Ex-BDC partner aims to back early-stage “AI frontier” startups with Defined Capital

Defined Capital founder and managing partner Mark Trevitt.
Fund has closed over a third of $15-million USD target from LPs like Inovia, Band, and BC tech entrepreneurs.

After nearly a decade with the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC), Mark Trevitt has launched his own venture capital (VC) fund to invest in nascent artificial intelligence (AI) and data companies.

Trevitt, who has been investing in AI with BDC Capital since 2014, left the Crown corporation last year to found Vancouver-based Defined Capital as its managing partner. Through Defined, the former BDC partner plans to focus on early-stage technology startups across North America that are “shaping the AI frontier.” 

According to Trevitt, Defined has closed on over a third of its $15-million USD target for its first fund from a group of limited partners (LPs) that includes Inovia Capital, Band Venture Partners, and a slew of successful British Columbia (BC) tech entrepreneurs. He also claimed the firm has commitments that put it on track to secure the remainder in the coming months. 

“It’s a Cambrian explosion of opportunity, so I wanted to nimbly move to be in market as fast as possible.”

Defined hit the ground running back in early February 2023 with an initial close, and the VC firm has invested in five startups already, acting quickly to capitalize on some of the possibilities fuelled by recent advances on the data, architecture, and computing fronts. “It’s a Cambrian explosion of opportunity, so I wanted to nimbly move to be in market as fast as possible,” Trevitt said in an exclusive interview with BetaKit.

Defined counts a collective of over 15 proven BC tech company builders among its LPs—a group that includes Kevin Collins (Charli AI and Bit Stew Systems), Colin Harris (PMC Sierra), John Laslavic (Upchain), Catherine Dahl (Beanworks), Hamid Abdollahi (Recon Instruments), and Vlad Tucakov (Point Grey Research). The fund’s institutional backers include Montréal-based Inovia—through its Discovery Fund—Calgary’s Band, and several undisclosed family offices and high-net-worth individuals.

The BC VC firm’s current portfolio includes New York’s Arcanna AI and Datalogz, Vancouver-based Inverted AI and Quandri, and Palo Alto, California’s Zyphra, a group that spans cybersecurity, insurance, autonomous vehicles, data infrastructure, and AI computing.

“Our purpose is to help advance and shape what we call the ‘AI frontier,’” said Trevitt, who noted that while AI has come a long way, there are still lots of inefficiencies and gaps preventing the tech from being used to its full potential in certain functions and verticals.

Defined aims to back founders targeting more complex and technical domains. The industry-agnostic VC firm plans to invest in companies across the AI stack, from startups at the hardware and computing layer to those developing AI infrastructure and foundational models, or building applications. Defined’s four-person team is rounded out by venture partner Sean Brownlee, vice president (VP) Johnny Dewan, and analyst Yoran Beisher. 

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The VC firm carries forward the work Trevitt was doing at BDC, where he said he began to see “the writing on the wall” about how transformative AI was going to be over 10 years ago after noticing the breakthroughs coming out of Geoffrey Hinton’s lab at the University of Toronto.

During his nine years at BDC, Trevitt worked his way up from associate director to partner with the Industrial, Clean, and Energy Technology (ICE) Venture Fund, where he helped manage Fund I and Fund II and develop the latter’s thesis around AI and machine learning (ML). The ICE Fund has since been revamped as the Sustainability Venture Fund to complement BDC’s Climate Tech Fund.

Trevitt’s time with BDC’s ICE Fund coincided with four exits: Bit Stew Systems (acquired by General Electric), DarkVision (acquired by Koch Industries), GaN Systems (acquired by Infineon), and Neurio (acquired by Generac). Trevitt also led BDC’s investment in Arteria AI, which recently secured a sizeable Series B round.

Trevitt claimed his investment track record has involved strong realized returns. Prem Kalevar, VP of Inovia’s Discovery Program, told BetaKit that this track record represented “a key factor” in the firm’s decision to invest in Defined.

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“[Trevitt’s] tenure at BDC includes an impressive series of successful involvements … This track record demonstrates [Trevitt’s] consistent ability to identify and capitalize on high-performance investment opportunities,” said Kalever, who noted that Trevitt’s established presence in Western Canada was also a selling point for Inovia.

Trevitt incubated the thesis for Defined with Kaufmann Fellows and began building what eventually became the firm in the summer of 2022. OpenAI releasing ChatGPT that fall marked another inflection point. But despite the excitement, Trevitt said some investors were surprisingly slow to react, noting that low liquidity amid the downturn likely played a role, including in LP cheque sizes.

Since then, the AI investment landscape has become much more competitive. Amid an increasingly crowded field, Trevitt views Defined’s focus on data and plans to target overlooked domains as differentiators.

“Defined’s unique ‘AI frontier’ sourcing strategy perfectly complements our mission to accelerate innovation for our corporate clients and support their strategic growth priorities,” Band managing partner Eric Steager told BetaKit. “[Trevitt’s] deep experience in this technical field and collaborative approach will extend our own direct investment program, helping us identify emerging technologies at the forefront of AI.”

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Defined plans to back a total of 25 to 30 startups through its first fund, investing “as early as possible” with a focus on seed, but with the capacity to come in at the pre-seed or Series A level with initial cheques of between $100,000 and $500,000. Though the VC firm will typically not lead rounds, Trevitt said it can and has acted as a “syndicate maker” by bringing in other funds as co-investors. Defined did just that with Inovia for Inverted AI’s funding.

According to Trevitt, some later-stage go-to-market (GTM) issues can be traced back to early-stage product issues. With Defined, Trevitt intends to help founders shape their product vision from the get-go, with guidance from the firm’s council of advisors, which includes experts in data, AI, and serial entrepreneurs, many of whom are Defined LPs.

Amid the sea of new AI startup entrants, Trevitt said that “what gets lost in the signal” is the need to understand the customer problem and value chain. These days, he believes that what many AI founders need is a specialist investor with product know-how.

“We may be small but we’re mighty.”

Mark Trevitt, Defined

“Given we’re in such fast-moving water now, you need [an investor] who’s technically versed and knows how the business models are changing and how the [GTM] is being refocused, and so we’re bringing all of that to bear in the advice we’re providing to founders,” said Trevitt.

Defined plans to target startups in AI hubs like Vancouver, Alberta, Toronto, and Montréal in Canada, and San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, and New York in the United States. While the VC firm’s focus will be on North America, Trevitt did not rule out the possibility of some global activity.

“We may be small but we’re mighty,” said Trevitt. “The ambition is to build a globally successful firm based out of Vancouver initially and growing into other [geographies].”

For his part, Kalevar hopes that Defined will help Inovia “source and support the next generation of AI champions.”

Feature image courtesy Defined Capital.

Josh Scott

Josh Scott

Josh Scott is a BetaKit reporter focused on telling in-depth Canadian tech stories and breaking news. His coverage is more complete than his moustache. He was also the winner of SABEW Canada’s 2023 Jeff Sanford Best Young Journalist award.

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