Entrepreneurship is the heart of the University of Waterloo.
The University is widely known for thriving technology companies — in everything from quantum computing, artificial intelligence and robotics to nanotechnology — that grew out of its incredible ability to generate startups.
But today, in a world beset by climate change and other formidable challenges, a different type of entrepreneur is emerging: one that cares deeply about making a positive impact on society and the environment.
Indigenous entrepreneur Evan Vandermeer (BSc in progress) is a perfect example.
Vandermeer founded MycoNutrients, a mushroom-supplements distribution business grounded in Indigenous values of nurturing family, the Earth and one another.
“We’re put on this Earth to solve problems we are uniquely equipped to solve.”
Evan Vandermeer (BSc in progress)
Vandermeer’s family was originally from Watha, a small Mohawk or Kanienʼkéha community near Gravenhurst, but he grew up on Oneida Nation of the Thames, a First Nations community in southwestern Ontario near London.
He came to Waterloo when he was 18 and worked in various enterprises, including real estate, before enrolling at Waterloo as a mature student at age 25. Now 28, he’s pursuing his biology degree on a part-time basis while also working as the Indigenous entrepreneurship co-ordinator at United College.
Vandermeer became interested in the potential health benefits of mushrooms in his early 20s because he had a partner who died of an autoimmune disease. His sister was also diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. The more he learned about mushrooms, the more he became a believer in the healing power of edible fungi.
He began by growing mushrooms at home, in particular a species known as lion’s mane that has long been purported to have healing properties. Vandermeer also learned how to make extracts from fresh mushrooms. Today, however, MycoNutrients sources its mushroom extracts from manufacturers to make the products more consistent.
The business has lab space at Velocity Science and the supplements are sold on a subscription basis, while Vandermeer works on the brand awareness aspect of the business. The products have many fans, including Vandermeer’s sister, who has felt better since trying them.
A friend introduced Vandermeer to GreenHouse, a social impact incubator for students and community members who want to create social or environmental change. GreenHouse is part of United College, an affiliated institution of the University of Waterloo that offers programs tailored to Indigenous entrepreneurs who want to have a positive impact on their communities.
From the get-go, Vandermeer knew it was a perfect fit.
Last fall, at the 27th Social Impact Showcase run by GreenHouse, the MycoNutrients team consisting of Vandermeer (biology) Saira Hadi (biomedical sciences), Ryan Mitchell (psychology) and Jonathan Chen (biophysics) was awarded $2,500 to support the venture, as well as an extra $1,000 in funding for winning the People’s Choice Award with a story about love and family.
For Vandermeer, the commitment to community and giving back is as important as anything he does in his business. A couple of years ago, he worked with a House of Friendship team that taught teenagers how to cultivate food plants at the Sunnydale Community Centre community garden.
He’s also part of a group at GreenHouse that has access to a space where they can grow Indigenous sacred plants such as sage and squash. “Food sovereignty has always been a big focus for me,” Vandermeer said.
He also loves to educate people about mushrooms.
“We tend to think we're the smartest organisms on the planet, but if you study mushrooms for a year, you'll realize how intelligent they are,” Vandermeer said. “They can be used to make quantum dots for sensing applications, in a way that doesn't pollute the environment. They can be used to make building materials that self-repair. They can be used to make computer chips that are flexible."
Vandermeer isn’t interested in chasing another new convenience. “It's tough for me to see a cup that connects to a smartphone to keep coffee at a perfect temperature when I know that our communities don't have clean drinking water,” Vandermeer said. “I support innovation, but come on, we do have bigger problems.”
Vandermeer said it’s easy for young people to catastrophize, so he wants to paint a picture of a better future. The Earth can heal itself if we let it, he added. “We need to start trusting our Mother Earth, and just get out of her way.”
He hopes his business can make a difference. “It’s my hope that we can start a dialogue for a positive future, where humans have learned to live in harmony with all the living things on Mother Earth, so that we can all enjoy wealth, abundance and a sustainable future.”
Black and gold fest
Join us for Black and Gold Fest running from September 23 to September 30, 2023. Celebrate the Waterloo alumni community with a line-up of international and on-campus events. Visit the Black and Gold Fest website to learn more.