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Case Studies in Social Innovation: ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge

More than ever, social enterprises, entrepreneurs and not-for-profits are collaborating on innovative projects to tackle pervasive and challenging social and environmental problems. These are projects that are helping entrepreneurs to scale their businesses and social enterprises to move the key levers of innovation and achieve systems-level change.
One example of such a project is the ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge. The Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) teamed up with the Toronto Atmospheric Fund and the Toronto Community Foundation to create this program, with the goal to help Toronto tackle environmental and climate change issues. Specifically, the ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge was a collaboration to support social ventures with their solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

An innovative challenge to help reduce Toronto’s climate impact

The ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge was open to any social venture that included at least one non-profit partner and that could demonstrate a financially viable solution to reducing Toronto’s climate impact. The project partners and collaborators raised over $750,000 in grants, loan funds and equity investments.

The ClimateSpark Social Venture Challenge had three phases:

  1. Ignite: The first phase of the Challenge, “Ignite,” was an experiment in crowdsourcing. The nine-week online call for entries received 61 project submissions. An audience of 40 experts and 2,300 community members evaluated the submissions online, and 10 submissions were chosen to proceed to the next phase.
  2. Accelerate:This phase took place on November 28, 2011. CSI ran an event called the “Accelerator,” where it hosted the 10 winning applicants from the first phase of the Challenge. These 10 finalists had the opportunity to meet face-to-face with expert advisors who helped them improve their proposals and strengthen their concepts. It was an intensive cram-session in venture planning that helped contestants with all the pieces of a good business plan. The 10 finalists each received $1,000 to assist with participation and planning expenses during this phase.
  3. Launch: The last phase, “Launch,” included an opportunity for the 10 finalists to present their project to a panel of investors from both the philanthropic and for-profit sectors.  Each finalist had 10 minutes to pitch their concept. On February 7th, 2012, at the ClimateSpark launch, close to 300 green thinkers and leaders gathered to celebrate the 10 finalists. At the event, the Toronto Community Foundation announced the winners of its Green Innovation Award: it awarded $40,000 to ZooShare Biogas Co-operative Inc. and $10,000 to Young Urban Farmers.  The Toronto Atmospheric Fund also announced that it was supporting ZooShare with $250,000 in bridge financing, and the Summerhill group’s Shuttle program with a $150,000 two-year grant.


  • ZooShare Biogas Co-operative Inc. is a non-profit renewable energy co-operative that is developing a 500-kW community-owned biogas plant on the grounds of the Toronto Zoo. It is turning the Zoo’s annual manure output as well as food waste from Toronto-area grocery stores into electricity, heat, fertilizer and cash for the Zoo.
  • Young Urban Farmers is a non-profit organization that aims to reconnect people in Toronto―city dwellers―with fresh, locally-grown food. It does this by converting Toronto backyards into a sustainable source of fresh, delicious produce. Young Urban Farmers distributes this food via a community shared agriculture (CSA) model.
  • Summerhill group’s Shuttle program is an innovative program that will measure personal vehicle use in Ontario. This sophisticated tool will effectively encourage more efficient driving.

The Case Studies in Social Innovation database is a joint initiative between SiG @ MaRS and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.