When Melanie McClare became Swirltex’s CEO in 2018, she saw the company’s global potential. Based in Calgary, the startup had developed a way to clean wastewater while reducing clients’ energy costs by more than 60 percent. Proprietary and scalable, the solution could be used on everything from run-off ponds to food processing facilities to heavy industry. And given the world’s worsening water scarcity, McClare was certain that Swirltex was on the margins of huge growth.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit — supply chains collapsed, cash-strapped clients cancelled deals, and McClare shifted to survival mode. Cutting Swirltex’s staff, however, and squandering five good years of R&D, was not an option. So, McClare sought an emergency round of capital to weather the coronavirus storm. She just needed a boost.
“Existential crises are everyday occurrences for startups,” McClare says. “But thankfully, MaRS programming is so vast. It’s a launchpad for any project, including capital.”
MaRS cleantech-sector advisor Rick VanSant has been McClare’s closest consultant since 2019. A veteran entrepreneur, investor and water-tech expert, VanSant was confident he could help Swirltex land investment. “Ventures with great leadership and technology always get funded,” he says. “Melanie has a rare combination of business acumen and technical expertise.” Swirltex’s product is special because it disrupts with math, rather than the actual machinery. The startup layers its software onto old hardware, improving existing membrane tech by manipulating the fluid in treatment, rather than the membrane material itself. The result: cleaner water and dollars saved.
But a pitch had to be made before funding could be secured. Meeting remotely, McClare and VanSant drafted a presentation to potential VCs, keeping in mind that they were also facing newfound risk and uncertainty. “Rick could at once get into the heads of investors and relate with me as an entrepreneur,” says McClare. They then reached out to VanSant’s network — VCs who share in Swirltex’s dual mission of environmental responsibility and financial return.
It paid off. Today, just over a year after Swirltex set out to raise capital, McClare and team secured a U.S.$1.33-million funding round. Swirltex is using the money to hire experienced water-tech executives and developer talent, as well as ramp up entry into the United States.
For McClare, the raise is (so far) the culmination of her partnership with MaRS. Along with VanSant’s coaching, she’s also received support in marketing, market research, presenting at industry events and applying to grants. Most importantly, she’s thankful for the mentorship. “MaRS advisors are systems unto themselves,” says McClare. “As businesspeople, they’ve seen it all and they lift you up while seeing you as an equal.”