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'Angels' looking at suitable city firms to save

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When the NHL returned to Winnipeg, it was as if the collective unconscious realized the city was really on the move.

The decision, announced this week, to start up a Winnipeg chapter of the angel investor group VA Angels (formerly the Venture Alberta Forum) may be part of the same kind of maturing process, albeit on a smaller scale.

An angel investor is typically an affluent individual who invests in business startups.

Angel groups or networks organize to share research and pool their investment capital.

In an ideal scenario, angels would invest after an entrepreneur has exhausted personal resources and advanced a company to the point where there may be customers, but it's likely too soon to support bank financing or attract venture capital.

There have been several angel groups formed in Winnipeg, some less formally than others, but Randy Thompson, the founder and leader of the VA Angels, is probably more accurate when he said there are groups "percolating" in the city.

They've never really taken hold.

Thompson has had plenty of exposure to the Manitoba scene, having operated the boot camps for participants in the Manitoba Venture Challenge over the past four years.

"We had a chance to do this before, but I did not want to drive this from Alberta," he said.

Mark Francis, the Western Canada representative for the CNSX (Canadian National Stock Exchange), will lead the Winnipeg chapter.

A long-time Winnipegger, although he now spends much of his time in Calgary, he has recruited a group of about 12 interested Manitoba investors and figures he'll have more by the November pitch.

The VA Angels model is to hold monthly pitches to a group of accredited "angels" -- either experienced entrepreneurs or sophisticated investors -- by companies who have to be ready before they are allowed to pitch.

The angels will invest in companies across the spectrum, from technology to new products to web-based firms.

"Our sweet spot is just as a company runs out of money and identifies its first customer and the customer says, 'Oh my God, I need 100 of these,'" Thompson said.

There's all sorts of reasons why it's been hard to put together functioning networks in Winnipeg. Francis thinks one reason is scale. Another is the lack of a proven structure and the track record of success VA Angels has.

"It makes sense to give people a geographic range," Francis said. "The idea is not to create fortress Manitoba, but rather to integrate to everyone's benefit."

Unlike other attempts to generate more investment capital in the Manitoba market, the VA Angels' Winnipeg chapter will be geographically agnostic.

That means local members will see pitches from entrepreneurs from outside the province as well as from within, and local companies will have a better chance to pitch to the Alberta chapters of VA Angels. (The group is also starting a new chapter in Kelowna, B.C.)

Harry Ethans is the lead investor in a newish Winnipeg angel group called Manitoba Knights that has financed a couple of deals and has about five more in the works.

He welcomes the addition of more angel investors in the province.

"We need more sources of capital," Ethans said. "Everybody can be complementary. We can pile in with one another when it makes sense."

Jan Lederman, executive chairwoman of Innovate Manitoba, said, "We have agreed to work with Randy. We don't want to run an angel network, but it would be great to have affiliate networks."

Her group is in the process of setting up an investor-ready certification program that would effectively groom companies to be ready to pitch to investors such as the VA Angels.

But regardless of what anyone else in the province is doing, this angel group will only make deals it wants to make.

Thompson said, "The secret recipe (of the VA Angels) is that it cannot be an economic-development function."

He said there may have been a sentiment in the past that these things should be done because it's good for Winnipeg.

"That's not the way investors work," he said. "There are no moral markets just because you're from Winnipeg. Big deal. Either it's a good deal or it's not."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 25, 2012 B5

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About Martin Cash

Martin Cash joined the Free Press in 1987 as the paper’s business columnist.

He has spent two decades chronicling the city’s business affairs.

Martin won a citation of merit from the National Newspaper Awards in 2001 for his coverage of the strike and subsequent multi-million-dollar union settlement at the Versatile tractor plant. He has also received honours and awards for his work on agriculture and technology development in Manitoba.

Martin has written a coffee-table book about the commercial and industrial make-up of the city, called Winnipeg: A Prairie Portrait.

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