Combining her passion for engineering and entrepreneurship, Belinda Gilbey’s (BASc ’14) company, BONDI Energy, is a leading player in Ontario’s cleantech sector. Since 2019, the Toronto-based company has focused on retrofitting commercial and multi-residential buildings with heat pumps—lowering energy costs for property owners and shrinking their environmental footprint.
Gilbey’s journey to become an engineer started much earlier. Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, she loved math and science and was inspired to follow in her dad’s footsteps and become a mechanical engineer. “He was passionate about understanding the fundamental nature of the world and how it works. I share that curiosity with him,” says Gilbey.
Studying at uOttawa was a natural next step. The university was the right distance from home and offered what was, at the time, one of the only biomedical mechanical engineering programs in Canada. While at the university, Gilbey credits strong connections with friends and colleagues for helping her graduate: “Now, I’ve realized that it’s the same with business. You need to surround yourself with people who want you to succeed and with whom you can work together for that success.”
After graduation, Gilbey was drawn more to entrepreneurship than engineering. “I’ve always had an interest in running my own business and building something from scratch,” she says. “I like having the autonomy to forge your own path and make decisions.”
With business aspirations in mind, Gilbey sought out new skills and experiences. She refined her ability to pitch products and ideas by working in technical sales for a company that sold mounting equipment for solar panels. Her next role was in strategic account management for a commercial HVAC business, where she learned more about mechanical systems and the huge potential for a technology that was just beginning to emerge in North America: the heat pump.
Making the business case for heat pumps
Heat pumps heat and cool a building using a single piece of equipment. And they do so in a way that is three to four times more energy efficient than electric heating systems, and with a much lower carbon footprint than systems that burn natural gas.
Gilbey witnessed firsthand how building owners were looking to reduce their energy costs and improve their environmental performance. “I saw heat pumps as the solution and there weren’t many organizations focused on this niche,” describes Gilbey. “I decided to go all in and build a business case.” The opportunity presented itself when Gilbey met her business partner, Aaron Graben, a commercial property owner and one of her customers at the HVAC company.
In 2019, Gilbey and Graben co-founded BONDI Energy. Their first years in business involved demonstrating to building owners the value in retrofitting their properties. Despite their popularity in Europe, Australia, and other parts of the world, heat pumps weren’t yet widely installed in Canada. Building owners were skeptical about their winter performance.
To overcome this reluctance, BONDI ran pilot projects where the team retrofitted a few units with heat pumps and let property owners compare the energy savings to units that still ran on electric or natural gas heating systems.
“After one to two heating and cooling seasons, owners saw in their own buildings that heat pumps really make sense to their bottom line,” says Gilbey. “We’ve put in a lot of grunt work over the last few years, but we’re now seeing a lot of our pilot projects turning into full building retrofits.”
BONDI has partnerships with several heat pump manufacturers to make the retrofit process as seamless as possible for building owners. The team can also help owners navigate the many grants and tax credits that exist to incentivize the installation of energy efficient equipment such as heat pumps.
Focusing on large commercial and multi-unit residential buildings has let BONDI rapidly scale its impact and revenues—the company now employs 12 people and is on track to make $20 million in revenue in 2023. “Every day is an adventure and a new set of challenges,” says Gilbey of leading the company through this growth. “Entrepreneurship is nothing I could have expected, but overall, I feel very fulfilled.”
To date, BONDI has completed or contracted the installation of nearly 2,000 heat pumps. As a market leader in Ontario, Gilbey has ambitious goals for the company that include expanding across Canada and into the United States, growing its service offerings, and hiring more great people.
Reflecting on her uOttawa degree and career so far, Gilbey says engineering and entrepreneurship may be more complementary than one may think. “[With engineering] you learn how to break things down into steps. That analytical thought process is how I’ve been trained and that has definitely been helpful in navigating the challenges of entrepreneurship.”