This month, we’re checking in with past VenturePrize winners to see how their companies have changed since winning the grand prize in the Student, Fast Growth, Health and TELUS ICT streams. This week, we spoke to Alex Villeneuve, founder of Ceres Solutions Ltd. and winner of the 2016 Student stream.

Ceres Solutions

Alex Villeneuve doesn’t mince any words when talking about his experience with Ceres Solutions: “Forming a company as a student has been one of the most rewarding and educational experiences of my life,” he says.

Alex’s venture, Ceres Solutions Ltd., has found a valuable use for what was previously a waste by-product from beer brewing by recycling the spent grain used by Alberta brewers. The grain is pasteurized, then inoculated with mushroom mycelium to break down leftover fibre, which produces enough nutritional biomass to yield protein-rich mushroom crops.

While going through the VenturePrize competition, Alex received business plan coaching through the VenturePrize seminar series, was paired with an experienced mentor entrepreneur, and learned effective presentation and pitching methods. He describes the preparation process and competition day as an unforgettable experience:

“The VenturePrize competition encouraged me to think creatively, practice my pitching skills and most importantly, pushed me to take my business plan to the next level. I knew the competition would be tough, and that encouraged me to consult with industry experts, find potential clients, and create goals for the development of the company and a solid way to achieve them. All of these factors were incorporated into my business plan, which has proven to be very useful in many aspects of day-to-day business, even after the competition.”

Alex pointed out that the time spent preparing and practicing his pitch provided valuable tools that have applied to other public speaking opportunities, media interviews, business trips, and even approaching potential clients.

Ceres Solutions was originally formed as a way for Alex to combine his diverse interests in brewing, sustainability, and culinary arts.

Before Alex even realized, he had been laying the groundwork of his company since high school: “I became heavily involved with the school’s aquaponic tilapia farm, community garden, and rooftop greenhouse. During this time I experimented with growing oyster mushrooms for the community garden’s soil enhancement and for use in the school’s culinary arts program,” explains Alex.

“I had always been interested in the fermentation of wine, beer, mead, soda and kombucha. I would often use herbs and spices from the community gardens and aquaponics systems to make locally-inspired drinks. One chef encouraged me to enter Edmonton’s first annual winter drink competition. I used ginger and herbs grown in the school’s rooftop greenhouse to create a ginger beer, and ended up winning the competition. It was here I met brewmasters and chefs who encouraged me to follow my dream to make a career of culinary art and brewing.”

Alex enrolled in the Olds College Brewmaster and Brewery Operations Management program in 2015, and during the first shift in the school’s brewery he noticed that the spent grains were difficult to dispose of. It was during this time that he learned ways of producing food from grains that would otherwise become waste: “The experiences and mistakes I made during these projects all contributed to me incorporating Ceres Solutions Ltd,” he explains.

Since winning the VenturePrize Student stream less than one year ago, Alex describes his company as having gone through tremendous changes. “Ceres has made progress on increasing the crude protein content of the grain, which can be largely attributed to the funds put towards necessary tools and ingredients used in our seed stock cultivation process,” Alex says.

“TEC’s award has allowed me to invest in some of the best equipment to ensure the product’s continued success. Because of these investments, I have recently had success growing mushrooms from wasted brewer’s grain in less than two weeks, which is less than half the time I recorded before the microclimate upgrades were made.”

For participating companies, the VenturePrize competition process takes several months from start to finish. During this time, entrepreneurs refine their business plans and pitches based on mentor feedback as well as insights gained from the month-long seminar series. Alex remembers that the whole process came with valuable insights, but certain aspects stood out specifically: “The most memorable part of the competition was speaking to and learning from the competitors both in my stream and in other categories,” Alex explains. “Each company approached the competition in a completely different way and brought unique expertise and a distinct idea to the table.”

“I was truly inspired by each and every one of the competitors and how they approached innovation. The VenturePrize competition brought out the best in each person who participated.”

Alex looks back on presenting his business plan to the judges as another valuable aspect of the competition: “The judges asked some excellent questions about the ideas and information, as well as the company’s expansion plan and finances.” He emphasized that this process encouraged him to be a critical thinker, and to demonstrate knowledge of his company’s business model.

So what’s next for Ceres Solutions? Alex is using a portion of the prize to purchase equipment, and has been researching the best ways to increase production. He will also consult with local brewers and farmers to determine mutually beneficial arrangements.

“Given the leaps and bounds in product development my company has undergone since winning the VenturePrize competition, I can only imagine what the future holds. My small company was given an incredible opportunity to progress at a rate that I never thought possible.”

Thank you to Alex for speaking with us! Stay tuned for interviews with other VenturePrize winners later this month.