Written by Andrew Seale
Find yourself a zero billion dollar industry and start a business. That’s the advice The Next 36 co-founder Ajay Agarwal gave to a cohort within the entrepreneurial leadership initiative, and that’s the advice that spurred Zachary Lefevre, founder of ChargeLab, to look towards electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure.
“Find an industry that's so nascent right now that ten years from now is going to be a ten billion dollar industry but this year it's not even a billion dollar industry,” says Lefevre reiterating Agarwal’s advice like a mantra. And, in a way, it’s become one. Lefevre went through The Next 36 in 2015. “That program really shifted my perspective on entrepreneurship.”
He’d always been an entrepreneur. While other university students were spending their summers interning at major corporations, Lefevre was out, knocking on doors and trying to drum up business for his renovations, painting and odd jobs business. Within a summer, he was consulting others and helping them start their own, a franchise model surrounding the business he set up.
But Agarwal’s advice tugged his line of sight to the side enough to realize he was going about it all wrong. “If you want to build something bigger just do it,” he says. “It really is all about the expectations you set for yourself.”
He looked into electric vehicles – what was out there, what was needed. He’d always been interested in technology and EVs were “more tech than mechanical.”
“At the Next 36, everybody wanted to build the famous app or build something super sexy and everyone is going to know their company’s name,” he says. “But everywhere there is a technology boom there's going to be this backend infrastructure that people aren't really thinking about and that's where I started asking questions.”
Launched in Montreal, where he returned after his four-month stint at The Next 36 in Toronto, ChargeLab took aim at that backend, working with office buildings, big parking lots, and condos to demystify EV charging infrastructure. The people that live in these spaces are buying EVs or parking their EVs there, explains Lefevre. “A big part of our job is simplifying it for (building owners), explaining the process, the different hardware options they have.”
They provide all sorts of customized solutions from RFID cards that ensure only employees are using the charge stations, to billing systems and managing energy output according to the time of day or the number of users. They also collect data, which Lefevre sees as part of this “zero billion dollar” industry he’s after.
“We have all these charging devices connected to the internet and we get all sorts of interesting data,” he says. As places like Ontario – where only 20 per cent of energy consumed is electricity – shift from fossil fuels towards electricity-powered vehicles, energy providers will increasingly rely on sophisticated data surrounding electricity use to better anticipate needs.
Not to mention the environmental mission – some hours of the day energy is cleaner than others. “We want to optimize charging so its using power when it's cleanest,” he says.
ChargeLab is a member of CSI’s Climate Ventures, an incubator for climate entrepreneurs, innovators, and leaders. The startup moved its headquarters from Montreal to Toronto last April.
It’s both personal and business-related, says Lefevre. “Some really key hires for our organization are based in Toronto,” he says. “I think both Toronto and Montreal are great, but given our business and what we're doing, Toronto made more sense.”
He points out that while there seems to be a disconnect between the type of support policymakers tout for startups and the actual funding available from the investment community, Lefevre says its created a bit of an arbitrage play for less risk-averse investors south of the border.
“What you have is all these investors from Silicon Valley, New York and Boston looking at Toronto and saying there's a gap here – we're getting put on the world stage,” he says. “And the quality of startups is no less than Silicon Valley, New York or Boston.”
Photo credit: Cameron Bartlett (www.snappedbycam.com)