Longtime Kitchener-Waterloo tech champion Communitech is exploring new ways to support startups across the country by launching a $200 million venture fund, BetaKit has learned.
The idea for the venture fund comes amid a year of transition for Communitech, which overhauled its strategy along with a leadership change, with C100 co-founder Chris Albinson taking over as CEO from Iain Klugman in May after the latter served for 17 years in the role.
The fund would operate under the name True North Fund I, and is part of Communitech’s newly revealed True North Strategy, through which the hub is looking to help 14 founders reach $1 billion in annual revenue by 2030.
“We’re gauging appetite in the Founder community at the current time, to explore whether a unique by-Founders-for-Founders fund could have legs.”
– Chris Albinson, Communitech CEO
Albinson spoke to the strategy on a recent episode of The BetaKit Podcast, and while he is still vague on many details of how Communitech will help create Canadian winners to own the podium, one thing is clear: Communitech wants to launch a venture fund to support their growth.
When asked about the fund, Albinson told BetaKit: “Our strategy focuses on identifying Canada’s top-performing startups and scale-ups, and helping them grow into globally dominant firms. One tactic we’re exploring in support of this strategic focus is the development of a VC fund.”
“We’re gauging appetite in the Founder community at the current time, to explore whether a unique by-Founders-for-Founders fund could have legs,” he added.
Sources with knowledge of the particulars indicate the target fund total will be $200 million. The initial closing date for the fund is expected to be in January or February, with a planned final close in December 2022.
“We’re exploring the True North Fund to supercharge capital available to the next generation of Canadian startups, scale-ups and at-scale companies, directly in-line with our True North Strategy,” a spokesperson for Communitech told BetaKit.
Still in its early, exploratory days, the spokesperson claimed that the fund would not specifically be for Communitech companies; rather it would be a separate entity from Communitech that members of the hub would manage or lead.
Communitech confirmed to BetaKit that Albinson will serve as managing partner of the fund, while Communitech COO-turned-CFO Rick Coccimiglio and Amber French of Catalyst Capital (director of capital services at Communitech) will serve as CFO and principal, respectively.
“The fund is not a Communitech fund, but something, if our founders determine is warranted to support our True North Strategy, that we would work closely with the General Partners & Limited Partners to support the ecosystem,” they said.
“Communitech will act as a delivery partner through shared key management resources, marketing and branding support, etc.,” it was added.
“In this model, we’d focus on bringing qualified Founders in as limited partners to keep developing a sense of community and mutual support among Canada’s tech leaders,” said Albinson. “We are early in the exploratory phase and we’ll have more to say once we’ve made our assessment about whether there’s enough appetite for this.”
When asked about the fund’s thesis, Communitech confirmed to BetaKit that True North would invest in 30 companies over 10 years, with initial cheque sizes between $1 million to $5 million. This would leave potential for follow-on investment up to $30 million.
Communitech declined to share many additional details about how the founders as limited partners would work. It was noted, however, that “True North Fund I will be a peer network of founders and funders who have built or are building $1B Networks.”
The spokesperson noted institutional investors would also be involved in the $200 million fund.
Communitech claims 86 founders have contributed to the fund so far, including Axonify’s Carol Leaman, Marcelo Cortes of Faire, Lauren Lake and Mallorie Brodie of Bridgit, as well as Inovia Capital’s Steve Woods. The hub declined to disclose how much has been raised to date.
The fund is set to be sector agnostic and invest in companies at the growth-stage. Communitech stated that five percent of carried interest from the fund would be committed to what it called the True North Foundation, which will have an independent board of directors. Communitech confirmed that the foundation will get five percent of the fund’s carried interest in investments, and the fund itself is set to get 20 percent of net profits on its investments.
Communitech told BetaKit, however, that no tax dollars or government funding will be used for the fund. Communitech is funded, in part, with government capital, including $18 million it received in 2019 from the federal government for the Scale-Up Platform program meant to help 30 Ontario companies reach $100 million in revenue by 2024.
MaRS Discovery District and Invest Ottawa also received government funding as part of the program, and groups outside of Ontario have since lobbied to get similar funding to support the scale of Canadian tech companies.
While Communitech is known for its support of the Kitchener-Waterloo ecosystem, its focus for the fund is Canada-wide.
That approach may seem new for Communitech, but this is not the first time the innovation hub has operated an investment fund. Communitech’s $30 million HYPERDRIVE program from the early 2010s invested in early-stage startups and provided incubator-style programming to help them scale.
Since it was founded in 1997, Communitech has seen many iterations, and claims to have worked with close to 1,000 companies that include the likes of Faire, ApplyBoard, and D2L. This year alone, Communitech companies have raised a collective $2.7 billion (more than was raised in the past decade).
While Communitech is still clearly focused on helping companies scale, the True North Strategy and fund signal a new direction for the hub under Albinson’s leadership. The new CEO said Communitech’s True North Strategy is about doing fewer things, but doing them better or with more focus.
The strategy has a threefold focus: talent, customers, and capital. On the BetaKit Podcast, Albinson noted Communitech’s recent acquisition of job board Prospect, and its international recruitment program, Outposts, as examples of the strategy in action.
Albinson wants to ensure Canada is a global winner in tech, and is pulling on his past experience to make it happen. Albinson is a co-founder of The C100 and a longtime venture capitalist. He has spent many years in Silicon Valley as part of venture firms like J.P. Morgan Partners, Panorama Capital, Founders Circle Capital, and Breakaway Growth Fund. Some of Albinson’s investments include Pinterest, DocuSign, and Turo.
The True North Fund harkens back to Albinson’s work at Founders Circle and Breakaway, which both emphasized the need to work closely with founders (Founders Circle has built a private leadership community that provides peer-to-peer professional development).
Communitech’s True North Strategy is closely patterned on the Own the Podium program for Canadian Olympic athletes, which resulted in 14 gold medals at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver. Communitech’s CEO went so far as to hire Cathy Priestner, the Olympic medallist who devised Own the Podium, as his executive advisor.
The fund would set Communitech apart from its innovation hub counterparts across Canada. Aside from MaRS Discovery District and its IAF fund, and The BC Tech Association, which operates the BC Tech Fund for the provincial government, few innovation hubs in Canada operate venture investing groups. Closer to home, the University of Waterloo’s campus-linked accelerator, Velocity, does operate its own fund.
Feature image courtesy Communitech.