For former UCalgary research associate Dr. Ali Telmadarreie, PhD, being founder of his own company and a CEO was never part of his future plans. After completing his PhD at the University of Alberta, and his postdoc at the University of Calgary, he landed a highly sought-after role as research associate on the UCalgary Canada Excellence Research Chair in Materials Engineering (CERC) team.
For the first time in his academic and professional career, Telmadarreie was encouraged to shift his mindset from traditional lab-based research and discovery to creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.
“UCalgary has a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation, and it is growing stronger all the time,” says Telmadarreie. “I was provided with the infrastructure to invent, but then I was encouraged to shift my approach to be innovative and pursue entrepreneurship and innovation with a purpose.”
Through his previous experience, Telmadarreie believed he was destined for a life of research and that his journey would stop at innovation. “Everything came down to the mindset at UCalgary and the system that supports you. CERC is a great example of that,” he says. “We were free to discover, we had the opportunity to fail and innovate. But then we were encouraged to continue to pursue our inventions beyond innovation and take it through the full entrepreneurial journey.”
Dr. Steven Bryant, PhD, leads CERC and attributes the success coming out of his lab to the Discovery-to-Impact Pipeline, an ecosystem that brings together UCalgary’s cutting-edge technology, access to infrastructure and equipment, and brilliant minds.
“By providing the means to inspire curiosity and exploration at every level, we increased the number of discoveries coming out of our research, delivering solutions to real-world problems.” says Bryant. “The growing challenges facing society need innovation and invention, and we’ve shown a way to ramp up innovations coming out of laboratory research. But that’s only part of how universities can contribute. Students and postdocs trained to do research with an innovation mindset are perfectly positioned to launch or join start-ups that commercialize their inventions. They have a tremendous multiplier effect solving problems, providing jobs and boosting the economy.”
During his time with CERC, Telmadarreie invented a novel nanoparticle-based foam and injection technology that supports enhanced oil recovery and improves CO2 storage efficiency. With support from CERC and UCalgary, he launched his start-up CNERGREEN. CNERGREEN enables oil companies to extend the economic life of their wells by extracting more oil, and supports the transition to a low carbon energy future by reducing emissions and storing more CO2 underground.
Taking the entrepreneurial leap
“UCalgary and this city is the best place to start a company,” said Telmadarreie, referring to the programs available to an entrepreneur. Innovate Calgary bridges the gap between research excellence and business, and supported him to commercialize his technology. The Hunter Hub for Entrepreneurial Thinking provided entrepreneurial training programs and support, while Platform Calgary provided valuable training and pitch coaching.
CNERGREEN also participated in the Creative Destruction Lab – Rockies’ Energy Stream. Although he didn’t make it to the end of the program, he made valuable connections with business leaders, investors and mentors, and learned what he needed to do if he wanted to take his company to the next level.
“UCalgary unleashes the potential of entrepreneurs like Ali Telmadarreie by challenging them to translate their knowledge into business ventures,” says UCalgary President Ed McCauley. “Our scholars are equipped with the foundational skills to develop their research into start-ups that will spur economic growth and create jobs.”
Telmadarreie’s first big entrepreneurial leap came when he was accepted into the Government of Alberta’s GreenSTEM program. GreenSTEM provides funding support for technology creation and high-tech entrepreneurial development, and gives entrepreneurs a level of security as they make what is often an uncertain leap.
The CNERGREEN CEO says this support made the decision to leave a safe, full-time position, an easier one. “The nature of entrepreneurship is unclear and uncertain, everything is dynamic. When that is tied to your way of life and the way you make a living, it makes the decision daunting.”
Now that he has made the entrepreneurial leap, Telmadarreie is grateful for the experience one can only gain as an entrepreneur. “This journey has taught me not to worry about failures and challenges, the key is to just get started. The road will be bumpy, but it will be full of rewards too. The benefits of the journey will remain with you for a lifetime.”
Taking risks can lead to some big rewards
After settling into GreenSTEM, Telmadarreie was encouraged by another innovator to apply to one of the largest energy accelerators in the world – the Equinor & Techstars Energy Accelerator. Cnergreen was selected as one of 10 exclusive start-up companies. The global accelerator saw nearly 400 applications from 44 countries, and Telmadarreie knew this was the break he needed to grow his business.
“I knew Techstars was a big opportunity, but now that I’ve completed the program, my definition of big has grown substantially.” Telmadarreie found himself fully emersed in his growing start-up, and dedicated every minute of every day working with Techstars mentors, making connections, further developing opportunities for pilot testing, and commercializing his technology.
After completing the three-month program, Telmadarreie feels the opportunity helped increase CNERGREEN’s maturity by three years, and taught him some valuable leadership skills, including their Give First Attitude, which sees the global community of entrepreneurs helping each other wherever they can. “Something that will stay with me for the rest of my career, is the importance of giving back and helping other companies, CEO’s and innovators as much as I can,” he says.
The momentum for CNERGREEN continues to pick up speed. The start-up was selected for a $50K prize from Equinor Venture, based on its technological potential, and Equinor’s interest to partner with the company. The Government of Canada also recently announced CNERGREEN has been awarded $0.9M as part of its Emission Reduction Fund Offshore Research, Development and Deployment Program, managed by Petroleum Research Newfoundland and Labrador. The company will use this funding to develop its ArmorFoam technology for the offshore oil and gas industry, and enable the oil and gas sector to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
After raising more than $1.5 million in industry support and grant funding over the last year, Telmadarreie credits the strong foundation in research, innovation and entrepreneurship built at UCalgary that has helped get him to this point in his journey. “I would encourage researchers to think about the impact of their research before selecting the topic. Decide what impact you want to see in society and why you want to see it. Then get started with discovery and exploration and fully utilize the UCalgary innovation ecosystem available to you.”
How entrepreneurship helped mitigate impacts of a global pandemic
Telmadarreie has found a similarity between life as an entrepreneur and a global pandemic — you just don’t know what will happen next. “Learning all of these entrepreneurial skills allows you to tackle an array of challenges, including a pandemic.” His leap into entrepreneurship happened shortly before the pandemic began, and he was soon pivoting from growing his business face-to-face, to virtually.
“CNERGREEN has been able to expand our network because it’s easier to connect globally,” he says. “We have connected with a broader network faster and more efficiently, because everyone is online.”
His goal for the company is to become a leader in carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS) technology, and he sees Alberta as the perfect place to make that happen. “With projects like the Alberta Carbon Trunk Line, significant existing oil and gas infrastructure, and talent ready to be deployed, there is no better place to make CCUS efficient and scalable.”
Building on his company’s success, Telmadarreie is grateful for what he calls this priceless entrepreneurial journey and an experience you can’t find anywhere else. “I have had to learn to become a CEO, accountant, lawyer, and so much more. A positive outcome for my company is great, but this entrepreneurial experience prepares you for any challenge to come.”