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By Peter Moreira

For a mid-sized city, Halifax sure is making waves at the global XPRIZE competitions.

That point was driven home once again in early May when the XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion competition announced its six finalists, which will square off for the US$15 million (C$20 million) prize to be awarded next year. One finalist was a partnership called Team ProFillet, which comprises Halifax-based Smallfood and Toronto’s Terra Bio.

Smallfood, led by serial entrepreneur Marc St-Onge, is only the latest company from the Nova Scotian capital to find success in these global competitions that aim to solve the world’s biggest problems. The best known is Dartmouth-based green materials maker CarbonCure, but Planetary Technologies has also won money from the contests.

What is the XPRIZE?

To help understand the significance, it would help to get a bit of background. A few years back, entrepreneur and author Peter Diamandis started the XPRIZE movement to help solve big problems. He was inspired by the $25,000 prize offered by French hotelier Raymond Orteig in 1919 to the first person who could fly from New York to Paris nonstop. Eight years later, Charles Lindbergh won the prize in the Spirit of St. Louis, and aviation history changed forever. What Diamandis noticed was that the prize money was $25,000, but the nine teams competing in the Ortieg Prize spent a total $400,000 to develop their planes.

The lesson he drew was that by hosting a high-profile prize with a big prize purse, teams of highly driven entrepreneurs will invest several times more than the prize pot to develop and launch new technologies. The winner will grab the prize and the headlines, but the other teams will have accelerated their development and move humanity closer to adopting much-needed technologies. There are now XPRIZES in a range of fields, such as carbon capture, healthcare and education.

The Halifax startup community grew more aware of the XPRIZEs when CarbonCure entered the NRG COSIA Carbon XPRIZE a few years ago and progressed into the later rounds. The goal of this XPRIZE was to develop a product that used carbon that would otherwise by sent into the atmosphere.

CarbonCure and XPRIZE

CarbonCure – which assigned then-President Jennifer Wagner to lead its XPRIZE participation – had an advantage over its competitors because it already had a product in the market. Whereas traditional concrete makers emit vast amounts of CO2 when curing concrete, the CarbonCure process actually uses CO2 in the curing process, capturing the gas within the rocky material. The company’s investors include the Breakthrough Energy Fund, whose a clean energy fund backed by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg and other billionaires.

CarbonCure was one of two winners of the competition in 2021, taking home a total of US$8 million and accelerating its plan to remove carbon from the atmosphere. It now aims to remove 500 megatonnes before 2030.

Last year, CarbonCure announced through social media that it was in the hunt for a second XPRIZE – this one, the competition to remove carbon from the atmosphere. But another Halifax company trumped it for attention in the early stage of the competition.

Notable XPRIZE Startup Winners 

The Carbon Removal XPRIZE, which will award US$100 million in 2025, awarded 15 Milestone Awards worth US$1 million apiece to help promising companies develop their products. One of them went to Planetary Technologies of Halifax.

Planetary is working on a system that converts discarded alkaline rocks into bicarbonate, which is then released into the ocean. Bicarbonate is an alkaline substance and it counteracts ocean acidification. This means it chemically extracts carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

A third Halifax company that entered the Carbon Removal XPRIZE is Reazent, which is developing organic fertilizers and pesticides that protect plants against disease.

The XPRIZE movement was in the local news again in May 2023 when ProFillet – which featured Halifax’s Smallfood – was one of six finalists announced for the XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion competition. Founded in 2018, Smallfood aims to produce protein-based ingredients for the food and animal feed industries, manufactured via industrial-scale algae fermentation. In partnering with Terra Bio, it is working on a plant-based substitute for fish.

There’s one final note about the Halifax companies that have made waves in XPRIZES. Jennifer Wagner, who led CarbonCure’s XPRIZE first bid, left the company last year. Now living in P.E.I., Wager has taken a job as a fellow at Breakthrough Energy Ventures.

While Breakthrough, which has raised more than US$2 billion, invests in late-stage companies, it also has programs that help burgeoning cleantech companies to grow. That’s where Wagner comes in. Her job is to support and nurture cleantech startups working in industries in which CO2 emissions are stubbornly high, like cement and steel.

She is now working with companies from around the world that one day may qualify for Breakthrough funding – or may one day compete in an XPRIZE competition.