Thursday, May 07, 2009

The Challenge (and Opportunity) for Regional VCs

An oft-heard comment about Canadian entrepreneurs is that they don’t aim high enough. Lately I’ve been wondering if our local angels and VCs are doing the same thing. In focusing on nurturing the local startup community, are they missing a larger opportunity?

Let me start by agreeing that, no question, local VCs need to prove to their LPs that there really is a critical mass of fundable entrepreneurs in Canada. But this focus needs to be applied with a sense of the broader trends in North American venture capital. The industry is consolidating and reinventing itself south of the border. Canadian VCs need to think where they fit in this new, emerging industry. Will local excellence be enough?

To date, Canadian venture capital has not been able to survive as an industry that services solely Canadian start-ups. That doesn’t mean it won’t change, but that’s the track record, neatly summarized in a handful of consultant reports tucked away in certain VC offices. And past results generally drive LP investment decisions.

Expanding investments to the US would be a logical hedge against slower growth here, but this has been difficult for a number of reasons – either LPs (because of their own institutional requirements) require that investment be limited to Canada, or because it been very difficult to get access to quality American deals. What does a Vancouver/Toronto/Montreal investor bring to a syndicate of Silicon Valley investors? Tough question to answer.

These two challenges are also faced by other regional players in the US. And I have to wonder if the needs of regional VCs in, say, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington and North Carolina present a unique leadership opportunity for Ontario VCs.

Before you tweet away, consider this: in the next few years, American venture capital likely will evolve into a two-part industry, consisting of: (a) a handful of mega funds that operate globally, and (b) some smaller regional players that service start-ups off the Silicon Valley grid. If you believe that Canadian venture capital must expand to survive, then it’s got to figure out how to play in this new North American industry. I think it can do more than play - it can lead. I believe Canadian VCs may be best positioned of all to become leaders in regional venture capital.

Why? Billions of dollars have been to support and grow the venture capital industry in Ontario over the last decade. Since 1998, Ontario has been one of the largest living start-up labs there is – perhaps the largest one outside of Silicon Valley in terms of dollars spent. Ontario VCs and start-ups are uniquely positioned to become strong regional players.

How? We can provide great quality investments in Ontario to regional VCs looking to expand their portfolios, also don't have access to Silicon Valley deals. We can in turn act as good syndicate partners for our US regional partners. We can extend runway for investees by helping them expand by setting up development teams in Canada, taking advantage of job-creation-driven government funding.

As a VC, I was fortunate enough to be part of a fund that could lever its LP’s name (BCE) as a potential strategic partner, allowing us to join US investments and sit at the table with some of the biggest U.S. names in the business. The networking and experience gained was invaluable. Without that kind of entrée, however, Canadian venture capital need to be creative in how we build. And the current consolidation creates a nifty opportunity.

Where will Canada’s start-up industry will fit in the North American ecosystem? Is there an opportunity outside of Silicon Valley that we need to cultivate in order for our local VCs to survive? Is it enough to aim locally? Do we want to go to the matinee, or do we want to go to THE SHOW?

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