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Go East Young Startup!

by Randall on March 8, 2016 · 1 comment

CAMP Group Great Wall L1040087


“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”


Laozi c.580 BCE

Building on 19th Century US westward expansion (“Go West Young Man”), much of the current innovation in technology has been West Coast focused, particularly in California’s Silicon Valley, which has for more than 50 years been an intellectual epicentre of the technology world.

Source: Wall Street Pit

Source: Wall Street Pit

Over my long tenure in the vanguard of technology trends, I have witnessed a tectonic shift in this comfortable, yet outdated, world order. Today the best and brightest innovators and entrepreneurs must also look east, especially to China, to fully embrace global reality of the 21st Century.

Many of you might be wondering about the slowing growth rates in China? Like many aspects of China, there are many perplexing contradictions that are beyond the scope of this post. It is certainly true that Chinese infrastructure investments and some manufacturing has been overbuilt. Not so in the technology industry. The difference is that there is a huge gap as  the Chinese population increasingly moves to middle class status and the country needs to solve some huge issues (e.g. environmental issues around air quality). As a result, ICT, Green Technology, Life Sciences and other knowledge-based businesses continue to provide huge upside opportunities.

There is no question that China is a complex and difficult market to access. Knowing this, how can Canadian entrepreneurs master the new globalization landscape? Read on …

In 2015, my assistance was requested from an innovative group of investors and social entrepreneurs to pilot a new program, called CAMP (short for China Angel Mentorship Program) aimed at forging new international linkages tied to the momentum of startups. By identifying some of the best Canadian startup entrepreneurs, investing in them and helping them to engage with China, this program has the opportunity to drive a whole new generation of engagement between China and Canada, in the fast moving world of startups, technology and innovation.

CAMP is created and led by Liu Zhishuo (Peter Liu), Wang Tong (Tony Wang), Liu Yingna (Angela Liu), Zhang Yi Chin and Yang Jun (Alan Yang), all very savvy strategists and investors who aspire to “cross-border ecosystem building” between China and Canada. They work in Canada through CCAA (China Canada Angels Alliance) which made 23 investments in 2015 and in China through River Capital which made 50 investments in 2015. Since, as a westerner, you may not know these leaders (pictured below in Beijing), I will provide some background and context.

Peter and Angela Liu at CAMP Beijing 2015Angela, Tony and Yi Qin at CAMP Beijing 2015

I was asked to help this core group from CCAA to help find a pivotal group of Canadian mentors, who were able to assist CCAA to shape the CAMP program and ensure that the most qualified cadre of startups were selected to fill the 2015 cohort. Many of us, including Aron Solomon, Peter Evans, Benton Leong, Chris Flood and yours truly were in Beijing to also assist in the work that was much more focused on the Chinese mentor group, many of whom are indicated at this link.

Canadian CAMP Mentors Helping Startup Liftoff

Aron, Peter, Randall and Benton Plotting Startup Lift-off

Now let’s turn to the CAMP framework. As a uniquely conceived variant of the classical “startup accelerator”, CAMP involves CCAA, along with the Canadian mentors, selecting the 10 best Canadian startups (initially restricted to Ontario) who are uniquely engaged with:

  • an up to $200,000 equity investment
  • a detailed orientation session in Canada to build the groundwork for the best China experience
  • matchmaking with one or more mentors in China, who are chosen specifically for each company based on market and need.
  • an intensive 2 week immersion in Beijing, including many company visits, one-on-one meetings and a demo day in front of top Chinese investors
  • an 18 month post Beijing engagement with the chosen mentor to provide targeted assistance while the company grows and expands.
CAMP cohort visits Tencent Nov 2015

CAMP group visits Tencent: Just one of many onsite visits

Because this was a first iteration, many companies had no idea of what to expect. Many were a bit sceptical, but being true entrepreneurs, they took the plunge. I can say that each and every startup from the first 2015 cohort of CAMP found the immersive experience in Beijing to be an exhaustingly intensive experience, but one that was profound and life-changing. The level of access to high level networks (“guanxi”) was extraordinary. That, coupled with the strategic insight of the CAMP organizers, and matched mentors, elevated the experience in Beijing.

Based on the inaugural CAMP, the organizers are committed to making the second cohort in 2016 even better. That call for the best startups will open up in the coming weeks. Until then, you might ask: why should you pay attention to CAMP and what sets it apart?

Access and Understanding: First of all, although China is a huge and growing market, it is very difficult for most companies, not the least a young startup, to properly engage with it. It is a complex market, fraught with pitfalls and unknown territory, from language, customs and even different regulation. CAMP provides personal connections (guanxi) through the mentors, and a degree of wisdom not likely to be available anywhere else. No company should consider China without a strong relationship with a trusted guide and mentor.

Canada-China Engagement: I firmly believe that CAMP has the potential to open up very senior intergovernmental engagement between China and Canada, but through the lens of building the new economy via innovative startups. Yet, startups have not historically been a major focus for governments at the national, provincial or regional level. I firmly believe that CAMP  has sown the seeds that may increase bi-literal impact.

Huge Market Gaps: The unprecedented growth and transformation of China over the last quarter century has created huge demand and huge needs. Much has been written about that. But, less obvious, is that there are many companies in China looking for unique international opportunities. It is as challenging for them to engage outside China as it is for a Canadian company to understand China.

Growth Hacking: Perhaps the number one reason that startups go to California is to tap into the “growth hacking” expertise, an area in which Silicon Valley continues to be a world-beating innovator. Less well known in the west is that a new generation of Chinese tech firms, particularly in B2C and mobile, has taken growth hacking skills and strategies into hyperdrive. Surprising as it might seem, these may well make Silicon Valley growth vectors look tame by comparison. Every CAMP participant will have a unique opportunity to tap into this expertise.

Whether you are a startup with world-beating ambition or an tech ecosystem leader looking for future opportunities, stay tuned for the launch of the CAMP website, which will be accompanied by a call to find the 10 best startups Canada has to offer.

L1040562 RH Chop TranspaarentRandall (郝狼盾)
Looking east and savouring the journey..

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Middlebrook Prize on the Move

by Randall on September 10, 2015 · 0 comments

MPfYCC Website HeaderThe Middlebrook Prize for Young Canadian Curators has named Adam Barbu as its third winner and is moving up to a whole new level. Founded in 2012 by John Kissick and me, with initial investments from Middlebrook Social Innovation Fund, to support and mobilize Canadian creative talent, the Prize aims to inspire positive social change through creativity and connectedness in a time of unprecedented economic, environmental, social, and cultural challenges.

Middlebrook Prize CubeIn our 3rd year, some exciting changes are afoot as we see our vision for the Prize unfold.

First of all, the Prize has a new home in our partner gallery, the recently re-branded Art Gallery of GuelphLed by Dawn Owen, the gallery provides a compelling new venue to host the Prize exhibition and to mentor the winner.

Secondly, the Prize now has a physical form and a visual identity as befits an increasingly important Canadian cultural icon. Designed by the immensely talented and award winning creative director, Chris Duchaine, our new visual identity reflects the knowledge integration inherent in modern curating interpreted with the most modern design principles. Paying homage to the “White Cube” abstraction of the  idealized art gallery, it also references the forces that are breaking down that cube and moving curation firmly into the future, perhaps embracing new ideas like the Ultra Contemporary Art Movement.

Hear Chris discuss his design:

Middlebrook Prize Cube Net AnimiatedTo accompany the design, Chris selected the recently designed LL Circular font by Laurenz Brunner from Lineto in Switzerland. The font manages to be “geometric without being cold” and timeless while modern.

And, finally, the Prize now has a permanent online home with a website at MiddlebrookPrize.ca to properly highlight the accomplishments of this growing group of young opinion leaders in the arts world. To acknowledge that growing influence, the winners comprise an expert centre, using the cloud-based service ExpertFile to highlight the developing oeuvre of our cadre of winners. To further encourage the growth of this network of leaders, Katherine Dennis, the 2013 Middlebrook Prize winner, was a member of the selection jury for the 2015 Prize. We extend a special thanks to Kendra Martin for managing the design and implementation of our web presence.

In keeping with 6 words in the Prize name, (hence the “cube” in the visual design), we’ve chosen a playfully “cubic” hashtag of #MPfYCCStay tuned for more exciting developments, but do check out Adam’s exhibition opening on September 17th and the Middlebrook Prize Award Day on October 24th.

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How Can Angels Structure Their Portfolios Better?


[Note: this blog post also appears on the NACO Canada guest blog by Randall Howard]

Angel portfolio management remains surprisingly primitive. Many Angels have built up substantial portfolios over time, yet few give much thought to ongoing management of these valuable assets. The many various spreadsheets, documents, share certificates, warrants, emails and other essential documents are often scattered far and wide. I understand first hand the challenges Angel investors face when managing their portfolios and I also understand that things need to change.

At the beginning of October, I will be moderating a panel at the 2015 National Angel Summit, regarding best practices in portfolio structuring management and succession planning in order to build awareness, and activate change, around this issue. The panel will include two “Super Angels” and a Family Office Professional who will provide first hand perspectives on approaches to filling the portfolio management gap.

The fundamental question we will be addressing is, “how can Angels structure their portfolios better?” We will also be diving into the importance of succession planning for Angel investors.

It may sound morbid, but how many Angel investors have planned or even thought about the huge challenges they would leave their loved ones and executors when they die? Angel investors need to have a well-executed plan in place for their portfolio companies. Like inside companies, succession planning is all about planning for the inevitable to lessen the burden for those who follow.

With this panel, my hope is to shine a light on these less mainstream topics, through awareness and conversation. Throughout the 55-minute session, Summit attendees will learn tangible strategies and tips for proper portfolio management and succession planning. The panel will also ensure that as many audience questions are answered as possible.

It should be noted that the Summit is the signature event of the Canadian Angel investment community, and this three-day conference is an excellent chance to network with startup CEO’s, attend panels and workshops, sharpen your skills, learn from industry leaders and more.

Register for the 2015 NACO Summit to join this discussion.

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aca-summit-2015 512x250In mid-April, I attended the 10th annual ACA Summit hosted by Angel Capital Association in San Diego. With about 600 people in attendance from dozens of countries, it was an excellent chance to get tuned into the latest trends happening in angel world at large.

And since Angel Investing is now a global phenomenon, it is interesting to note that ACA Summit can have two faces. On one hand, it is a very international gathering of Angel investors and yet sometimes the content reflects the fact that ACA is primarily an association of US Angel investors, for example by showing trends without regard that Canadian angels are just across the border.

The international range of attendees was striking, with many delegations from various European countries; Latin American countries like Mexico, Chile and Barbados; India; a particular concentration from Australia and New Zealand and of course Canada. Regarding this antipodean concentration, one attendee found it odd that there were more of participants from halfway around the world than from Canada.

I am a member of the program committee for Canada’s own 2015 NACO Summit which is being held October 6-8 in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, right on the US frontier. I see a huge opportunity to learn and connect with more US and global angels.

Each year, the Angel Resource Institute publishes statistical information and trends in US Angel investing and at ACA released their 2014 Halo Report.

I’ve chosen some personally curated highlights both of that report and the overall conference:

  • Overall US Angel investment was about US$25 billion in 2014, surpassing venture capital investments. This represents over 300,000 investors in over 70,000 deals. We continue to have less comprehensive data for Canada, but we still lag on a per capita basis, but the gap is narrowing.
  • Although Crowdfunding was a major topic of discussion, it is still less than 2% of the above $25 billion figure, definitely lagging places like the UK where it is already at 5%.
  • Median deal size grew over 10% to $2 million in 2014, when co-investment is included. Median pre-money valuation grew 20% to $3 million.
  • The largest region for  deal dollars (17.2%) was the Great Lakes Region (from Wisconsin to Ohio), surprising to those who thought most deals happen in California. Further, almost 50% of all deals are in states on the Canadian border, clearly presenting cross-border syndication opportunities.
  • Perhaps because of high valuations in the tech “hot spots”, such as New York City and California, more syndication across greater distances was reported, which goes against the traditional notion of investors focusing within a one-hour drive. Again, while the studies of greater cross-country syndication didn’t extend into Canada, it is easy to extend this trend cross-border. A drive could be to focus on those sectors requiring specialized skills such as medical technologies and life sciences.
  • There were a lot of great sessions on emerging, and ongoing, issues, such as crowdfunding, the new SEC Regulation A+ (mandated by the JOBS Act to simplify raises up to $20 million even from non-accredited investors), an ever increasing push to build new and innovative Angel Funds and even post investment Board governance.
  • In that vein, I ran an open panel on “Best Practices to Build a Private Equity Portfolio – Tools and Strategies”.  What was notable was how primitive such angel portfolio management really was. One participant suggested angels portfolio management was comparable to that of public company portfolios 100 years ago. As Angels learn that a passive approach with little portfolio management is sub-optimal, leading Superangels, the advanced Angel groups and the trend to angel funds are all pushing for more professional portfolio management. Although historically they have worked separately, the increased involvement of Family Offices in the world of angels is also starting to drive greater portfolio discipline. New software tools are emerging to help here as well, such as Seraf – Portfolio Management for Angel Investors which was built by angels unable to find a way to automate their portfolio management.

In summary, ACA Summit 2015 was a fabulous opportunity to meet, network and learn from some of the best global angels and understand about emerging models and best practices. Many side bar conversations, dinners and drinks in the garden were packed with wisdom from around the world.

In October, our own NACO Summit will be a great opportunity for Canadians to similarly share and learn and to connect with a more global perspective as our Angel ecosystem continues to grow from strength to strength.

2015 National Angel Capital Summit

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Business Strategy

Top 25 Waterloo Technology Acquisitions – Wisdom from the Data

February 8, 2015

The acquisition of MKS by PTC in 2011, caused me to reflect a bit on what good acquisitions might look like and what they might teach us about building (sometimes elusive) long term shareholder value. As a result, over the last 6 months, I’ve progressively assembled a collection on the most significant acquisitions in the Waterloo area. To my knowledge,

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The Downside of Meeting Requests

January 4, 2015

“Expectation is the mother of all frustration.” – Antonio Banderas

Meeting requests are an amazing invention. Pioneered, and standardized, almost 20 years ago by companies like Microsoft (as part of Outlook/Exchange), Novell (Groupwise) and Lotus (now part of IBM Lotus Notes) this innovation had great promise to automate an essential, yet completely routine, aspect of modern life.

The ascendency of meeting request usage,

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Fall Of The Wall – 25 Years Later

November 9, 2014

A mere 25 years ago, the Fall of the Berlin Wall rent the “Iron Curtain” asunder, a re-ordering of western civilization possibly unparallelled since the fall of the Roman Empire.

25 years and 15 days ago, almost by happenstance, I drove the Berlin Corridor, travelled via Freidrichstraße Station behind the Berlin Wall and witnessed an exhausted and bankrupt regime about to collapse.

Today the

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Business Strategy

Canadian Angel of the Year Award

October 3, 2014

At the NACO Summit in Québec City, it was truly humbling to receive the Canadian Angel of the Year Award. I see this partly as a calling to be an ambassador to continue to help raise the Angel bar in Canada in the coming years. I wish to thank all those kind colleagues who, unbeknownst to me, wrote letters of nomination. Also,

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The Group of Seven – Nation Building for the 21st Century

January 14, 2014

Last year, I signed up for a wonderfully ambitious initiative spearheaded by our Governor General, His Excellency David Johnston. I was invited to join a Group of Seven who will serve as catalysts to rolling out David Johnson’s vision of a Smart and Caring Nation built by a set of Smart and Caring Communities, ultimately aimed to be a major

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Ice Storms Highlight Canada’s Obsolete Infrastructure

January 1, 2014

As we enter 2014, well into the 21st Century, one lesson for me from the year just past was that Canada seems to be hobbled with 19th century infrastructure. Let me explain.

During 2013, my home in Ontario was subject to not one, but two, different ice storms – in April and December. Both brought down large chunks of trees and

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