The ClimateSpark Venture Challenge: Social Ventures for Climate Change

What do you get when you bring together a government agency, community foundation and community hub, all focused on innovation?

Yesterday, it was a room bursting with poo-tential. A large contingent of Torontonians who care about climate change, believe in social innovation, and support social entrepreneurship came in droves to the Bram and Bluma Appel Salon at the Toronto Reference Library for the ClimateSpark Launch Gala.

Poo-tential? Yes, at least $40,000 worth of it. ZooShare, a biogas cooperative that turns animal waste from the Toronto Zoo into energy, won the Toronto Community Foundation’s Green Innovation Award on Tuesday night. Cue a host of bad puns and more toilet humor than one would imagine from a crowd that was otherwise partaking of hors d’ouevres such as salmon rolls and mini mushroom pizzas, and organic beer. On the night, however, it was completely appropriate.

“I love it; when you get older, making jokes like this seems childish, but it breaks the ice and really helps with brand recognition,” remarked Daniel Bida, Executive Director of ZooShare. We’ll be looking out for Zoo Poo when it comes to garden centres across Toronto. To learn more about ZooShare and its innovative business model, watch the video below.

The other big winner on the night was Young Urban Farmers CSA (YUF CSA), an entirely youth-led organization that runs neighborhood-based community shared agriculture programs. Taking the idea of local food to the next level, YUF CSA provides urban-grown produce to Torontonians while also running training and education programs in hopes of sparking “a new revolution in sustainable urban living”. Here, Stella Woo of YUF CSA talks about what the organization learnt from the ClimateSpark process.

The ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge was launched in September 2011 through a partnership between the Toronto Atmospheric Fund, Toronto Community Foundation and Centre for Social Innovation. The goal was simple: find 10 great ideas to help deal with climate change in Toronto. A three-stage competition was set up, focusing heavily on community engagement, and culminated in the glittery Gala last night. The Challenge was divided into three stages:

1) Ignite: A nine-week online challenge where over 3,000 community members reviewed and voted for social ventures, with twenty being shortlisted for another online round of review, where 10 finalists were chosen. Entrants were judged on the basis of business viability, climate impact, innovation and community connection. Selection was on a weighted basis with the 20 CimateSpark Experts accounting for 50% of the vote, 30% for community reviewers, and 20% for the three convening ClimateSpark Partners.

2) Accelerate: Ten of the original 61 entrants received $1,000 and spent a day with expert advisors, working to improve their proposals, business concepts and pitches in preparation for the next stage.

3) Launch: The finalists pitched their ideas to a panel of impact investors and grant-makers, vying for the Toronto Community Foundation’s $50,000 Green Innovation Award. A pool of over $500,000 in grants, loan funds and equity investments was also made available for deserving ideas.

There were a number of noteworthy features of the ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge.

Unlike many other social financiers, the ClimateSpark team used a fairly open interpretation of ‘social venture’, letting all kinds of organizations, whether business, nonprofit, or even community initiative, into the competition. The conditions of entry were fairly simple – you had to combine financial sustainability with a climate benefit. This brought in a wide variety of projects, as Keir Brownstone of Social Housing Services Corporation explains:

The community-driven aspect of Ignite was particularly interesting; it attracted 3,000 comments from over 2,300 online reviewers and participants, which is significant given the time investment required. Each online participant received points for taking part and was eligible for prizes. They could even invest in a ‘Spark Market’ of social ventures. It’s no accident that the room was packed yesterday.

Finally, the collaboration between three organizations that wanted to take a leadership role in promoting innovative ways of addressing the challenge was really important. Julia Langer, the Executive Director of the Toronto Atmospheric Fund (TAF), highlighted the importance of bringing together three different networks in helping put together this program.

TAF also announced that their support for social ventures did not end with the program; in keeping with their impact investing commitment, they announced a two-year grant of $150,000 to Summerhill Impact’s Shuttle program, and bridge financing to ZooShare worth $250,000. Even more interestingly, the ClimateSpark Challenge may look to become a social venture itself in its next iteration – you read it here first!

The winners last night represented the diversity of the applicants. YUF CSA is a nonprofit, only two years old and led by youth. Several staffers have little or no business background – and have produced excellent results. They plan to use the money for capital investment to reduce organizational costs and improve efficiency. ZooShare, on the other hand, is a nonprofit cooperative whose team combines decades of experience in the energy, biogas and community power industries. They intend to achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions of over 10,000 tonnes per year and make a 14% return on investment while doing it. ZooShare also plans to issue a community bond in order to finance their operations, one of several organizations that are pursuiing this model after the Centre for Social Innovation successfully used it for their Annex.

While there isn’t enough space to describe each of the 10 finalists for the TCF Green Innovation Award, each of them deserves further attention:

  • GreenHeroes – Designed to help transform audiences from mere viewers to involved do-ers by connecting them to people who heroically ventured forth and acted on an idea to help protect the planet. 
  • Carbon Savings – Reducing society’s demand on natural resources by promoting environmentally preferred products (EPPs). Carbon Savings focuses on public awareness by helping people to understand how to conserve water and energy and then to estimate the financial and environmental benefits associated with each method.
  • Low Carbon Condominium – A new condominium with the lowest carbon footprint in North America, developed by Options for Homes.
  • unstash – A peer-to-peer online service for collaborative consumption, tackling the often unspoken cause behind greenhouse gas emissions and climate change – our unending consumption of goods.
  • SolarShare Community Solar Bonds – Opening the door to everyone to participate in the solar economy in Ontario. SolarShare, previously profiled on, offers $1000 bonds that offer a 5% rate of return.
  • Lightweight Rooftop Vegetable Gardens – Designing and building year-round rooftop vegetable gardens that will serve private citizens, restaurants, community groups and schools by providing local, organic produce on site for kitchens and nutrition programs.
  • Shuttle (formerly 10/10 Commuter Challenge) – A project aimed at helping motorists in the City of Toronto to reduce their vehicle kilometers travelled (VKT) by providing unique incentives and tips for travel optimization.
  • Inter-School Collaboration for Conservation Quantification – Empowering Grade 8 students and teachers to understand the direct impact that their actions to reduce energy consumption will have.

Congratulations to all of the finalists and the two winners, and most of all to the three organizations that put together this initiative: Toronto Atmospheric Fund, Toronto Community Foundation, and the Centre for Social Innovation. It is safe to say that everyone walked out last night with a little more optimism and inspiration than before, and that is, in itself, a social impact worth celebrating.

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