The mood was joyous and full of humour among the two Build Ventures partners the day after the New England Patriots won the Superbowl.
Patrick Keefe, a Patriots fan, was delighted his team had prevailed the night before. And his partner Rob Barbara, a New York Giant supporter, was pleased that there was no longer a sore point that the Pats had lost two Superbowls to his team.
“This has really been the only strain in the relationship and now it’s gone,” joked Barbara over lunch at a Turkish restaurant in Halifax.
Barbara and Keefe are now about 18 months into their venture capital partnership, and so far there have been few problems other than the feud between their football teams. Since five governments and a few private investors came together to launch the fund, the duo have invested in five companies, and none has been a flameout. In fact, all five seem to be performing brilliantly – no mean feat in the chancy game of VC investment.
But the partners are quick to point out that they’re now going through the easy part of developing a VC portfolio.
“As well as things have gone in the first two years, we’re probably going to have bad news before we have good news,” said Keefe, proudly sporting a grey Patriots T-shirt.
Added Barbara: “If the fund is managed properly, the bad news is going to come first because we’re not going to hide behind it.”
Everyone knew there would be bad news at some point when the four Atlantic Canadian provinces and the Business Development Bank of Canada kicked in most of the more than $60 million for the fund. The idea was that there was a crying need for a financial body to provide follow-on funding to the best companies in the region. The best way to meet that need was for all four provinces to back private fund managers to ensure that there was sufficient capital and no political interference. Failures would happen, but they should be outweighed by successes.
So far, things have unfolded as planned.
Based in the Volta startup house in Halifax, the company has invested in five companies: Smart Skin Technologies, and Resson Aerospace, both of Fredericton; Introhive, of Fredericton and Washington, D.C.; Affinio of Halifax; and Celtx, of St. John’s. Though it’s still early days for all these investments, the Build partners are pleased that all five are reporting growing revenue and no major problems.
“That infusion of cash has helped us grow our business and really helped us get into the market,” said Smart Skin CEO Kumaran Thillainadarajah. Since Build and a host of co-investors invested $3.9 million in the company in January, 2014, Smart Skin’s team has grown from seven engineers to 13 and it has opened a sales office in Munich, Germany. The company’s revenues rose 600 percent last year.
Peter Goggin, the CEO of Resson, said his company has benefited from more than just money through the $3 million in funding it received from Build and Rho Ventures Canada. Barbara has joined the board and helped the Fredericton company make connections in Nova Scotia.
Keefe and Barbara are pleased to state that all these companies are doing well, but they know that will not always be the case.
The Build I fund will probably make 12 to 15 investments, and the partners know the nature of the VC trade is such that there’s bound to be a company or two that runs into trouble. And they will likely encounter problems before a member of the portfolio exits. That’s what Keefe and Barbara mean when they say they’ll have bad news before the good. Despite that, the prospect of a second Build fund does come up in discussions with Keefe and Barbara. Raising that fund may prove more challenging than raising the first, because the goal will be to raise money with a greater contribution from the private sector. That would be a challenge given the dearth of VC limited partners in Canada at the moment.
The Build Partners said Build I will have to be performing well when it comes time to raise Build II. That doesn’t mean there will have to be a range of blockbuster exits. But the partners will have to demonstrate that they backed companies that achieved dynamic growth in global markets.
Between now and then, Keefe and Barbara will continue to build out the portfolio of their first fund. They are visible at events around the region, and continue to seek opportunities. They have invested in three of the four provinces, and would like to make a deal or two in P.E.I., whose government invested $2.5 million in the fund.
Build’s most recent funding was its largest to date, and it demonstrates how the group’s roots in Atlantic Canada bring it opportunities before other funds learn of them. Build sank $3 million into the St. John’s pre-production software company Celtx in a deal that closed Christmas Eve. CEO Mark Kennedy said Keefe had been following the company since they met in Halifax in late 2011. “Back in the summer, I told [Keefe and Barbara] that we were taking a serious look at raising some capital,” said Kennedy. “I did an early pitch to get their feedback, and they were interested. Before long, Build agreed to invest.”
Barbara and Keefe are also willing to invest in companies outside the province. About 65 percent of Build’s funding comes from the Atlantic provincial governments, which means Build could invest as much as 35 percent of its capital in other places. Barbara and Keefe almost invested in a Montreal company recently, but were outbid by another fund.
Atlantic Canada will continue to be the focus of the firm’s activities. They perceive a huge amount of opportunity in the region, and are excited by the growth of the ecosystem. They’re also pleased to have developed ties with funds based in other parts of the world that are interested in investing in Atlantic Canadian startups and working with Build. In fact, the Build seal of approval is becoming a factor in outside investors’ investment decisions.
Said Barbara: “What we’re really pleased with is that when firms outside the region are considering an investment here, a lot of them want to know what Build is doing before they make their decision.’’
Full disclosure: Build Ventures is a former sponsor of Entrevestor and now advertises on our site.
This artricle was first published in the most recent Entrevestor Intelligence report.
Disclaimer: Entrevestor receives financial support from government agencies that support startup companies in Atlantic Canada. The sponsoring agencies play no role in determining which companies and individuals are featured in this column, nor do they review columns before they are published.