The Innovator’s Journey

SingularityU Canada Biotechnology Faculty Julie Legault
SingularityU Canada Biotechnology Faculty Julie Legault

Faculty Q + A

The Innovator's Journey with Biotechnology Faculty Julie Legault

Julie, you have had an interesting – and unusual – innovation journey. Tell us, how does someone with an artistic background, with both a B.F.A. and Master of Art degree, end up focusing on DNA technology at MIT?

During the first year of my Masters at the MIT Media Lab, I was tasked to help organize a synthetic biology, or biotechnology (biotech) workshop. This introduced me to a newfound love for biology and biotech. It helped me understand what it is, how it is used, and how the media can mislead those of us without scientific backgrounds when it comes to big scientific topics.

I then tried to explore biotech in a regular laboratory, but found that no existing resources were really made for beginners who just love to create and learn by doing. So, using my artistic design background, I created the learning tools I needed to explore the science comfortably, safely, and in my own office. It soon became clear that others could also benefit from these tools, and many educators, peers and others reaffirmed this once I started sharing my work.

In last month’s Bedroom Biotech webinar, you mentioned that “ethics is at the core of being a scientist.” How can scientists continue to innovate, while also considering the ethics of their actions?

Ethics don’t stop a scientist from pursuing a particular project, or stop innovating. Rather, ethics guide and direct a path forward using philosophical tools. For example, it is common in biotech to avoid using animals for testing unless absolutely necessary. You can learn a lot from using microbes and modelling without causing harm.

There are many other tools and contexts that can help shape your motivations and path to innovation. Ethics also involves learning about past methods, arguments and mistakes so they are not repeated.

young girl demonstrating science experiment
Julie is the Founder and CEO of Amino Labs, which helps young people learn and program bacteria with all-in-one beginner kits, at home or at school
You are an entrepreneur and educator with a background in arts who works in biotech – that is a lot! How do you explain to others exactly what it is that you do?

My job is to help beginners understand that biology isn’t made of magic, but can be manipulated to create new and important things like medicine, fuel and materials.

What are you most excited for on your journey with SU Canada in 2020?

With the SU Canada community being so diverse, I am excited to see the story of democratized biotech reaching different audiences and stakeholders across the country and the globe.

What are your predictions for 2020? What do you see happening in the world of biotechnology?

I see a lot happening – for Canadian consumers, we will see increased competition in biotech resources for education and to use at home. On an international level, there will be more media exposure about how different nation-states are competing to become the global leader in biotech. I also predict that the first CRISPR medical trials will show results.

Cryptocurrency and Philanthropy – Unlocking New Models of Giving

Cryptocurrency and Philanthropy - Unlocking New Models of Giving

by Krista Pawley, Co-Founder, Head of Reputation and Impact, SingularityU Canada

After the shopping blitz on Black Friday and Cyber Monday, this Tuesday, December 3, marks Giving Tuesday, the movement dedicated to giving back and supporting charities and non-profits. And while thousands of charities around the world will use this opportunity to encourage donations, only 2 per cent of them accept cryptocurrencies – a huge miss given the untapped giving potential.  

In Canada, adoption of cryptocurrency has grown significantly, with past or present ownership increasing from 3 percent in 2016 to  ~9 per cent, and general awareness of bitcoin at a high of 89 per cent  (in brief, bitcoin is the digital currency that utilizes cryptocurrency, which is the technology that acts as a medium for facilitating the conduct of various safe and secure financial transactions). 

While some of the largest nonprofit organizations in the world, including the United Way and The Red Cross accept bitcoin donations, cryptocurrency donations are only accepted by 2 per cent of nonprofit organizations in the U.S., Canada and Europe. By focusing their efforts on traditional donation methods, many charities are missing a largely untapped market, where an enormous opportunity awaits.  

SingularityU Canada Blockchain Faculty Anne Connelly prepared a report on the status of cryptocurrency donation programs at Canadian charities. Released on November 28, The Landscape of Cryptocurrency Donation Programs: Only 4% of Canadian Charities are Capturing This Lucrative Donor Market, contrasts interview results with Canadian charities against a survey sent concurrently to Canadian cryptocurrency holders to determine their giving preferences. 

“The goal [of this project] was to show the gap between the volume of Canadians who own cryptocurrencies and would be willing to donate them, compared to the number of charities that accept them,” Connelly said.  

Of the 163 Canadian charities contacted for this project (~4 per cent), responses were received from 115, with seven of them having a cryptocurrency program of some type. Yet perhaps the most meaningful takeaway is that, as a result of Connelly’s inquires, 24 charities expressed interest in setting up a program, if they did not already have one, which goes to show that there are a number of organizations that will participate, if prompted to. 

The survey shared with the Canadian cryptocurrency community received 48 responses. Of those respondents, 90 per cent had previously donated to a charity using Canadian dollars, and 44 per cent were more likely to donate to a charity that had a cryptocurrency program, versus one that did not. Part of this, Connelly explained, is a reflection on the charity’s innovative mindset, and the notion that if they had a program, they would likely be more innovative across all aspects of their business, not just their fundraising programs. 

Connelly holds that this group is the fastest growing donor segment in Canada, and one that will be even larger in the years to come. This community has a number of wealthy donor prospects (with five Canadians on Forbes’ Top 15 Richest People in Crypto list), yet few organizations that can cater to their needs. 

As cryptocurrency donors differ greatly from traditional major donors, social-profits need to adopt a different strategy when approaching them, she noted.  

This is because some early adopters of cryptocurrency are interested in the philosophy behind the organizations they support, including their approach to freedom of access to financial services. Crypto donors are not only interested in the fact that a charity accepts cryptocurrency, but also that the charity believes in many of the principles behind it. 

A regulatory barrier also stands in the way of crypto-giving. Current Canadian capital gains tax regulations do not allow individuals to make a donation of cryptocurrency without paying capital gains tax. If the Federal Government wants to unlock this treasure trove of donations, regulatory changes need to be made. 

The numbers and intent are there: Canadians are philanthropic, with those above the age of 15 (~23.8 million) donating to charitable and nonprofit organizations, and the average Canadian donating 0.53 per cent of their income each year

Cryptocurrency holders have much to give, yet Canadian charities are largely overlooking this community. Ahead of the holiday season, charities should consider the inclusiveness of their outreach strategies, and understand the positive impact that may be made by embracing the changing donor landscape. 

Blockchain 101 with Blockchain Faculty Anne Connelly

Faculty Q + A

Blockchain 101 with Blockchain Faculty Anne Connelly

Anne, you are a leader and powerful voice in the global blockchain community – how did you first become involved in blockchain?

I first learned about bitcoin on Twitter in 2012. Immediately I thought back to my work in Central Africa with the ixo Foundation where I used to carry knapsacks full of cash across the country so we could pay our doctors and nurses. From there I realized that many of the applications of crypto and blockchain would be transformative for the communities I’d worked with.

If you had to explain blockchain to your grandparents, how would you define it?

It’s good you didn’t say parents. They’re OGs in the space. For grandparents… remember when you used to have to send letters to communicate with people far away? Sending money is like that today. It takes a long time and involves many companies in the middle to make it happen. Now think about how your ability to communicate changed when email came around. Blockchain is a technology that enables you to send money as easily as you send an email, without all those companies in the middle.

What are the industries or sectors in which you think blockchain could have the greatest impact in the next five years?

In five years, we’ll see more pick up on the enterprise side. Firstly, in finance – we’re already seeing pickup by the banking sector, and the tokenization of securities will completely transform investing. Secondly, in supply chain – for traceability of goods both in terms of authenticity, but also in terms of source verification. We’ve seen movement here by Walmart in ensuring food safety.

We heard you are working on a new graphic novel. Can you tell us a bit about your love of graphic novels and this specific project?

We’ve seen the rise of comic characters in popular culture, but graphic novels are not just for superhero stories. Many graphic novels tell the stories of real people facing war, heartbreak, or revolution. I am working with Chief Nyamweya, an artist in Kenya, to create a graphic novel that tells the story of a young Kenyan woman who learns about blockchain and uses it to transform her community. We are going to make the digital version free to access so youth across the continent can learn about blockchain and how it can impact their lives.

An excerpt from Anne’s upcoming graphic novel, “Trust”
How did you first become involved with SU Canada, and what do you enjoy most about your involvement in the SU Canada community?

I’ve been with SU Canada since January of 2018 when I joined as Faculty. Since then I’ve spoken at the 2019 Summit in Edmonton and at Executive Programs across the country.
Singularity University is a unique community of people who are improving the world around them and using technology to achieve it. I love our alumni, the curiosity they bring to the table to solve challenges, and how everyone supports one another.

As a speaker at this October’s SU Canada Executive Program, what are you most looking forward to?

Last time I got chased by a rooster across the vineyard. I have no doubt this year will be exponentially more fun.

Why do you think it is important that we run these Executive Programs, and what is the biggest takeaway participants can get from attending?

Not only will the Executive Program teach you how to think about your organization’s role in a world that is 10-50 years away, but it will connect you with the network you need to make that change.

Apply today to connect with Anne, other Canadian faculty and global leaders at the 2019 Executive Program, on October 21-24 in Niagara-on-the-lake, Ontario.

Business on Purpose with Social Impact Faculty Allyson Hewitt


Faculty Q + A

Business on Purpose with Social Impact Faculty Allyson Hewitt

Allyson Hewitt SingularityU Canada’s Social Impact Faculty, is the Senior Fellow, Social Innovation at the MaRS Discovery District – North America’s largest urban innovation hub. A global leader in social innovation and impact, Allyson works with social ventures, corporate innovators, and ecosystem partners to drive economic, social, and environmental sustainability.  Beyond her work at MaRS, Allyson is also a McConnell Foundation, Senior Fellow; the University of Waterloo Social Entrepreneur in Residence, and the Thinker in Residence for Australia’s Don Dunstan Foundation. A change leader at heart, Allyson has helped develop and led the national initiative Social Innovation Generation (SiG); the social finance programs of the Centre for Impact Investing; the MaRS Solutions Lab, a change lab designed to tackle complex challenges; and Studio Y, an initiative designed to support youth in thriving in the new economy.

In the latest SingularityU Canada Meet the Faculty webinar, Allyson discussed how purpose is the future of business, a topic that generated so many questions that we did not have time to respond to all of them on the webinar. So, as promised, Allyson has responded to the outstanding questions and provided additional insight into how you can (and must) combine profit and purpose to create organizations that will thrive in an exponential world.

What roles, skills or people are needed or are being recruited by businesses to transition to a more impactful economy? How do people outside of the business sector influence or contribute?

There are certainly people making transitions between sectors. In fact, we are encouraging the development of tri-sector leaders, but more often than not, we see the not-for-profit sector hiring those with business skills, especially at the senior levels instead of the other way around.  

We need to create a “business case” for why corporates could benefit by hiring those from outside the business sector. 

There are lots of ways people outside the business sector can influence or contribute to any sector. In the webinar, we discussed the opportunity to influence decisions as both consumers and shareholders. Other ways include linking corporates to meaningful pro bono opportunities in the social impact sector (going beyond “painting a wall”); to helping change the perspective of other sectors which are currently defined by what they are instead of the impact they make. Finally, we need to create opportunities for cross-sector collaboration to solve our tough challenges and create spaces for the various perspectives each sector brings to bear.

How has the move towards purpose changed or influenced traditional philanthropy (i.e. corporate giving, founding foundations)? 

Philanthropy (like most sectors) is experiencing significant change,  including the desire of high-net-worth donors to become more engaged – beyond (but always including) cheque writing.

Philanthropy used to be the primary way certain groups of people “did good” alongside volunteering. Today, there are more ways to leverage your funds, through efforts like impact investing, which will help you achieve both financial and social impact. 

The philanthropic sector is best advised to be aware of these trends, to determine how efforts such as layered financing (starting with a grant and then moving to a loan for programs that have the capacity to generate income) can get us to new levels of impact. 

Can you share any suggestions on resources for the impact of purpose-driven business on traditional philanthropy? 

A book recommendation is Winners Take All by Anand Giridharadas. This book is getting a lot of attention and is worth reading as a challenge to some of the dominant trends exercised by high net worth philanthropists in particular. For more on that topic, see how they are setting up companies to invest (instead of foundations) to approach the issues they choose differently. Here is one such article on that topic.

“We are in a war for talent, but you can win by putting purpose first.”- Allyson Hewitt

In your opinion, where would purpose sit within a company’s business model? Should it be coupled with the value proposition (proposition to be seen through the lens of purpose)? 

Purpose should be at the core of a business model. Since 2011, Michael Porter and Mark Kramer have been working on a “Creating Shared Value” approach that addresses this concept (in a way that resonates with many), and in a recent speaking event I attended in Sydney, the dominant narrative was that if “purpose is the why – creating shared value is the how.” You are advised to decide for yourself how best to position purpose in your organization based on the state of readiness for adoption.

Are you aware of any organizations or investment firms doing ROP (Return of Purpose) evaluation? Business case for the purpose and social impact movement? 

I have not been doing work in this area using this language, but it all seems related. The dominant theme still seems to be “Social Return on Investment” analysis.  But it appears the Centre for Executive Excellence has been exploring this concept, and Ketchum and Carol Cone have completed this work. All are very interesting contributions to the field.

It’s clear that CSR (corporate social responsibility) and 3BL (triple bottom line) need to evolve, and purpose seems to be the way forward. In your opinion, where did the 3BL model fall short in addressing sustainable development issues? 

I’m not sure if the model fell short in as much as I think it evolved, as all these movements do. 

It is, however, a great question worth exploring more fully and I’d be keen to hear the input of others. If I had to guess, it would be that it did not hold these activities at the core of the business but as adjuncts, or ‘nice to do’s,’ instead of the social and business imperatives that they are. 

Allyson, you were instrumental in bringing BCorps to Canada. How do you see this fitting into the “Business on Purpose” space?

B Corps are a growing global movement and they are certainly worth exploring, if only to take their free online assessment to determine areas for improvement. There is real leadership coming from this movement and I’d suggest people read their response to the Business Roundtable latest doctrine on the purpose of a corporation

You were on the Steering Group that developed the Social Innovation and Social Finance strategy for Canada with the federal government – are corporates playing a role at this level?

Yes, but it is marginal. Interestingly, I’m hearing more about the Task Force on Sustainable Finance, and our goals should be to integrate the work on this group and that of the SISF Strategy. We definitely have room for more engagement here. 

Watch the full recording of Allyson’s webinar – Business on Purpose!