Rachel Zimmer, head of Entrepreneur First Toronto, looked out at the MaRS-Centre Auditorium and noticed something unusual: it had people in it. That is, there were a few dozen people, all wearing masks, each of their seats physically distanced as if part of a dance routine — but people nevertheless.
“Being back in person is better than I could have imagined,” Zimmer says. “I don’t think I appreciated how much productivity was lost; how much fun was lost. The team is really happy.”
This fall and winter, Zimmer is back at MaRS to lead an intensive six-month program that helps aspiring entrepreneurs find co-founders, pitch investors and customers, and ultimately transform their ideas into successful tech companies. For each group, Entrepreneur First handpicks participants from the public and private sectors, and pays them to quit their jobs. The $150-million fund — founded in London in 2011 and backed by Founders Fund, Mosaic Ventures, Lakestar, Greylock Partners and LinkedIn creator Reid Hoffman — then trains and invests in its members with the goal of finding the next great unicorn.
Entrepreneur First set up shop in Toronto back in September 2020, citing the city’s wealth of talent, capital and research institutions. Due to the on-going COVID restrictions, all of the program’s in-person meetings and team-building exercises were conducted on Zoom. “I think you can sustain relationships remotely, and we did a good job of that, but entrepreneurs need that real facetime to establish trust,” says Zimmer. “Startups need to have tough conversations and make decisions fast. It’s very hard to do that online, especially if you’ve only just met your partners.”
And while the MaRS Centre has been open at reduced capacity throughout the pandemic — serving tenants such as Public Health Ontario and acting as a vaccine clinic — many of the building’s cherished venues and common areas are only now coming back to life. As Zimmer says, “inspiration seems to ooze from the walls here.”
The 2021 Toronto cohort includes scientists, engineers, marketers and other tech-sector veterans, many of them leaving jobs at organizations such as Google, the Vector Institute and Shopify. Of the 1,500 applicants, only 70 were accepted. Over the next three months, members will live and work together at retreats and workshops — to test out ideas and build relationships with potential co-founders, but also to promote recreation and a sense of community. Newly-formed teams then present their company to Entrepreneur First’s Investment Committee to receive more funding. If successful (only about half of the cohort makes it to this stage), co-founders spend January through March developing their companies, before pitching to hundreds of investors at a demo day.
Cohort member Charles Ashby was able to lock in his co-founder, Ryan Watkins via Zoom before the official boot-camp kickoff at MaRS. A software developer, Ashby quit a coveted gig in Montreal to start Metacommerce, which helps artists make, manage and sell NFTs. And while Ashby had the necessary vision and technical ability, he needed Entrepreneur First to find a co-founder with both business experience and access to Canada’s complex tech community.
“Charles and I wouldn’t have met if not for Entrepreneur First,” Watkins says. “When you find the right partner, you can do so much more than what you can alone.” Watkins had spent years grinding in sales and marketing at various startups before finally deciding to, as he puts it, build something for himself and help artists.
Finally working in-person, Ashby and Watkins are racing ahead, taking on clients. By next spring, the pair aims to have hired staff and set up headquarters, possibly in Toronto.
Zimmer, for her part, thinks strong companies will come out of this session. “It’s great that these massive American backers chose Toronto for Entrepreneur First,” she says. “I’m excited and privileged to have the world’s eyes on our country.”
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