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Six Toronto VCs discuss COVID-19 and the post-pandemic era

Finding local talent appears to be the biggest challenge

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Image Credits: Bryce Durbin

As North America’s fourth-largest city, Toronto is one of the world’s top startup ecosystems.

After spawning companies like Eventbrite and Crowdmark, Ontario’s capital has attracted international talent that complements its homegrown population of entrepreneurs and technical talent.

Six investors we surveyed who work and live in the area said they believe Toronto will continue to thrive after the COVID-19 storm passes. Some of them focus exclusively on the region, while others invest elsewhere as well. As they explained, the city has a lot going for it: It’s diverse, has access to locally trained engineering and business workers, and the area has already fostered many companies that are doing very well.

Investors expect Toronto to remain a fintech hub

Fintech is one of the city’s top industries, and the investors in this survey expect this to continue. Stephanie Choo, head of investments at Portag3 Ventures, said “fintech continues to see massive tailwinds from the fallout from COVID-19 as incumbents struggle to fully digitize their offerings.”

Ameet Shah of Golden Ventures listed fintech as one of Toronto’s key industries. Eva Lau of Two Small Fish Ventures agreed, adding that “blockchain has also been doing well because many blockchain-related technologies or companies were started in Toronto.”

Other investors point to fintech business leaders in Toronto like CEOs Mike Katchen of Wealthsimple, Daniel Eberhard of Koho, Andrew D’Souza and Michele Romanow of Clearbanc and Kirk Simpson of Wave Financial.

Diversity is one of Toronto’s strengths

Nearly all of the surveyed investors cited diversity as a key reason to live and work in Toronto. Probal Lala, chairman of Maple Leaf Angels, says, “Beyond having a vibrant technology ecosystem, Toronto has one of the most diverse communities in North America and is not only a great place to find the intellectual horsepower and funding to build a great global startup, but also the mosaic of social communities that makes it a great place to live and raise a family.”

Choo said the United States’ current battles over immigration could benefit Canada. “Small, nimble teams that need to move fast may still choose to co-locate in person — and many will still want access to amenities that only a large, vibrant and diverse city like Toronto can offer.”

She also pointed to Toronto’s claim of being one of the most diverse cities in the world. “[This] not only makes the city interesting but also very welcoming for those who relocate from elsewhere; a strong startup and tech scene, and, lastly, a vibrant cultural and food scene, especially through the lens of cost-of-living compared to comparable major cities.”

Shopify’s executives are key players in Toronto’s ecosystem

Several VCs listed Shopify executives as local leaders, while others acknowledged the growing unicorn’s impact. Ameet Shah of Golden Ventures says, “Toronto has traditionally been strong in fintech, B2B SaaS, crypto and AI. The explosion of Shopify should also benefit companies focused on e-commerce and supply chain solutions.”

Adam McNamara and Ameet Shah, when asked about local business leaders, both listed Satish Kanwar. Kanwar is GM and VP of Product at Shopify after the company purchased Jet Cooper, a startup co-founded by Kanwar. McNamara also points to Farhan Thawar, Shopify’s VP of Engineering, as a local leader.

Who we spoke to:

  • Probal Lala, chairman, Maple Leaf Angels Capital Corporation
  • Stephanie Choo, head of investments, Portag3 Ventures
  • Adam McNamara, founding partner, Ramen VC
  • Ameet Shah, partner, Golden Ventures
  • Matt Golden, founder and managing partner, mGolden Ventures
  • Eva Lau, founding partner, Two Small Fish Ventures

Probal Lala, Maple Leaf Angels Capital Corporation

How much is local investing even a focus for you now? If you are investing remotely in general now, are you filtering for local founders?

Prior to COVID-19 hitting, a requirement for the majority of my investments was a face-to-face visit with the founding team. For the most part, this meant founders spending time in Toronto. As we primarily invest in seed and pre-seed, this usually meant local founders.

When the pandemic hit, we shifted our process to primarily Zoom meetings (including due diligence) and as a result the mix of founding teams has expanded beyond our typical catchment area (two-hour drive from the city) to a broader base. Investment cycles appear to have slowed a bit due to the remote approach but our reach to founding teams has expanded to a broader base of geographically distributed founding teams (Mostly Canadian although we have recently seen a number of international opportunities).

Long term, do you expect to be more or less locally focused?

We are becoming more geographically agnostic. Similar to what many of our investee companies have discovered during the pandemic, our investment group has come to the realization that digital technology and remote working tools have truly meant the death of distance. Geography will likely be less of an impediment in the future although country borders will continue to create a hurdle primarily due to tax implications.

From that, what do you expect to happen to the startup climate in Toronto longer term, with the shift to more remote work, possibly from more remote areas. Will it stay a tech hub?

While a shift to remote work will definitely impact how companies grow and are built in Toronto (and we have already felt the impact in the local ecosystem with the loss of tech catalysts such as OneEleven and Sidewalk Labs), the critical mass that made Toronto a tech hub was never serendipitous but rather purpose-built.

As long as there is a local desire to grow an innovation economy in Toronto, it will remain and grow as a tech hub. While as an investor and operator I generally avoid companies and cultures that follow a “Field of Dreams” business model, I very much subscribe to that same model when it comes to socio-economic development — “If you build it, they will come.”

Tech hubs rely not only on a critical mass of experts and like-minded individuals, but also on the supporting resources (universities, accelerators, investors, communities) and infrastructure (cheap compute power, ubiquitous bandwidth, cost-effective/on-demand real estate, etc.) — as such the congregation of skilled workers and founders are not only a function of the physical location of companies but also the conscious communities and ecosystems built around these companies.

As long as Toronto continues to have innovative people who are focussed on not only building great companies but also understand the importance of great communities, Toronto will remain as a global tech hub.

Are there particular industry sectors that you expect to do uniquely well or poorly, locally?

As before the pandemic, businesses that are able to leverage local resources and infrastructure to gain a global competitive advantage, will fare better than ones that have to do more heavy lifting. Toronto continues to have a key strength in AI and machine learning but it also has always had a very strong medical and health tech community and the pandemic will likely shine more investment light on this strength in the near future.

In the short term, what challenges are facing Toronto’s startup scene?

This is probably no different than any major tech city impacted by the pandemic:

  • Startup sales funnel visibility reduced and sales cycle lengths increased due to reshuffled customer priorities as well as new customer engagement being limited to virtual meetings.
  • Managing cash continues to be critical as fundraising cycles slow and more focus placed on startups having sufficient runway to survive macroeconomic pandemic impacts.
  • Startup leadership will face more demand on soft skills to continue to manage and motivate a remote workforce and adjust to pandemic-driven new household dynamics.
  • When hiring a new employee — figuring out remote interviewing and onboarding.
  • Replacing community networking events with virtual networking events. (The Toronto startup community and supporting ecosystem have done a good job here.)

Who are some founders (who you’ve invested in or otherwise) that are leaders in the community?

Toronto has an exceptionally strong base of founders, but the immediate folks that come to mind are:

  • My friend Jason Tham, CEO and co-founder of Nulogy Corporation. Jason and his co-founders have always been thought leaders in tackling the truly hard problems facing businesses and as a result have built a scale-up that is a global leader in supply chain and attracts some of the world’s smartest people.
  • Parth Khanna, CEO and co-founder of ACTO, a Maple Leaf Angels investee company. An exceptional sales leader and coach, Parth and team have built a high-growth award-winning sales and training platform for life sciences companies globally.
  • Mike Silagadze, CEO and co-founder of Top Hot, an early Maple Leaf Angels investee company. Top Hat is a North American market leader in student engagement software. Mike himself is a well-known startup and entrepreneurial advocate in the Toronto ecosystem.

A lot of Bay Area founders and developers are looking to relocate. Why Toronto?

Beyond having a vibrant technology ecosystem, Toronto has one of the most diverse communities in North America and is not only a great place to find the intellectual horsepower and funding to build a great global startup, but also the mosaic of social communities that make it a great place to live and raise a family.

Furthermore, in addition to access to private capital, Canadian tech startups benefit from significant federal and provincial innovation economy support including scientific research and experimental development (SR&ED) incentives that, in some instances, can offset up to 40% of an early-stage startup’s R&D-related expenditures.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?

There was a fear with the pandemic hitting that early-stage capital might dry up or be slow to deploy. The truth is many early stage investors (such as the Maple Leaf Angels community I belong to) are actively searching for deals at this time. As long as a company has a solid value proposition, don’t be shy to pitch. Our MLA48 Fund III is looking to invest in early-stage Canadian startups. We will consider investing up to $150,000 per company, with follow-on investment opportunities.

Stephanie Choo, Portag3 Ventures

How much is local investing even a focus for you now? If you are investing remotely in general now, are you filtering for local founders?

Portag3 has a local presence in six markets (Toronto, Montreal, New York, San Francisco, Paris and Singapore) but invests globally. We are continuing to invest in all of our core markets throughout COVID-19. We’re not necessarily “filtering” for local founders — we look for the best people with the best ideas in every geography — but having a footprint in the local market makes it easier to do reference checks in a world where we can’t always meet founders face-to-face.

Long term, do you expect to be more or less locally focused?

Portag3 has always had a global outlook/investment mandate with a local physical footprint in Toronto, and we expect that both will continue to be important going forward.

From that, what do you expect to happen to the startup climate in Toronto longer term, with the shift to more remote work, possibly from more remote areas. Will it stay a tech hub? (Will there be tech hubs? What is a tech hub now?)

Ultimately, the shift to remote work is a net positive for Toronto, which has always enjoyed quality of life advantages over other startup hubs (SF, NYC, London). The current issues surrounding U.S. immigration and the difficulties obtaining work visas may mean the next generation of startups end up in Canada. Small, nimble teams that need to move fast may still choose to co-locate in person — and many will still want access to amenities that only a large, vibrant and diverse city like Toronto can offer.

Are there particular industry sectors that you expect to do uniquely well or poorly, locally?

Fintech continues to see massive tailwinds from the fallout from COVID-19 as incumbents struggle to fully digitize their offerings. We expect this trend will continue and this has created, and will continue to create, a lot of opportunities in the Canadian market.

In the short term, what challenges are facing Toronto’s startup scene?

One of the big challenges is depth in experienced senior talent. We have a lot of companies in Toronto, which are starting to hit scale — so demand for executives who have successfully scaled and exited growth-staged tech businesses is now at an all-time high. Another challenge is the mindset that you need to move to the U.S. to serve the U.S. market or build a very big business — this view is definitely changing, but still lingers.

Who are some founders (who you’ve invested in or otherwise) that are leaders in the community?

Although we invest globally, our roots are in Canada, so we were lucky to invest early in some leading fintechs with founders who are proud Canadian entrepreneurs and who use their profile to help build our local ecosystem. Among them are Mike Katchen of Wealthsimple (the leading digital wealth management platform in Canada), Daniel Eberhard of Koho (a leading challenger bank) and Cherif Habib of Dialogue (the largest telemedicine platform in Canada).

A lot of Bay Area founders and developers are looking to relocate. Why Toronto?

Toronto has so many qualities, to name just a few: World-class universities and access to strong talent pool (especially technical talent); AI/deep-learning communities that are especially strong; strong government tax incentives for R&D; the opportunity for Canadian dollar arbitrage (CAD is currently ~25% cheaper than USD); diversity — Toronto has one of the most diverse populations in the world, which not only makes the city interesting but also very welcoming for those who relocate from elsewhere; a strong startup and tech scene; and, lastly, a vibrant cultural and food scene, especially through the lens of cost-of-living compared to comparable major cities.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?

In times of uncertainty, we think the notion of founder-investor fit becomes an even more important concept. In a world where we will be remote for the foreseeable future, it’s worth spending extra time in diligence ensuring you have investors who are on the same page.

Adam McNamara, Ramen VC

How much is local investing even a focus for you now? If you are investing remotely in general now, are you filtering for local founders?

We invest in startups working on health, climate and other high-social-impact problems. These startups are incredibly underfunded in Canada. So we’re staying focused on Canada.

Long term, do you expect to be more or less locally focused?

The same amount.

From that, what do you expect to happen to the startup climate in Toronto longer term, with the shift to more remote work, possibly from more remote areas. Will it stay a tech hub?

Startup hubs exist because of network effects — increasing human and financial capital that benefits everyone in that ecosystem.

If Toronto wants to become a world-class startup hub, it needs to create an environment for valuable companies to form. That means funding basic scientific research with multidecade payoffs, money to commercialize that research, world-class people to work at those companies and a society those people want to live in.

The shift to remote work won’t matter — talented people still want to be here.

Are there particular industry sectors that you expect to do uniquely well or poorly, locally?

Bioscience. The seeds of AI were sewn at U of T 20 years ago. The seeds of bioscience are being sewn today at U of T and Waterloo.

In the short term, what challenges are facing Toronto’s startup scene?

Hiring. An abundance of capital means that many companies get started, but the companies who are truly capable of breakout success are finding it harder to attract the best people.

Who are some founders (who you’ve invested in or otherwise) that are leaders in the community?

  • Mike Murchison and David Hariri at Ada.
  • Satish Kanwar at Shopify (formerly Jet Cooper).
  • Farhan Thawar at Shopify (formerly Helpful).

A lot of Bay Area-founders and developers are looking to relocate. Why Toronto?

  • Political stability.
  • High quality of life.
  • VC dollars go further.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?

Read Turn Detroit into Drone Valley by Marc Andreessen.

Ameet Shah and Matt Golden, Golden Ventures

How much is local investing even a focus for you now? If you are investing remotely in general now, are you filtering for local founders?

We invest in 20-25 companies per fund. We do this across North America, maintaining a ~60-70% ratio between local (Canadian) and remote deals. Nonlocal tech hubs we focus on are San Francisco, Boston, New York and Los Angeles. We believe that investing in a geographic vacuum limits the potential upside for the fund. Having a diverse set of founders and co-investors across several geographies is a net add for the companies we back.

Long term, do you expect to be more or less locally focused?

As a more concentrated fund, we try to focus our efforts on where the best entrepreneurs and opportunities reside, and I expect we will likely maintain the ratio stated above. Due to various well-documented, geopolitical policies, many of which are immigration related, Canada is already and will continue to be a benefactor of an influx of global talent. This, coupled with an increasingly sophisticated local venture capital sector, a great bench of high-potential companies and recent growth-stage successes, we believe the timing is excellent for the Canadian tech ecosystem. Additionally, we’ve seen a significant uptick in downstream capital interest in the local ecosystem, which bodes well for all players.

From that, what do you expect to happen to the startup climate in Toronto longer term, with the shift to more remote work, possibly from more remote areas. Will it stay a tech hub?

As long as people desire in-person interactions (inside/outside of work), then I expect Toronto to continue to thrive. Toronto is the fourth-largest urban center in North America and home to many tech companies’ HQ, but its economy isn’t just limited to purely tech-focused companies. It’s one of North America’s largest employers in sectors such as financial services, design, film, education, aerospace, life sciences and tourism. This economic diversity provides great access to customer bases across a number of sectors.

I think remote work helps Toronto-based companies recruit beyond their traditional reach while maintaining their central HQ. The city has an excellent infrastructure to support a startup ecosystem: A diverse, highly educated population, fantastic feeder schools, favorable immigration policies and world-class companies with a presence here. The city is a central economic node in North America, and I expect the rate of company formation to increase over the next decade.

Are there particular industry sectors that you expect to do uniquely well or poorly, locally?

Toronto has traditionally been strong in fintech, B2B SaaS, crypto and AI. The explosion of Shopify should also benefit companies focused on e-commerce and supply chain solutions. Canada has traditionally lagged in consumer platforms and business models that rely heavily on large inside/outside sales teams (versus product-driven go-to-market strategies) but we are also seeing significant progress in these categories as well.

In the short term, what challenges are facing Toronto’s startup scene?

Developing the appropriate bench strength (and corresponding muscle memory) for the next layer of scale.  This is largely focused on leadership positions. With a potentially longer-term move to remote work, these positions are more critical.  Fortunately, remote work also opens up the potential list of candidates as well.

Who are some founders (who you’ve invested in or otherwise) that are leaders in the community?

Tobi Lutke, Harley Finkelstein, Satish Kanwar (Shopify), Ray Reddy (Ritual), Allen Lau (Wattpad), Mike Silagadze (Top Hat), Mike Serbinis (League), Andrew D’Souza and Michele Romanow (Clearbanc), Kirk Simpson (Wave Financial), Martin Basiri (Applyboard), Liran Belenzon (BenchSci), Kuljeev Singh (Resq), Derrick Fung (Drop), Mike Murchison (Ada).

A lot of Bay Area founders and developers are looking to relocate. Why Toronto?

  1. In the past number of years, there has been a significant increase in venture capital activity at all stages and from all geographies, an increase in the number of high-quality venture capital funds as well as an increasing number of venture scale opportunities and exits.
  2. Bay Area (and other geos) are looking to setup locations in Toronto to tap into the talent networks here. According to the 2019 CBRE, Toronto’s pool of tech talent grew at the fastest rate in North America and was the number three market for tech talent, slightly behind San Francisco and Seattle.
  3. This is principally fueled by relative labor costs, talent profile, government support and the current geopolitical climate (particularly as it relates to immigration policy).
  4. Toronto as an ecosystem is robust enough to support multiple winners in the community, and the influx of talent is self-fulfilling in that it helps develop the next wave of talent and provides an even greater option set for those already here.

Eva Lau, Two Small Fish Ventures

How much is local investing even a focus for you now? If you are investing remotely in general now, are you filtering for local founders?

We have been investing globally with the emphasis on North America coast-to-coast. However, Toronto-based founders have always had a natural advantage because of their stronger local ties. The pandemic has not changed this dynamic significantly. However, since there is no local networking anymore, we see slightly more new investment opportunities outside of Toronto.

Long term, do you expect to be more or less locally focused?

Although I expect local networking opportunities will resume in some way soon, the pandemic has enabled us to collaborate with other communities far more accessible and more socially acceptable without any physical presence. I believe, as a percentage, we will do more deals outside of Toronto.

From that, what do you expect to happen to the startup climate in Toronto longer term, with the shift to more remote work, possibly from more remote areas. Will it stay a tech hub? (Will there be tech hubs? What is a tech hub now?)

I remain very bullish about the Toronto-Waterloo corridor. It is the fourth-largest city in North America. The density of talent, startups and scaleups remains very high. Although the shift to more remote work levels the playing field for lower-cost locations, so far, anecdotally, most people who choose to move are considering suburbs of Toronto rather than moving out of Toronto. There might be an offset by a stronger desire for people to move to Canada or Toronto. Considering all these factors, I believe the overall impact to the startup climate will be relatively small.

Are there particular industry sectors that you expect to do uniquely well or poorly, locally?

The sectors that have been doing well pre-pandemic will continue to do well. For example, fintech has been booming because all the headquarters of the big banks are in Toronto. Blockchain has also been doing well because many blockchain-related technologies or companies were started in Toronto. The availability of talent and capital remains very strong. Besides, the pandemic has forced people to spend more time at home. Health care digitization is also accelerating. These two areas will do very well, and we are looking at a few companies as we speak. In contrast, sectors that require a strong physical and retail presence will do poorly, but this is not our area of focus anyway.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?

I believe this is one of the best times to invest. The pandemic disruption has created so many gaps and hence new opportunities that didn’t exist a few months ago. We have also noticed that because of Canada’s very welcoming immigration policies, especially toward high-skilled talent, many entrepreneurs are considering moving to Toronto to grow their companies. Many of the best companies were born or scaled during a recession. This time will be no exception. We are busier than ever looking at these opportunities.

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