The consummate mentor — remembering Barry Gekiere

The consummate mentor — remembering Barry Gekiere

Barry Gekiere was a titan in Canada’s tech community. During his 10 years as head of MaRS Investment Accelerator Fund, his impact was nothing short of legendary.

It was the mid-1980s, and Barry Gekiere was general manager of Modine Canada, a radiator manufacturer in rural Ontario. On weekends, he often took his only child, Adam, with him when he would visit warehouses to check on operations. One day, Adam, then about six years old, had a magic trick in his pocket that could make a quarter disappear. While his dad walked around the warehouse talking to people, Adam approached some of the workers and playfully bet them that if he could make their quarter disappear, they would have to give it to him.

When he and his dad got back in the car after the visit, he told his father of his success.

“I was so proud of myself — I had made a couple of bucks. But my dad was so mad at me,” Adam says, recalling one of his earliest memories of his father. “He told me that we had enough money and people in the warehouse work very hard. He was always very sensitive that everybody be treated equally. He didn’t want to be seen as the boss or that I had special privileges because I was the boss’ son.”

Barry Gekiere, managing director of the Investment Accelerator Fund (IAF) at MaRS, didn’t like to talk about himself. Colleagues, fellow venture capitalists, entrepreneurs and associates describe him as “a legend in the venture capital space”; “a true gentleman”; “the best boss imaginable”; “one of the good ones”; and the “consummate mentor.” But he squirmed under the spotlight, never welcoming it, despite his remarkable success.

Many in Canada’s tech community were the beneficiaries of his investor prowess but also — most memorably — of his values. Few knew their provenance.

During his 10 years as head of IAF, Barry’s impact was nothing short of legendary. He turned a $43-million investment of public money in a nascent fund into a self-sustaining pool of capital with $1.23 billion in follow-on funding. Under his leadership, the IAF invested in 150 companies which went on to have a 75 percent success rate of leveraging seed capital to Series A financing. Among them: some of the best in Ontario’s tech ecosystem. That a government-backed fund, which came with restrictions, out-performed private funds is “unheard of,” according to one industry insider.

Barry died suddenly on Friday May 22nd, due to complications from cancer treatment for an aggressive form of lymphoma. He was 68.

“When you think about the venture capital persona, they’re not known for their humanity. They’re not known for looking beyond the numbers,” says Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS who knew Barry for several decades. “Barry was none of those things. And his performance and the performance of the funds he managed never ever suffered because he was a different cat from how others act in the venture capital field.”

One of his greatest attributes was humility. Hamid Arabzadeh, co-founder of Ranovus, a startup that helps create power-efficient hyperscale data centres, approached Barry in 2010, shortly after he joined IAF. “I had talked to some venture capitalists about Ranovus but it was too high risk for them,” Hamid says, adding that the rejections came despite his successful track record of building and selling tech companies. “There are lots of things you have to do if you want disruptive technologies. They are based on physics and chemistry, and most venture capitalists cannot really assess the risk in science-based disruptive ventures.

“When I talked to Barry, he said ‘I don’t really understand what you’re trying to do but we invest in people. At the end of the day, we can’t be experts in all of the domains so we make sure we get the best people to give us their judgment in that specific field so we can make our investment.’

“Other venture capitalists would pretend to know the field when trying to judge if our proposed approach would be successful or not,” Hamid explains. “But Barry was going right to the heart of it. It’s all about people.”

Barry committed to a $500,000 investment in Ranovus, the maximum allowed from IAF under the program guidelines. “It was a fantastic help. I could leverage that $500K with another strategic investor and other organizations so they could see that government was interested.” The seed financing round amounted to a total of $1.5 million. “The relationship with Barry didn’t end there. Even until our last round of financing in late 2019, Barry’s trusted network of people in MaRS and outside MaRS continued joining Ranovus’ journey. When you get to a certain place in the industry, your network is your net worth.” So far, Ranovus has raised US $95 million, Hamid notes.

The seed of Barry’s values had been planted on his family’s tobacco farm in the small Ontario town of Delhi. The second oldest of four children, he grew up working on the farm, drying tobacco in the kiln, irrigating the fields and doing whatever chore was asked of him. “A common threat of his was that if I didn’t behave, he would send me to work on farming fields so I could see what work was really about,” says Adam with a laugh. Barry met his future wife, Victoria, in the local high school. She had grown up on a tobacco farm, too. When he went off to University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., she followed him and worked various jobs while he studied.

After graduating with a business degree, his first job was in venture capital. Over the years, he would be tapped to head up different companies, including a manufacturer of pipeline parts, but he always returned after those stints to venture capital. “He loved the idea of creating something with others — he had a very strong work ethic,” says Gil Luis, a semi-retired specialist in the radiator business who met Barry in 1981. “I didn’t go to university. I didn’t even finish high school. But Barry would always be interested in my life. We spoke at least once a month for 39 years. And he would explain to me what he was doing. I didn’t understand 60 percent of it. But that didn’t matter. Barry was a very loving and loyal person. I loved him like a brother.”

In the years before he joined MaRS, Barry was a managing partner at Ventures West for about a decade. He also worked for the Kirchner Private Capital Group, at one point leaving to take a CEO position with an aerospace components company.
His guiding principles of curiosity, honesty and rigorous discipline never left him. “He coached me,” says Robin Axon, whom Barry hired at Ventures West right out of business school. “He didn’t have a deep tech background but he was never afraid to put his hand up and ask the questions no one else would dare to ask. And by doing so, he would expose huge holes that others had overlooked. He was an excellent business person. Barry spent more time with me, working with me to make sure I was doing the due diligence so I could answer all the questions.”

He was always looking for a teaching moment, Robin notes. On one occasion, they were working on a deal for a company in Saint John, N.B. Robin had done all the due diligence, asked all the questions and checked the references. Barry told him to draw up the term sheet, outlining the conditions around their proposed investment. Robin did as instructed. But then Barry surprised him by saying that they had to fly to Saint John. “You can’t present over the phone,” Barry said. They ended up not being successful with the deal. “But I believe Barry did that trip because he wanted me to see how it’s done. It’s shaking hands. It’s people to people. Barry got his success out of making other people successful. He was not an individual contributor. He was a team maker,” says Robin, who is currently managing partner of Mantella Venture Partners.

In 2009, when the Ontario provincial government was looking to create a seed fund that would buffer the impact of the 2008 financial crisis, which had dented private capital, the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE) was chosen to implement the IAF. Barry had served as a volunteer at the OCE, helping to get the IAF launched.

“I was trying to recruit him when the IAF moved to MaRS,” says Ilse Treurnicht, then CEO of MaRS. “He wasn’t looking for a full-time job and had not worked a lot with government (here the Limited Partner). He hesitated. Would the government interfere?”

The challenge required that investments had to be made early, often before others invested, and the amount was capped at $500,000. “Barry really saw the need to fill this critical capital gap in the post-crisis environment and the need to do it right; to help the companies grow and to not do anything stupid with public money,” Ilse says.

“The fact that IAF ran for 10 years is a huge testament to Barry,” notes Matt Golden, founder and managing partner of Golden Ventures. “Historically, publicly funded direct invest programs don’t last long due to shifting policies and administrations. But Barry was able to build a team and a process and demonstrate success quickly and early, ensuring the government could always see the high value delivered relative to the dollars invested. Barry was not a politician but he was persuasive through his effectiveness and mission of helping build the Toronto technology ecosystem.”

Barry followed his proven process — build a great team. “You could walk into his office and always come away with a better solution,” says Michelle McBane, who worked on his team since the beginning and later launched StandUp Ventures, the first private venture fund spun out from the IAF. “You went into a conversation with him knowing there was trust. You could hash things out and be honest.” He was thorough and insightful, she says. “I would say to him, ‘Here’s what I think we should do,’ and he’d go, ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ And I’d go and negotiate the deal terms and then he would come back the next day and add new thoughts. He would sit and reflect and take notes and be so thoughtful. He was the kind of boss you wanted to go out and have a beer with. He was one of the best leaders I have ever known.”

“ ‘A true gentleman’ is an honour that Barry would only bestow on a (very) select few,” says Lance Laking, interim managing director at IAF. “Without any dispute, Barry himself was a true gentleman.”

“He was the first to admit he was old-school,” adds Ilse, who is currently working with a cancer company and other investment projects. “He was conscious of the male-dominated field. The IAF had strong female team members and backed strong female founders. Michelle and others occasionally hip-checked him on some assumptions. And he would be the first to say ‘I didn’t think of it that way.’ He was very open to tackling questions head on and deal with the facts that are uncomfortable.”

One of those uncomfortable facts was the small number of female entrepreneurs in the tech sector. With Barry’s support, Michelle launched StandUp Ventures, a fund investing in ventures led or co-led by women, in 2017. “In tech, it can be challenging for women to break through,” she says. “Our belief is that if you have women founders and leaders, you’ll have a more balanced and diverse organization leading to better business outcomes. It’s about bringing more diversity to the boardrooms and the C suites. Barry was the ice breaker for me to launch this program and this fund. He lent his name and his business acumen to this new fund.”

Lindsey Goodchild might have never had the success her startup now enjoys without an IAF investment. “I’m a first-time entrepreneur. I was not the banging-my-chest aggressive type,” says the co-founder of Nudge Rewards. “At time we started this, we didn’t fit the mold of tech entrepreneurs. But they weren’t concerned about the mold. They were interested in the passion and potential of people to fix a massive problem. They mentored us. They were gentle with us. And they helped us recognize what is possible.” Nudge Rewards has raised more than $20 million in venture capital, becoming one of the few Canadian tech companies, co-founded by women, to secure eight-figure private financing.

In July last year, Barry went to the hospital, complaining of a pain in his side. Doctors thought it was a kidney stone. They did some scans. There were no kidney stones but they did discover a slightly enlarged lymph node. They did a biopsy. The result was lymphoma. He underwent chemotherapy in Oakville, where he lived with his wife.

When the outcome wasn’t as good as hoped, he was sent to Buffalo, N.Y, to receive T-cell therapy that wasn’t available yet in Canada.

On the day before his treatment, he participated in a Zoom call with his IAF team. “He was sitting at a table in his hospital room, wearing a dress shirt,” recalls Michelle. “He was there for his team and wanted us to know he was present.”

Every day, he talked or Facetimed with Adam so he could see his first grandchild, a two-month-old girl named Lauren.

Throughout his life and career, Barry had travelled extensively with his son, taking him on golf and ski trips because his wife didn’t like to travel. They had a funny habit of deliberating for hours — to the point of becoming angry and famished — over which restaurant to try when they were in a new place. (They often ended up at the first restaurant they had come across, Adam points out with a laugh.)

Barry was in Buffalo for five weeks on his own, unable to have visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic. In his final days, he was talking about his dream of holding his granddaughter in his arms for the first time and of returning to Whistler to ski with Adam. He had picked out the restaurants they would try.

He was upbeat and positive when they spoke last Thursday morning. “He said, ‘Don’t worry. I feel strong. I did a mile on the treadmill,’” recalls Adam. “I said I would call him in the afternoon.”

That afternoon he had a bleed in his lungs and was put on a ventilator. He died the next day.

Barry Gekiere leaves his wife, Victoria; his son, Adam; daughter-in-law, Katie; and his granddaughter, Lauren. The Barry Gekiere Memorial Fund has been set up to support The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society of Canada.

Tributes and remembrances have poured in from across the tech community. Here is a small sample.

“Barry is a legend in the venture capital space in Canada, and his achievements and impact were profound. He inspired and invested into an entire generation of Canada’s entrepreneurs. But what was exceptional is Barry, the human being. He was wise and provided no-nonsense advice — which always inevitably turned out to be very thoughtful insights. Barry had decades of experience in venture capital, private equity and operations. He was able to take all his learning and experiences and help those around him learn, become better and to make their own impact in this industry. To know Barry was to love Barry. I will personally miss Barry’s deep business leadership, pragmatism, energy, intellectual honesty, his integrity and most of all, his friendship.” – Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS

“He had the vision to see what could be instead of what couldn’t be.”
– Matt Golden, founder and managing partner of Golden Ventures

“Barry is the closest thing I have ever had to a mentor. His door was always open, and he shared his wise and considered counsel freely and with grace. He talked me off the ledge more than once. He knew so much — not just about venture capital and early stage investing, but about life and what matters. All of those things combined to make Barry a unique human, an exceptional mentor and a guiding light for those of us who leaned heavily on him (and there were quite a few of us!). I will truly miss his big heart, his ability to cut to the heart of any issue and his openness to sharing his wisdom. I feel an extraordinary sense of loss, but also an extraordinary sense of gratitude for Barry, for his work, and for all he taught me and all he brought to the world. I will really miss him.” – Jane Kearns, vice president of Growth Services, MaRS

“The difference with Barry was the way he connected with people. He always wanted a fair deal. He didn’t want to take advantage. He understood the long game. He had so much to contribute. He understood that his role was to be of service as an extension of the government.” – Michelle McBane, head of StandUp Ventures at IAF

“Barry had no ego. He had been around long enough and seen enough that he was focused on the entrepreneurs and their ideas and not on his investor prowess. He could help founders see a path forward and he could see the barriers they might encounter.”
– Ilse Treurnicht, former CEO of MaRS who is currently working with cancer companies and other investment projects.

“I would see Barry at networking events, and always be drawn to talk to him. We’d of course discuss business where he’d challenge us, but then we’d always talk about his latest ski trip or the new rare beer he’d discovered. He always wanted to know about our lives. ‘How is your life going?’ he would ask. ‘Make sure you’re living your life.’”
– Lindsey Goodchild, co-founder of Nudge Rewards

“People don’t realize that Barry had two families. He had his own family and he had the people in the venture ecosystem. He mentored so many people. There are two sets of families mourning his loss.”
– Alison Nankivell, LP in StandUp Ventures, IAF

“The last time I saw Barry we had a really nice chat about what he was hoping to accomplish with the new fund, how it would position his people for success (always a constant theme with him, I never had a conversation about IAF where he didn’t worry about how things might affect “the team”). It is quite poignant to me now because he talked about how he was winding down his professional life, and was really looking forward to just being a mentor now. He was a very decent and talented individual who liked his job, liked the people, and was enjoyable to spend time with. Barry’s personal track record, considering that he invested in the riskiest seed and early stage companies, was spectacular, and he was universally respected for his deal acumen.” – Eugene Siklos, vice president, head of investments, Export Development Canada

“What a tragedy and such a big loss. Barry was instrumental in our success and provided me with so much encouragement and motivation on my Journey at Fiix. He will be greatly missed throughout the entire ecosystem.” – Marc Castel, founder of Fiix Software.

“If I were to channel my best imitation of Barry right now, he would probably be saying, “all right, enough of this mushy stuff, let’s get on with business!” All of which was just his gruff way of hiding (unsuccessfully) his heart of gold, and his dedication to the success of others.” – Yung Wu, CEO of MaRS