Putting paid to the notion of Atlantic Canada as a marginal player in the world of startups, Entrevestor Live on Wednesday showcased some of the region’s highest-flying young companies.
A multi-billion-dollar, sector-pioneering materials business headquartered in the region, a labour crunch giving rise to ballooning tech salaries and a surge in venture capital valuations that could leave the ecosystem vulnerable to “a reckoning” are just some of the highlights of the three-hour conference.
Innovacorp Board Chair Nicole LeBlanc and Entrevestor Principal Peter Moreira spent three hours with a roster of startup community heavyweights for the online conference, which was presented in collaboration with Founding Partner BDC Capital. It aimed to explain to investors outside the region how some of our most notable companies grew their operations on the East Coast.
While many of the participants are experts in finance, one message that repeatedly came through was that the ecosystem faces a huge challenge in producing and attracting talent – not just IT talent but also senior executives who can grow global operations.
Here’s a look at the seven sessions, which comprised three deep-dives into leading companies and four panel discussions:
Overview of the Ecosystem
The theme of Entrevestor Live was the growth of startups into global corporations, and no company represents that trend more than St. John's-based fintech company Verafin, which last year was bought for US$2.75 billion. Co-Founder Brendan Brothers said his team was supported by the local ecosystem, which in turn benefited from Verafin's success,
"The [$525 million] round that we did in 2019 was an example of how we can do really great things in Atlantic Canada," said Brothers. “We get capital into the region [and gain expertise] … and we have the ability to share that information locally."
Dhirendra Shukla, who heads the University of New Brunswick’s Technology Management and Entrepreneurship program and serves as chairman of cybersecurity firm Gray Wolf Analytics, said Atlantic Canadian culture has grown more supportive of entrepreneurship as a career path.
“We’ve gone from, ‘Are you sure you can do it here?’ and fighting that mental battle, to ‘We can do it here,’” he said.
In recent years, the ecosystem has also been buoyed by the advent of successful founders who have exited from their businesses and are redeploying their capital to the benefit of other young companies.
“I think we’re seeing capital unlocked because the ecosystem is maturing, and so people who’ve had success with their own exits, they’re now investing in some of these early-stage entrepreneurs,” said Stefanie Corbett, who recently left Island Capital Partners to become CEO of Innovation PEI. “So we’re seeing that cycle of life. We’ve all been talking about it forever, but the proof is there, now.”
“Since COVID, we’re seeing the geographic boundaries kind of fade,” said Patrick Hankinson, general partner at early-stage venture capital fund Concrete Ventures. “So we’re seeing companies go to more accelerators, more incubators.
“They’re able to have more conversations with more investors over Zoom, so we’re seeing more competition happening from outside this region and more investments from outside this region.”
Nor is it only Atlantic Canada enjoying an influx of investor capital. The same pattern is playing out across the innovation economy, concluded the panel led by moderator Cathy Bennett, a Co-Founder of Sandpiper Ventures.
Startup valuations are becoming increasingly “frothy,” BDC Capital’s Michelle Scarborough said. As more capital flows into the startup ecosystem, the new funding is driving up valuations and forcing VCs to compete for deals -- though Hankinson and Rob Barbara, general partner at Halifax’s Build Ventures, said the ballooning valuations have not yet trickled down to pre-seed companies.
“Once we get into late-seed, Series A, that’s when ‘frothy’ starts to happen,” said Scarborough. “The valuations are -- I’ll say it -- bonkers... The time of reckoning is coming.”
When that reckoning might arrive, though, remains an open question.
“The probability that the capital continues to flow into the asset class is going to be dependent on returns from the funds,” said Rob Barbara, general partner at Halifax’s Build Ventures. “And it is harder to make money at the fund level today than it was 10 years ago.”
Meta Materials Inc. Chief Executive George Palikaras originally founded his advanced materials startup in the U.K. His decision to move the company to Nova Scotia was the result of a meeting with Lunenburg businessman Maurice Guitton and Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency exec Jeff Mullen.
Guitton would go on to become META’s chairman, but his support came with a string attached: Palikaras had to relocate his team so the relationship would not be hampered by distance.
“[Guitton] said, ‘George, we can help you, but you have to come to this region so we can have a relationship that is efficient,” said Palikaras.
He added that he found early support from several groups and individuals, including First Angel Network, whose Co-Founder Brian Lowe appeared on the panel, amd Innovacorp and ACOA.
Later, running up against the limits of how much funding he could raise via venture capital, Palikaras would make the then-unusual decision to take the company public.
“One of the challenges you have in venture capital is that people want companies that can scale, and then the typical model is that they exit somehow,” Palikaras told moderator Amanda Filipe, Director of the National Angel Capital Organization.
“Realizing that we started in one of the nichest market applications we could have, which was in aerospace, I felt we never really achieved the true value of the company, and basically, we needed additional access to capital,” he said.
Palikaras found his chance in the spring of 2020, when a lack of export capacity sent oil prices plunging into negative territory. The tanking prices left Texas-based Torchlight Energy Resources, which had a Nasdaq listing, looking to pivot to a more modern business, and ultimately led to the reverse acquisition that helped META raise about C$198.1 million and become the first publicly traded company to achieve unicorn status in Atlantic Canada.
Life sciences companies in Atlantic Canada have generated about $650 million in revenue so far. Prince Edward Island has doubled its overall revenue numbers twice in seven years and is on track to do it again in the next four years, and Nova Scotia is on a similar trajectory, said BioNova Executive Director Scott Moffitt.
“When I returned in 2010, I frankly was scratching my head, ‘What did I just do to myself?’” he recalled when questioned by moderator Chandra Kavanagh, Director of Bounce Health Innovation. “Now, I’m really excited, really looking forward to the next few years in terms of this sector.
“I think the light that has been shone on us by COVID-19 has put us in a position where we can truly become a massive contributor to the economy in Atlantic Canada.”
That success, though, comes with its own challenges -- namely access to talent.
ABK Biomedical CEO Michael Mangano, whose company raised a US$30 million venture capital round last year, said one factor helping to partially mitigate the labour crunch is that experienced managers in the life sciences have largely been staying in the sector and advancing to more senior roles.
Nonetheless, “We will continue to have HR challenges, talent challenges,” said Moffitt, who sees skilled immigration as a possible solution.
“That growth is a challenge, but it’s also representative of where we’re going, which I think deserves extra impetus and support.”
Roar Askheim, the CFO of IR-Scientific, agreed, saying: ““I think there are definitely talent challenges on specific areas of the operation.”
Introhive Co-Founder and CEO Jody Glidden revealed that the company faced a crisis when the pandemic hit and needed an emergency bridge round.
“In the first quarter of 2020, the whole world was finding out about the pandemic and all our customers put the brakes on and stopped all non-essential spending, so we got pretty much zero for the quarter for first time in many years,” Glidden told moderator Kathryn Lockhart, CEO of Propel. “It was very, very scary for us and for our investors.”
The company needed funding, and the New Brunswick Innovation Foundation was able to come up with a $1 million contribution in a bridge round, said NBIF Director of Investment Raymond Fitzpatrick. That led to a matching continuation from BDC Capital – a contribution that wouldn’t have been available if NBIF hadn’t been involved as the other investors were from the US. In total, the round amounted to $6 million.
The situation improved steadily through the year, and Introhive was able to raise US$100 million earlier this year. Glidden said it would not be the company’s last raise.
Opportunities in Oceantech
The members of this panel spoke of the opportunity to establish a major oceantech venture capital fund in Atlantic Canada.
Innovacorp CEO Malcolm Fraser told moderator Wendy Luther, CEO of the Halifax Partnership, that there are investment opportunities because people seek profits. But they also want impact from their investments and putting money into oceantech tends to benefit the entire planet. He and Jeff Larsen, the local head of Creative Destruction Lab Atlantic, both acknowledged the dearth of ocean-focused VC funds but said that means there is an opportunity for Atlantic Canada.
Kendra MacDonald, the CEO of Canada’s Ocean Supercluster said Atlantic Canada has a natural geographic advantage in developing an oceans ecosystem. There are now about 350,000 workers employed in Canada’s ocean industry and about 40 percent of them are in Atlantic Canada.
“On a global scale, [Canada is] sort of half the world average, only contributing about 1.6 percent to our GDP … we are significant, but we are still small on a global scale,” said MacDonald. “However, we are gaining in momentum.”
She added that the Supercluster is now four years through its five-year mandate and that she hope its funding from the federal government and private-sector partners will be renewed.
“My vision is that this will continue,” she said. “Five years in my view is not enough time” to develop an entire ecosystem.
CarbonCure has raised money from the Breakthrough Energy Fund (backed by many of the world’s richest people) and Amazon, but Founder and CEO Rob Niven said it wasn’t always smooth sailing.
The company started on $10,000 that Niven had left from a student loan, and got early support from such groups as the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency and Innovacorp. He also pitched Tony Van Bommel, who appeared with Niven on the panel and is now a Senior Managing Partner with BDC Capital. Van Bommel turned him down twice, but he said, “The third time was the charm.” BDC Capital invested $3.5 million in the company eight years ago, bringing business advice as well as capital.
“Tony said, ‘I’ve been involved in some companies with some great exits,’” said Niven, obviously referring to Van Bommel’s investments in Q1 Labs and Radian6. “And the companies with the best exits are the companies with the best governance.”
So Niven doubled down on governance and changed the business model. Along the way, the company has won an XPRIZE and secured funding from some of the world’s richest people. CarbonCure’s technology is now being used in 450 concrete plants on six continents, and it’s considering an IPO.
“I think it does make sense for CarbonCure and it is something that we’re currently considering,” Niven told moderator Kim Furlong, CEO of the Canadian Venture Capital & Private Equity Association. “It’s not imminent but it does feel like the natural trajectory for CarbonCure.”