Focus on leaders: Deep Sky's Damien Steel

ProfilesJul 8, 2024
Damien Steele Feature Wide

Damien Steel, the CEO of Deep Sky, didn't set out to save the world. In fact, for most of his career, he was happy building a successful venture capital portfolio at OMERS Ventures… yes, our very own firm. But a chance conversation with serial entrepreneur Fred Lalonde changed everything, setting Steel on a path to tackle one of humanity's greatest challenges: climate change.

"I told the CEO of OMERS that I'm not going anywhere. Like, ‘I'm looking at you in the eye, I'm retiring here. This is it’," Steel recalls of his mindset just eight months before taking the helm at Deep Sky. "I didn't really have the ambition to go elsewhere within OMERS, either. I really liked venture."

Steel's journey to becoming a climate tech CEO began in Whitby, a low-key town just outside of Toronto where he grew up watching his entrepreneurial father build a shrink wrap packaging machinery business and his bookkeeper mother work with "big wigs" in downtown Toronto. This early exposure to the business world, coupled with a strong work ethic instilled by his parents, set the foundation for Steel's future career.

"I knew I wanted to do business because I just liked the idea of business and economics. I was always good at math," Steel explains. His mother's insistence on getting a professional designation led him to pursue accounting, though he knew early on it wasn't his final destination. "I didn't want to be an accountant, but I knew if I get the letters, I can do a bunch of stuff after that."

After earning his CPA (then just called a CA) and CFA designations, Steel pivoted to corporate finance, working on raising money and selling to small- and medium-sized businesses. But at 23, he hit a turning point. "I realized, 'Oh my God, for the last five years, all I've done is write exams,'" he says. "I don't like who I'm becoming. This [interest] is more of a personal thing, not a business thing."

In a bold move that would foreshadow his future career shift, Steel quit his job, sold his car, and embarked on a seven-month solo backpacking trip through Australia and Southeast Asia. "Changed my life. Best seven months of my life," he reminisces. "It was unbelievable doing it by myself."

Upon returning to Canada, Steel found his way into venture capital through a fortuitous connection with Brian Kobus (yes, OV’s Brian Kobus), a former university co-op colleague. This led to a role at Edgestone Capital working under Laura Lenz (yes, OV’s Laura Lenz), who "taught me everything I know" about venture capital. Steel's career in VC flourished, eventually leading him to OMERS Ventures, where he rose to a leadership position in 2018.

It was at this point, when Steel felt he had reached the pinnacle of his career, that Fred Lalonde entered the picture. Steel invited Lalonde, the founder of travel tech company Hopper and chairman of Deep Sky, to an OMERS team offsite to present on Deep Sky's mission. What Steel thought would be a quick catch-up turned into a life-changing conversation.

“[Fred] closes the door and he's like, 'Hey, I just want you to know I'm saving a spot for you in Deep Sky,'" Steel recounts. "I'm like, 'What are you talking about?' He says, 'Well, you're going to run it.'"

Initially dismissive of the idea, Steel found himself unable to shake the thought of the opportunity. "For the next two weeks, I literally didn't sleep for more than two hours. I could not stop thinking about it," he admits. The decision to leave his comfortable position at OMERS and take a leap into the unknown world of climate tech wasn't easy, but Steel's competitive nature and desire to make a difference ultimately won out.

"I can think of a hundred reasons why this business might fail. They're all obvious," Steel says of his thought process at the time. "But if it doesn't fail, this is one of the greatest opportunities I've ever come across in 20 years in venture."

Deep Sky's mission is ambitious: to become a leading developer of carbon removal projects, partnering with multiple technology providers to scale up direct air capture and other negative emissions technologies. It's a space that's still in its infancy, but one that Steel believes is crucial for addressing the climate crisis.

"Carbon removal, what we're working on, is not the answer to the world's climate problems," Steel clarifies. "It is, however, part of the solution and the solution requires many, many, many, many things, including everything you read about. Reducing our dependency on fossil fuels, carbon capture at source, etc."

What sets Deep Sky apart is its approach as an "IP-agnostic project developer." Rather than developing its own carbon removal technology, the company partners with multiple tech providers, investing in their prototypes and helping to scale their solutions. This strategy allows Deep Sky to diversify its technological bets while focusing on the crucial task of project development and scaling.

"We're the only company in the world that's doing that," Steel explains. "I have a strong belief that like every other industry before it, this industry will evolve to a point where there's a difference between the creator of IP, and the builder of projects."

This approach also puts Steel back in a familiar role: that of a venture capitalist, albeit with a twist. "I'm actually part VC again because the companies that we're buying units from, we're paying a million to $4 million for prototype units. That's an investment in those companies," he says. "I'm meeting the teams, I'm saying like, can this team figure it out? We're going to bet on that team to figure it out."

Steel's venture background has proven invaluable in his new role, allowing him to mentor and support the startups Deep Sky works with. "When you're ready to fundraise, I want to help you. I want to mentor you," he tells the founders they work with. "I've started looking at pitch decks. I've started talking to founders and helping them get ready for fundraising."

The transition from venture capitalist to CEO hasn't been without its challenges. Steel admits to feeling overwhelmed at times, especially in the early days. "There are literally times where I will shut down the laptop, push back my chair and go through deep breathing exercises," he shares. "Because I know it. I'm like, 'I'm going to panic.' I know enough to know that that's not productive."

But Steel's years of experience watching founders navigate difficult situations have proved invaluable. "The amount of times I think about those people over the last six months is shocking," he says. "Like every day, every day I can think of a handful of founders that I hold in the highest regard still today. And I'm always thinking about them."

Despite the steep learning curve, Steel has found the experience incredibly rewarding. "I've never worked so hard in my life," he admits. "And I love 99% of every minute I work. And there's 1% where I'm completely overwhelmed."

One of the most significant differences Steel has noticed between his venture capital days and his current role is the immediacy of feedback. "In venture, the feedback loops are so long. You can go years and not know if you're doing any good," he explains. "Whereas in the operating world, daily you're losing and winning. And it's just constantly like – gut punch, gut punch, win. And it makes it all worth it."

As he looks to the future, Steel is both excited and sobered by the challenge ahead. The climate crisis is daunting, with tipping points looming and the carbon cycle at risk of breaking. But Steel remains optimistic about the power of technology and human ingenuity to rise to the challenge.

"I refuse to believe that we can't solve any problem with technology. I witnessed it for 20 years of my life," he states emphatically. "And so for this, there was an opportunity to be part of that solution, which I think was just super, super compelling."

Steel sees Canada as uniquely positioned to lead in the carbon removal industry, citing the country's abundant renewable energy potential, available land for project development, and geological storage capacity. "We have enough storage capacity identified under Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba to store every ton of CO2 humanity's ever put up in the atmosphere," he notes. "Not many countries can say that."

As he continues to build Deep Sky and advocate for the carbon removal industry, Steel remains driven by the enormity of the challenge and the potential for impact. "If we don't figure this out, it's not because we didn't try," he says, acknowledging the global momentum building around climate solutions.

For Damien Steel, the journey from venture capitalist to climate tech CEO has been a whirlwind of learning, challenges, and purpose. As he puts it, "It's actually the ultimate challenge." And it's clear that Steel is all in, ready to leverage his experience, network, and competitive drive to help build a multi-trillion dollar industry that just might save the world.