L-Spark demo day hears from Silicon Valley exec

The Ottawa business community needs to work together to build a thriving culture of innovation, a Silicon Valley executive told a group of local entrepreneurs and investors Tuesday.

“You’ve got to leverage what you have,” Intel Capital vice-president Marc Yi said during L-Spark Accelerator Demo Day at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum. “Money doesn’t solve the problem at all. Money is just one small component to creating a positive ecosystem. It’s really creating a culture through this kind of meeting, and networking and sharing stories.”

L-Spark managing director Leo Lax agreed, noting the range of new tech enterprises that are emerging downtown, in the ByWard Market and in Kanata.

“We are too small an ecosystem to live separately,” Mr. Lax said, adding he hopes events like the one Tuesday can “bring Ottawa together so we can become that safe and highly productive environment for entrepreneurs to come here to establish their companies and grow their businesses and make a difference.”

Mr. Yi, who is also the managing director of Intel’s Internet, digital media and education sectors,

shared some of his Silicon Valley insights with the crowd before the two companies in the L-Spark enterprise software accelerator pitched investors for another round of funding.

Mr. Yi said the investment industry has been changing recently, noting the emergence of micro VCs as an example. He said Silicon Valley separates itself partly because of the amount of capital it has, but also because of its willingness to “make bets” and embrace failure.

In his 15 years in the Valley, Mr. Yi said he has seen many new technologies emerge. The current cycle is an exciting one, he said, centred around innovation related to smartphones and the cloud.

“Everything is accessible,” he said, adding that digital currencies and drones are hot right now, as is technology involving the food and education sectors.

An ongoing issue in Ottawa is the struggle to attract top-notch talent. Mr. Yi said that isn’t a problem in San Francisco because “all the smartest kids” are moving there.

And they are not just techies, he added.

“History majors, poli sci majors, (students) from all walks coming here,” he said. “It allows them, in their minds, to fix things – fix things, in their minds, that don’t work.”

Perhaps as a hint to the two L-Spark accelerator companies, Mr. Yi said in a world jammed with data and information, most investors still rely a lot on their “gut feelings” when assessing startups.

“Really, it comes down to storytelling,” he said, although he added that a company’s funding history can tell him everything he needs to know.

He said investors also study a firm’s management team, preferring dual founders and a group that has worked together before.

Steve Cody of The Better Software Company was the first pitchman to take the stage, telling the story of how he fell into the venture out of necessity. Mr. Cody didn’t like the software solutions available to his various other businesses, so he designed his own fully integrated solution.

His idea has huge potential, he said.

“We got rid of our other businesses and we’re going for it. We’ve got some aggressive forecasts,” he said, saying that with about 70 customers now and 130 “in the pipeline,” he expects The Better Software Company to have almost 20,000 customers by January 2017.

One of the ways he plans to grow is with the company’s partner program, which is basically a referral service.

“We have our customers working for us and they’re doing it right now,” Mr. Cody said, adding he expects the company to be generating $100 million in revenues within five years.

Veteran technology entrepreneur Ken Leese took the stage next, presenting for REnewity. Mr. Leese, who founded Fulcrum Technologies in 1983 before going on to stints with Cognos and Microsoft, was brought into L-Spark to be a mentor for REnewity, and now finds himself the company’s CEO.

The firm, which until six weeks ago was a three-person operation, was recently rebranded as REnewity. Its return merchandise authorization solution, launched in 2008, now has 50 customers, most of them international, despite limited marketing campaigns to sell it, said Mr. Leese.

He said founder Steve McNally put most of his efforts into customer service and was quite successful. REnewity boasts a 98 per cent client satisfaction rate.

Mr. Leese said an acceleration plan is now in place and the company will launch a new website later this week.