A winning pitch
Startup TNT’s expansion to Manitoba aims to connect angel investors with various companies
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When Chris Bunio returned to Winnipeg to start his own company after a 20-year career with Microsoft that took him all over the world, he was a little surprised that the funding environment was as thin as it was for startups in Winnipeg.
It’s one of the reasons he is so keen to connect with an Edmonton-based organization called Startup TNT that is in the process of expanding into Winnipeg.
“There’s not a lot of organizations or capital focusing on seed or pre-seed funding in Winnipeg,” said Bunio, the CEO of an agricultural tech company called TheoryMesh.
“We are a software company, and one of the challenges is it takes a while to build the platform you need before you can get customer revenue flowing,” he said. “For a small company like us, access to capital is huge, which is why we’re so excited about Startup TNT… to make those connections.”
Bunio is grateful for the support he receives as a client of North Forge Technology Exchange, but he’s not been able to connect with any capital-raising activity. Last week, he was in Calgary where he won the $10,000 first prize in an ag tech pitch competition.
Startup TNT’s official mandate is “Have fun, make friends and build companies.”
Weekly happy hour pub get-togethers form the foundation of the community, where entrepreneurs and angel investors get to know each other in a friendly environment.
Gloria Thom, a long-time consultant with North Forge and an angel investor herself, is now the lead for Startup TNT in Winnipeg.
Her goal is to recruit both entrepreneurs and angel investors to take part in two pitch “summits” per year for Manitoba companies.
The angel investors — accredited investors with at least $200,000 in annual income and/or $1 million in liquid assets — would commit $5,500 for each summit and, after about eight weeks of due diligence, initially on about 20 companies, vote on a final pitch from the five best companies, with the winner taking the pot.
(Thom said each of the five companies typically get funded through syndicated or individual side deals with angels whose favourite company did not get enough votes to win.)
Startup TNT originated in Edmonton in 2019 and expanded into Saskatchewan a year ago. All together, its angel investors have invested about $7 million in about 50 companies, including about $1.3 million in 13 companies from two pitch summits in Saskatchewan in the past year.
“I’ve always been interested in the stories I have heard regarding the lack of access to capital and the difficulties companies in Manitoba have had raising money from local angels,” Thom said. “I did not hesitate to jump on board when Startup TNT started looking at Manitoba for expansion.”
The success it has had in Alberta and Saskatchewan also highlights the challenges in Manitoba. The organization now has 10 full-time employees and has received $1.5 million in funding from PrairesCan (formerly Western Economic Diversification) and Alberta Innovates.
As well as angel investors, Thom is also looking for potential regional funding opportunities in Manitoba, but, she said, “Alberta and Saskatchewan have funding organizations that we don’t have here.”
She has already received verbal support from several potential angel investors, and believes Startup TNT will be a helpful addition to the startup ecosystem in Winnipeg that already has busy organizations such as North Forge and the Manitoba Technology Accelerator operating.
But Thom said that Startup TNT does not compete and in fact does not even provide similar services. “I have worked with North Forge as a contractor and Joelle (Foster, CEO of North Forge) and I go way back,” she said. “I think it would be fair to say we are quite supportive of the endeavours each one of us is working on separately, and I think we have a common goal of seeing the community work together really well.”
Startup TNT co-founder Zach Storms said that is the way the organization approaches its communities that it has a presence in.
“When we started, there was a feeling like we weren’t doing a good job as a startup community in Edmonton,” he said. “I think it breathed a little life into the room… Startup TNT is now viewed as an ally and a friend.”
In addition to the two annual hybrid virtual summits in each province there are also sector-specific events — for ag tech or clean tech companies, for example.
On Thursday the Great Prairies Pitch Marathon is taking place all day long, with more than 200 companies from across the Prairies at various stages of the startup life cycle pitching “for fun” and exposure to about 300 potential funders and angels.
Storms said, “We position the whole experience with investors as a welcoming on-ramp for angel investors and for entrepreneurs as a welcoming introduction to raising money and building relationship with local investors.”
Martin Cash has been writing a column and business news at the Free Press since 1989. Over those years he’s written through a number of business cycles and the rise and fall (and rise) in fortunes of many local businesses.
Updated on Wednesday, August 17, 2022 10:51 AM CDT: Corrects spelling of Bunio