By the time Daniela Roeper reached the stage to claim first prize at the Fierce Founders Bootcamp Pitch Competition on Thursday, she was already sobbing. A mechanical engineer and founder of Borealis Wind, Roeper tried to thank the audience, but first had to assure them she would be OK.
“Before they called my name, I was thinking, ‘Two very impressive companies just tied for second,’” Roeper said in an interview, referring to runners-up Navi and Oneiric Hockey. “Then I thought, ‘There are six companies sitting here right now and every single one of them deserves that first place. Every single one of them has done an amazing job.’ I really wasn’t expecting to hear my name.”
It’s true, competition was stiff. The race was so tight that judges decided, unusually, to award two second-place finishers by carving into the first-place jackpot.
Navi, one of the second place finishers, makes a software tool for mobile web publishers. Its deep learning engine reads each page, then suggests other similar pages to readers. The company boasts doubling content consumption per reader, which means doubling revenue for its customers.
Oneiric Hockey, the other second place finisher, makes a protective pant for hockey players. It has pockets for shin pads that replace tape, a cut-resistant material that protects the achilles, a built-in pelvic protector and lightweight E.V.A. foam protection for the back of the legs. It makes dressing for the game easier and playing safer.
But the judges gave top marks to Borealis Wind, a de-icer for wind turbines. Ice is a major problem for wind turbine rotors; it prevents the blades from spinning, and waiting for it to melt costs money. Borealis Wind has a retrofit that suits all existing wind turbines and works by circulating hot air within the blades. It can de-ice a wind turbine in 90 minutes.
The judges were an all-star lineup: Steven Woods, Senior Engineering Director at Google Canada; Mallorie Brodie, CEO and co-founder of Bridgit; Janet Bannister, General Partner at Real Ventures (and founder of Kijiji); Alison Nankivell, Vice President of Funds and Co-Investments at BDC Capital; Louise Upton, Management Consultant Partner at Deloitte; and Andrew Lipstein, head of Global Programs and Governance at Thomson Reuters Labs. Together, they decided Borealis Wind was the best company of the bunch.
“I knew I had a chance,” said Roeper. “I knew I’d done well. But so had everybody else. So when I heard my name it was like, ‘They picked me. Holy shit. They picked me.’ And then realizing that that’s $40,000 I can put into my company… that means so much to me. Not only that, but I’m now in the Fierce Founders Accelerator as well, which is huge. All the mentoring that I’m going to get, the opportunities that brings… It’s really valuable to me. This is amazing. I can’t believe this is happening.”
Mentorship could be the most valuable part of the victory, according to Communitech’s Women in Tech Program Co-ordinator Danielle Graham: “There are far too few women in leadership roles who have ‘been there, done that,’ to mentor the next generation of women entrepreneurs. I seek them out, they seek me out, and we bring everyone together in this program. This year, we’ve got an incredible lineup of mentors, like Janet Bannister from Real Ventures, Caitlin MacGregor (CEO of Plum), and Nellie Vieira of Forrest & Associates.”
The reason there are far too few women in leadership roles has been on the mind of Communitech’s VP of Startup Services Steve McCartney as his team has put Fierce Founders together: “There remain some subtle, and from time to time not-so-subtle, hurdles faced by women starting tech companies that are not faced by their male counterparts. We’re hoping to find ways to level up that playing field — and soon. You don’t have to hang around these women tech leaders for very long to know we’re absolutely doing a smart thing here.”
For Roeper, the help couldn’t come soon enough.
“When I heard I was winning the $40,000… What that means for my business… I can’t even explain what this means for my business,” Roeper said, welling up again. “It means so, so much. It can get us so far. We work pretty lean, you know, we’re bootstrapping it, so the time this buys us… It’s amazing. I’m really excited.”
As for what this means more broadly for women in tech, Roeper is pithy: “I hope that this leads to us not needing a bootcamp like this in 10 years.”
Roeper plans to pour the money back into her company Borealis Wind, for principled reasons.
“My end goal is to get renewable energy installed everywhere in the world. I want to take away those barriers that are preventing us, things like high cost and safety concerns, so there’s no reason not to install renewable energy sources. Climate change is a big concern of mine, we’re already locked in for two degrees of warming which is labelled unsafe, we’re going to run out of fossil fuels… It’s time for us to start thinking. I’m so happy I have $40,000 to work with to move towards these goals.”