The TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good is planting the seeds of impact investing to help social enterprises bloom
This story originally appeared in Disruption Magazine
Profit with a purpose
For TELUS, purpose and profit go hand in hand. It’s why the company launched the TELUS Pollinator Fund for Good in 2020, focused on investing in for-profit businesses driven by impact.
The seeds for the Pollinator Fund were planted long before COVID-19 became a reality in 2020, but as the pandemic created greater uncertainty around the global supply and health outcomes, it became clear there was a need for hope amidst the chaos. Darren Entwistle, President and CEO of TELUS, moved quickly to harness the disruptive moment, accelerate timelines, and launch the fund eight months into the pandemic, offering support for founders looking to establish and build sustainable businesses.
At $100 million, the Pollinator Fund is among the world’s largest corporate social impact funds. Its investments are driven not just by financial returns but also a clear impact return. A social-impact return is non-negotiable. For a company to be considered, it must demonstrate how it will create measurable impact in addition to being a viable, scalable venture. That last part is key because to scale the impact outcomes, a company needs to be able to scale financially. The profits are what generate its ability to drive increasing positive impacts over time.
“We're investing in for-profit businesses that are purpose driven. They're both financially compelling and have a framework to create impact which grows as the company scales financially,” says Blair Miller, Managing Partner for the Pollinator Fund. “It’s also about improving the sustainability, health, and inclusiveness for the communities in which we live, work and serve.”
Investing in sustainable growth
The Pollinator Fund’s focus is on four key “impact pillars” — supporting responsible agriculture, transforming healthcare, caring for the planet, and enabling inclusive communities. The fund prioritizes ventures that are addressing major challenges the world is facing today, for which solutions are in greatest need.
“These are key challenges that, as a society, we need to be invested in driving significantly better outcomes,” says Miller. “We believe that we can use the instrument of business to help drive better outcomes in these spaces.”
The Pollinator Fund prides itself on maintaining a service level threshold that brings with it numerous other benefits that can help nascent companies grow successfully and sustainably. Founders can leverage the knowledge of the diverse TELUS network, tapping into the vast expertise across the company. Plus, having a major corporate institutional player at the table can help attract other investors. According to 2021 data, the Pollinator Fund helped 30 per cent of its portfolio companies unlock additional capital.
Brooke Harris launched her company, Goodmylk, in 2018 after realizing the market lacked a sustainably sourced and great tasting alternative milk made with clean, quality, organic ingredients like dry farmed almonds, while cutting out gums, fillers, and preservatives that many of the competitions’ products depend on. Goodmylk’s sustainability mission extends to its product packaging and to developing creative processing and unique formats to be able to scale sustainably. Today, it’s available at select coffee shops in California and can be purchased directly on the company’s website.
“We are out to impact the health of our community, empower people to understand and make better food choices, and make choices that are better for the planet,” says Harris.
She credits the Pollinator Fund team with helping Goodmylk be on the cutting edge of sustainability, and with helping to source everything from packaging to personnel to investment partners.
“Their financial investment came at a very important growth stage and has allowed us to launch the next version of our products, bring on key hires, and open new markets,” she says.
The Pollinator Fund’s investment approach is also focused on bridging historical and structural divides, ensuring marginalized voices traditionally excluded from investment opportunities have a real chance at succeeding in their business. Among the Pollinator Fund’s first 10 investments, 40 per cent of portfolio companies were led by women and half were led by Indigenous or racialized people. That’s a stark contrast to the broader market where just a tiny fraction of venture capital investments go to women or racialized people.
“That's an important part of bridging the gap and it also means unearthing some fantastic opportunities,” says Miller.
One such opportunity is Pocket Naloxone, headed by CEO Ashanthi Mathai. Pocket Naloxone was conceived in 2019, in direct response to the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s unprecedented call for over-the-counter naloxone, a medication used to reverse the effects of opioid use and reduce overdoses. Currently in development, Pocket Naloxone hopes to put a clinically superior, affordable, and much more accessible product into the hands of everyone who needs it, from individuals to institutions, as the opioid crisis reaches dire heights in communities across North America.
“The barriers of stigma and accessibility and affordability are huge and are preventing naloxone from being readily available at hand when it’s needed,” says Mathai. “Every eight minutes somebody is dying from an opioid overdose in the U.S., which is tragic and unnecessary given that we have this life-saving medication available.”
“Having an investment of capital from the Pollinator Fund was key in driving the momentum of the product,” adds Mathai. The company is preparing its regulatory submissions now and hopes to be available on store shelves and through online retailers in 2023.
“Aside from the seed equity investment, Pollinator has played an active role. They’ve really been there to help us and guide us and provide resources and referrals as we go into the next round of fundraising.”
The Pollinator Fund also has an impact mission of its own: encouraging other corporations to take the plunge into impact investing.
“When others get involved in impact investing, it reinforces that purpose-driven enterprises can do some good in a world where consumers are expecting more from companies, while also generating financial returns,” says Miller.
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