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Startups use TIFF as a lure for Silicon Valley cash

People pose on a giant TIFF sign on King St during the 40th Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto, Canada, September 10, 2015. TIFF runs from September 10-20.

MARK BLINCH/REUTERS

The Toronto International Film Festival is always a big draw for people all over the world, including quite a few from southern California. This year a group of technology evangelists is bringing in some big fish from northern California in what they hope will become an annual pilgrimage.

In co-operation with TIFF organizers, the governments of Ontario and Toronto and Waterloo's Communitech, the non-profit C100 organization is hosting Venture North, a two-day showcase of local tech companies for a visiting group of 25 venture capital investors. Innovation hubs MaRS and OneEleven are also partners in the event.

"A lot of the VCs coming up have not made any investments in Canada and are really just interested in meeting really great entrepreneurs," says Angela Strange, the co-chair of the C100 and a partner with mega-VC Andreessen Horowitz (investors in Twitter and Facebook among others). Largely from Silicon Valley (with some from Boston, Seattle and even China) the group includes partners from Google Ventures, Silicon Valley Bank, Idea Labs, Azure Capital and KPMG Capital among others.

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Ms. Strange says Venture North was oversubscribed, but the organizers kept it to 25 people to preserve an "intimate" feel. If it's a success, she says the C100 would like to make it an annual event.

The C100 is a not-for profit group started five years ago in Silicon Valley to connect the more than 100,000 Canadian expats working in tech with the startups back home. It hosts a number of events throughout the year, including its "48 hours in the valley" meetups that introduce Canadian startups to local tech culture. While it sounds altruistic, these events are designed to benefit both parties.

"From a VC perspective, your job is to find the smartest and best entrepreneurs that are going after really big visions that are going to build amazing companies," says Ms. Strange, an Ottawa-native who before joining Andreessen Horowitz went from Stanford's business school to working for a startup bought by Google.

On Tuesday, Ms. Strange will be one of the judges of a pitch competition featuring some local early stage companies. Waterloo's Suncayr, Bridgit, Medella Health and SparkGig will be competing with Toronto-area startups Plooto, Statflo and Sampler.

The winner will get $15,000, and the other judges are Ajay Royan of billionaire Peter Thiel's Mithril Capital and Andrew Parker of Boston-based Spark Capital (investors in Waterloo's messaging sensation Kik Inc.).

For Mallorie Brodie, the 24-year-old co-founder of Bridgit, the $15,000 would be nice, but she's more interested in getting up in front of some of the smartest moneymen and women in tech. "Normally we have to spend money to go down [to the Valley], it's really nice to have them come to us," she says.

Her startup makes mobile and desktop software for project management in the construction industry, where a typical condo project has 500 tradespeople doing different jobs on site. Work that was once was done with Excel spreadsheets, e-mail and post-it notes Bridgit tries to replace with mobile apps and analytics.

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Her company is not making a huge push to seek outside funding yet, but she has participated in C100 events before and came away impressed with the quality of the network, and she believes that if her company is going to take off she'll need connections in northern California.

"Any sort of startup that's really scaled probably had seen funding from the Valley," she says.

The only downside of the event, she says, is that the invitation to the pitch competition does not come with any red-carpet gala invitations.

On Tuesday, the VIP guests of Venture North will be attending the premiere of Septembers of Shiraz (starring Adrien Brody and Salma Hayek) at Roy Thompson Hall, followed by an after-party at Campbell House. On Wednesday they will be treated to Forsaken, a Western starring Kiefer and Donald Sutherland and the Weslodge eOne after-party.

Ms. Strange says the TIFF part of the proceedings are basically just a "fun backdrop," inspired by the annual film, digital and media programming at Austin, Texas's SXSW. The real business at hand is to introduce the VCs to Canada's tech ecosystem.

Wednesday will feature several private pitches to investors by such companies as Auvik Networks, Plasticity Labs, MappedIn, Sortable, Sweet Tooth, Need Nudge, Borrowell and Litmus Automation.

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There will also be a showcase of such Canadian hardware startups as Lumotune, Structur3d Printing, Palette, Matter and Form, Nymi, Muse, TeaBOT, Mass Fidelity and Bubl.

The goal of all this, says Ms. Strange, is "to really show them what is going on in Toronto and really show them why Canada in general has a lot of the ingredients towards being able to build the next billion-dollar exit, which is what everybody is looking for."

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About the Author
Technology reporter

Shane Dingman is The Globe and Mail's technology reporter. He covers BlackBerry, Shopify and rising Canadian tech companies in Waterloo, Ont., Toronto and beyond. More

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