustainability and the environment just like these young women. I have all the skills and experiences to be a founder, but I just wasn’t taking my next steps,” sighs Allen. “Though in my mind, I knew it had to be the right chance, the right problem, and the right financial risks.”
What shifted Allen’s calculation was the introduction of the NRCan Women in Cleantech Challenge by MaRS Discovery District (MaRS) in 2018. The program offers six female innovators from across Canada a 2.5-year program with an annual $115,000 stipend. Given Evelyn’s interest in the environment, she felt that a startup commercializing clean and climate technologies could be right.
However, as someone who was working to support innovators commercializing their technologies rather than commercializing her own technology, she needed to find a technology and build a startup to qualify. Allen came up with an ingenious plan: pitching the University of Waterloo’s commercialization office (WatCo) to support her.
WatCo was solidly behind her. The pitch was so stunningly well received that the office opened up their entire portfolio and allowed her to pick a technology to work with. Allen’s experience with commercialization and IP and her interest in the environment allowed her to quickly identify a promising technology: an innovative manufacturing process for continuous coating of single layer nanomaterials such as graphene and carbon nanotubes. This technology has enormous potential when it comes to addressing environmental challenges. She was also familiar with the inventor(s) of the technology, particularly Dr. Michael Pope. “Mike gets it,” Allen recalls. “When I learned that Mike was interested in supporting and joining my vision for the startup, I was thrilled!”
It turned out that Dr. Pope had also wanted to build a startup for ages. However, he had not been able to find the right opportunity at the right time with the right people till he learned that Allen was finally pursuing her startup dreams.
All told, having founders with similar builder mindsets can be incredibly synergistic.
With all the time spent finding and securing a technology to work on, Allen only had so much time to do the more mundane startup work and get the application to MaRS completed. “My husband was building the website for me at the 11th hour. The team picked out a name and the URL at the very last minute. I can’t begin to tell you how many times my current business advisors have suggested a rebrand, but that’s a future project as it does not have an immediate deadline,” admits Allen.
Allen was selected as one of the six finalists of the Women in Cleantech Challenge, where she is competing for a $1 million prize. She’s eternally grateful, as she acknowledges that Evercloak would not have existed without support from NRCan & MaRS.
(Image on left shows the list of names Allen, her husband and children along with Dr. Pope and his wife brainstormed. Virtually everyone picked evercloak.com as the final name going forward for the startup.)
Allen participated in Communitech’s Fierce Founders Bootcamp in 2019, further cementing Evercloak’s status as an up-and-coming, high potential startup.
Winning Breakthrough Energy Solutions Canada to combat climate crisis
In February 2020, Natural Resources Canada announced the 10 winners of the Breakthrough Energy Solutions Canada initiative to help Canada build a low-carbon economy. Evercloak was one of them. The proposal? Evercloak would apply its IP to develop a dehumidification technology for air conditioners that will cut greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions and reduce the energy use of cooling systems by over 50 percent. Evercloak scoped a $1.2M proposal to manufacture large area ultra-thin nanomaterial (graphene-based) membranes that can easily separate water vapor from air.
“The climate tech aspect of this is all about energy efficiency and GHG reduction,” Allen asserts. “Air conditioning is a great luxury of modern life but also a generator of GHG. Making HVAC systems more energy efficient will significantly change the GHG emissions equation.” Allen predicts that this grant will take the development of nanomaterial membranes even further when all is said and done.
Allen believes that what we’re facing today is a climate crisis, and the world needs to do much more now. While programs such as the Breakthrough Energy Solutions Canada initiative are helpful for creating more technology solutions to address the climate crisis, there is so much more that could be done in terms of adopting different climate technologies to mitigate the impact and lowering GHG emissions so we could get to a carbon-neutral state. Furthermore, mobilization of global citizens and governments counts for a lot due to inactions and impasse throughout the globe. “I think someone like Greta Thunberg is great. She’s inspiring so many people and youth. She’s helping bring the discussion to the table and getting people to talk, and my kids are much more inspired and aware as a result,” Allen explains.
Think tech instead of just women in tech
The topic of women in tech emerged several times during Velocity’s conversation with Evelyn Allen. Each time, Allen grew slightly more frustrated. When quizzed why, Allen paused and responded, “I’m often involved in panels of women in tech, women in cleantech, women in climate tech, but I don’t want to talk about being a woman! Initiatives like these are important, but I also want to talk about the technology and how it can impact the world.” It was a surprise response, though in the grand scheme of things, it was perhaps the most profound response to the gender issues that the broader tech industry is grappling with today. The truth is, women in tech is the topic de jour precisely because of discriminations and inequality. If and when “women in tech” is no longer a topic, the world would likely have moved to a place where real equality exists by default.
Having worked in environments (e.g., engineering) where gender issues exist, Allen acknowledged that there were moments where discomfort would settle in and pushback would occur. That said, Allen readily dispensed some helpful advice for working women: Gender differences and issues need not stop women. In general, learning how to navigate systems and people helps. Your job is to find the right people, connect with them, and keep pushing forward whether it is a startup or a corporate project.
Evercloak’s future: water and climate change
As a Velocity Stage 2 company, Evercloak’s goal is to build a global company that could scale massively, and Allen’s team is gaining great traction. “We have paid projects from customers, a great team with impressive background, but there is still a period of business maturation we need to go through,” Allen says. Fundamentally, Evercloak’s technology can function as a platform technology with new applications in multiple different sectors beyond what’s been proposed to Breakthrough Energy Solutions Canada. The biggest climate tech application, in Allen’s mind, is to enable desalination of water without intensive energy consumption, which contributes to the emissions of GHG and climate change. Desalination could become increasingly important in humanity’s future.
Advice for budding entrepreneurs and founders
For those who happen to be early-stage founders and are looking to set themselves up for long-term success, Allen encourages them to spend a portion of their time building out their professional and personal networks. She credits her early success to her colleagues, friends, and family. All of whom have together formed a great support network around her.
Allen says there are a couple of classic books on sales on her reading list right now. Both books are authored by Robert B. Miller and Stephen E. Heiman with Tad Tuleja. The first book is The New Strategic Selling, which frames sales as a joint venture and ‘win-win’ proposition. The second book is The New Conceptual Selling, which walks readers through how they too can develop a systematic process for sales.
For those looking to increase their knowledge in sales, they could prove to be useful.
“I’m getting some shipped to me right now. I can’t wait to dive in,” laughs Allen.