Two startups determined to make the world more ecologically sustainable emerged Thursday as the winners in the Fierce Founders pitch competition, walking off with a total of $100,000 in prize money.

The top prize of $60,000 was awarded to Willow Cup, a company that makes a milk substitute from plants.

A second-place prize of $40,000 went to Genecis EnviroTech, which makes a machine that transforms restaurant food waste into raw material for products like bio-degradable plastic, pharmaceutical drugs and bio-fuel.

“I’m a bit in shock, actually. I’m so honoured,” said Sarah Bonham, Willow Cup’s CEO and co-founder.

A total of eight women finalists from a Fierce Founders Bootcamp cohort of 25 companies made pitches before a panel of seven judges. And, for the first time, a pitch was additionally made by a not-for-profit social agency, the Shore Centre, which, although not a traditional tech firm, took part in the entire Bootcamp program. Shore Centre, formerly known as Planned Parenthood, made use of the camp to generate ideas that will help enhance the way it engages with its clients and improve the relevance of its website interface.

“[The Bootcamp] was super intense,” said Shore Centre Executive Director Lyndsey Butcher. “I learned so much that I can apply right away. And the participants were so generous with me. I know I’ll be able to count on them down the road.”

The decision by the judges to split the $100,000 grand prize — donated by Waterloo Region tech company Kognitiv — reflected the high quality of the pitches and the unique problems being tackled by each of the eight companies.

“It was a very difficult decision,” said Janet Bannister, one of the judges.

“We had a lot of debate in the judging room.

“But what both those [winning] companies have is a unique product and they’re going after a large market and solving a real need.”

“We always look at what [a company has] accomplished relative to how long they’ve been around. That was a big thing. Based on that, both of those companies showed a lot of ability to get a lot of stuff done quickly.”

fierce founders winners

Winners in the Fierce Founders pitch competition, from left, Luna Yu, CEO at Genecis EnviroTech, and Sarah Bonham, CEO of Willow Cup. At right, event moderator Holly Pearson. (Communitech photo: Meghan Thompson)

And the reason that Willow Cup proved to be the winner?

“Willow Cup was further along,” said Bannister, who is General Partner with Real Ventures.

“It’s in advanced discussions with several large companies, which indicated to us that this company can not only develop [their product] but can sell it and get it to market.”

The Fierce Founders Bootcamp is a Communitech program designed to help women tech entrepreneurs build their companies. In addition to Kognitiv, the program is sponsored by Deloitte, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Thomson Reuters and Google.

Bonham said she will use the money she won to conduct shelf-life certification for her plant-based milk product and possibly add another employee.

“We have a potential major partnership opportunity with a global food company,” she said, “but [first] we need to do the shelf-life certification.”

Luna Yu, founder and CEO of Genecis EnviroTech, said her cheque will help “accelerate our research and development” and aid in the production of the company’s first commercial prototype.

She said it wouldn’t have been possible to emerge as a co-winner without the help provided by the Fierce Founders program and the other participants.

“[Winning $40,000] is unreal,” she said. “I owe it all to these people I met through this program. There’s no way I could have pitched with that intensity without them.

“This will help us get to market and get traction.”

Other companies that made pitches included iRestify, an online booking system that simplifies transactions in the cleaning industry; Chillabit, a social media app for university students; Voltera, which produces a custom circuit board prototyping tool; Elementary, which provides a digital platform that speeds up the process of inspecting bridges; Schema App, a toolkit that allows digital marketers to enhance webpages with what’s known as schema markup, improving the page’s relevance in search engine queries; and Aurea, which is producing small-scale modular wind turbines that can be integrated as clusters into high-rise buildings, thereby reducing the energy they draw from a traditional electrical grid.

“I’ve never seen a group work this hard,” said Danielle Graham, Communitech’s Women in Tech Program Manager. “It was amazing to go through the experience with them, see them from start to finish and witness the changes that took place.

“Overall, [given the quality of the presentations] I would say I was happy the decision [about which pitch deserved to win] wasn’t in my hands.”

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