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Former OMERS Ventures CEO John Ruffolo.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

Venture capital investor and Canadian technology cheerleader John Ruffolo is leaving one of the country’s largest pension plans, the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System.

Mr. Ruffolo launched OMERS Ventures, an arm of the $95-billion OMERS fund, in 2011 and put capital into start-up tech companies at a time when the venture capital sector was in retrenchment mode following the collapse of Nortel Networks Corp. On his watch as CEO, OMERS Ventures built an $800-million portfolio with investments in approximately 30 tech companies. Mr. Ruffolo forged a reputation as the face of the industry, bringing other institutional investors into the sector and appearing frequently in media and at industry conferences.

Damien Steel, currently a managing partner at OMERS Ventures, will take over the group, reporting to Mark Redman, OMERS' global head of private equity. Mr. Steel has more than a decade of experience in venture capital investing, and previously worked at fund managers BridgeScale Partners and EdgeStone Capital Partners. In an internal note to colleagues, Mr. Steel said the fund remains committed to venture capital and the team continues to aspire to be “Canada’s first true global venture platform.”

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Mr. Ruffolo will continue to work with OMERS Ventures in an advisory role until Dec. 31, the fund said in an e-mail. “We are appreciative of the work that he has done to bring the ventures business to its current standing and we wish him well,” a spokesperson for OMERS said. Mr. Ruffolo declined a request for comment Friday.

Mr. Ruffolo, 52, is the former head of professional services firm Deloitte’s technology, media and telecommunications practice. Former OMERS CEO Michael Nobrega brought him to the pension plan seven years ago, and the fund earmarked $200-million for venture capital at a time when the Ontario and federal governments were exploring ways to jump-start the moribund Canadian sector.

Mr. Ruffolo made several bets at the early stage of the sector’s recovery here, backing such stars as Hootsuite and Shopify. Three years ago, he teamed up with former BlackBerry Ltd. chairman and co-CEO Jim Balsillie to create the Council of Canadian Innovators, a lobby group that focused on advancing the interests of the domestic tech sector and counter the influence of foreign tech giants such as Google and Facebook.

“There is a small handful of fearless CEOs I’ve encountered doing business in Canada and John was always the one to take bold steps others would later emulate,” Mr. Balsillie said. “His impact in the Canadian tech ecosystem is unparalleled and I know he will channel that into his next venture."

Most pension funds only invest their own capital. Mr. Ruffolo was able to persuade other financial institutions to commit money to OMERS Ventures, including Bank of Montreal and Sun Life Assurance Co. of Canada, along with foreign investors Wafra Inc. and Cisco Systems Inc.

Kirk Simpson, CEO of small business software provider Wave Financial Inc. – the first startup funded by OMERS Ventures in 2011 – said Mr. Ruffolo “really transformed the VC market in Canada. Now, in 2018, there is no excuse for Canadian entrepreneurs not to stay in Canada, find capital and grow big businesses."

OMERS manages the retirement savings for approximately 480,000 Ontario government employees, including fire fighters and police officers. The fund has embraced alternative assets such as venture capital, private equity and real estate under Mr. Norbrega and his successor, Michael Latimer, who took the reins in 2014. Last year, OMERS made an 11.5-per-cent return on its investments, while the five-year return is 8.9 per cent, well above performance benchmarks.

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