The New Brunswick Innovation Foundation (NBIF) recently announced that tech industry veteran Jeff White will be taking on the role of CEO.
White brings a long list of experience to the role. He was a foundational member of New Brunswick’s most notable startups, serving as the chief financial officer at both Radian6 (which was acquired by Salesforce) and Q1 Labs (acquired by IBM). He’s also currently the chief operating officer of East Valley Ventures, a New Brunswick-based startup accelerator and early-stage investor.
White officially starts his new gig October 29. Coming into the public sector job with heaps of private sector experience, Huddle had chat with him about what he hopes to bring to the organization, its role in the growth of the province’s economy:
What made want to take this job?
Two reasons. First, NBIF has been a transformative part of our technology ecosystem in New Brunswick and one of the leaders in Atlantic Canada.
Second, I always wanted to lead an organization like this. This gives me a chance to exercise my leadership style and capacity in a broader mandate. [In past work] I’ve been focused on one company, now I get to shape a bit of a strategy that hopefully can reach deeper into our technology ecosystem.
What are your goals for the organization?
What we’re doing is pretty good, but I would like to see a tighter connection between what we’re doing to support research, which goes right from the student level right through to PhD students, to researchers, to ideas. We do the same thing over on the equity side of things, but we don’t necessarily have them connected and I would like to see a bit more of a connection between the two.
I think if we get the two of those connected … we could see some acceleration occur. There’s growth, but acceleration is when you change speeds and things really start to move faster and I think if we can connect those two, we can see some acceleration going into the marketplace.
What role would you say NBIF plays in the province’s startup ecosystem? Since it’s supported by the public sector, it is a bit different than say, East Valley Ventures and other private capital firms.
It’s been a bit of a catalyst around the idea that starting a business is a noble way to consider building a career and building our economy. I think it’s also taken some leadership positions in saying ‘how do you connect students to commercialization?’ when it comes to Breakthru and others initiatives. I think it’s applied the similar thought process in how can we take primary research and capacity we have in those areas to build it, which ultimately leads to bigger and better research, which ultimately leads to bigger and better solutions that may lead to global companies.
It’s also attracting talent. Those kinds of foundational activities and programs and opportunities start to attract talent into the academic side of things and into the commercial side of things.
Venture Capital firms have one requirement, financial ROI [return on investment] … I think at NBIF, it has and will have multiple measurements to think about. Being a very early stage investor, ROI is a long tail event.
You’ve been a part of some of the province’s biggest business success stories, including Radian 6. What role would you say NBIF played in their success?
By the time we, the executive team, got to Radian6, we collectively had 70 years of technology experience. The first time we tried to do that with a company, when we collectively had 10 or 12 years experience, we got hammered. Everyone forgot about that. That we took a company called iMagicTV public with the support of others and all kinds of things went wrong that could go wrong. Some you couldn’t control and some that you could. It was a ton of learning that went into getting to that point. Nobody came out of school and hit Radian6. Everyone one of us can tell you as many scars which were learnings. All those learnings were critical to getting to that point. You need to learn things before you know it.
NBIF was one of the early seed investors in Radian6 in its first $200,000-300,000 equity raise. It provided other support along the way as well. It was a board member and did some other things. I think it was very important. When Radian6 was founded, angel financing was an anomaly. It was a novelty and not a lot of people were aware of it, hence Radian6 had a small number of angels compared to maybe companies that you have today.
One of your old colleagues from Radian6, Marcel LeBrun, was also in the news recently with his joining of Real Ventures. What are your thoughts on what that means for startups in Atlantic Canada?
It’s a great connection. Marcel brings the experience of having built and failed, built and succeeded, built and did ok, but we all have those experiences. He brings front-line operator experience to the idea of investing and I think if I were a company and I could have Marcel as my partner on that file, you have the opportunity to pick the brain of a world-class executive … He’s got the insights of what globally competitive and aggressive companies are.
I think getting him into the ecosystem of investing in the seed and their Series A is going to be helpful for Real Ventures. Their fund is going to benefit immensely because I think they have a great eye. And hopefully, it will help Atlantic Canada as well, because he just has an eye and ear to the ground here.
One of the common criticisms we hear is that there’s enough private capital in Atlantic Canada. As someone who has worked in the private sector and the tech sector, what are your thoughts on that?[Private capital] is not as deep as we’d like. It’s narrow and wide. There are pieces of it scattered across the ecosystem. Early-stage equity investing in technology is still an evolving aspect of the financial markets in Atlantic Canada. If you think across the country … the downfall is that [Atlantic Canada is] small. People typically allocate a small portion of their investable capital and are willing to put it into private companies.
It is and it isn’t culturally embedded into Atlantic Canadians. Many of the businesses you walk by are funded out of someone’s pocket, whether it’s the founder … or the family that helped fund the farm. We haven’t taken that into funding those that we don’t have a direct relationship with, which is what happens in tech. You have people who have been successful in tech and then fund tech. That’s what happened in many of the big sectors.
We’re at the early stages of that. There’s capital available, but we’ll move towards technology because often you want to put money in areas you think you know a little bit about, versus just throwing it in blind. We do that in the public markets, where we turn it over to our advisors, but do I think there could be more? Yeah, it would be nice to see more people decide that’s something they could get to. But you need to have a process around it and again, that’s going to be a long game.
The reason why is we’re seeing more and better opportunities come out than we did in the past as a result of all the focus on startups. Not every one of them is a good idea … but we now have momentum behind driving the ideas, so it’s an area where we could use some more help.
Do you think NBIF could play a role in encouraging more private sector investment?
I think it has already and will continue to. The fact that it’s putting money in and investing and demonstrating it has helped. Most private sector investors either go on their own or you’ll see angel networks form.
That might be where I think there is an opportunity for Atlantic Canada. We have one very good Angel network called First Angel Network. I fundamentally believe there’s room for more networks because people like to hang out with people they like or know and sometimes there’s a common interest, whether it’s the type investing they do or it’s the idea or it could be based on age, gender, it could be all kinds of things. I think we might see some of that over the next five years or so.
What is your long-term vision for NBIF? Where would you like to see it in a couple years from now?
In couple years from now, I’d like to see the [storyline] as something like: “Jane Smith, PhD in Mechanical Engineering takes her PhD through to a global publication, which was then converted into a startup company which then became a global leader.”
That’s the story and NBIF is a part of it the whole way through, then we’ve connected the cycle because that’s where I think we can help. We can’t help companies or individuals all the way through that cycle, but we can help them from say, the PhD right through to early stage. Or if someone took their first business idea and we helped them get there. Ultimately someone becomes a global leader, either as an individual or an organization, and we see that more than once.