‘Dragon’s Den without all the drama’: How angel investing is keeping business in the north

The Northern Ontario Angels match local entrepreneurs with local investors — experts say it could be exactly what the region needs
By Jon Thompson - Published on Sep 13, 2019
Sudbury's nickel
Bernie Aho’s Sudbury-based company, TimeHero, employs eight full-time staffers.

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Four years ago, Bernie Aho launched his own company TimeHero, which makes a scheduling software by the same name. Today, it has eight full-time employees and has attracted such high-profile clients as Uber. The 43-year-old is excited not just about the company’s success — but also about the fact that he’s established a thriving tech business in his hometown of Sudbury.

This wasn’t his first foray into software. In 2006, Aho and a small group of friends developed ConceptShare, a project-management application. Local entrepreneur Peter Dal Bianco helped guide him through the company’s formative years, and early results were promising: HBO, Harvard University, and the New York Knicks all signed up.

“We were waving our flag,” he says. “The fact that it was a tech thing from the north — it was so rare.”

He hired a sales representative in Ottawa; soon, the company had 30 people on staff, and it made good business sense to move the headquarters there. In 2018, ConceptShare was sold to Deltek, an American software giant.

This time around, Aho plans to stick it out in northeastern Ontario. And he has help from other locals who share his vision.

According to Laurentian University economics professor David Robinson, finding investors in the north can be a challenge, as major banks and venture capital have historically been unlikely to invest in more remote communities. Local business owners, he says, have told him that they mortgaged their own homes to get the necessary funds: “What seems to have happened is that northern Ontario has been self-financed.”

Locals knew that the region had residents with money they wanted to keep in the area and entrepreneurs who needed funding. So, in the early 2000s, a group approached FedNor, the federal government’s economic-development organization for northern Ontario, looking for help putting together an initiative. In 2005, after two years of planning, the Northern Ontario Angels — a non-profit angel-investing group — was born.

Angel investing essentially functions as a matchmaking service for individual investors and entrepreneurs — “angels” provide capital and mentorship, usually in exchange for part of the business. “It’s much like Dragon’s Den without all the drama,” says executive director Mary Long-Irwin, who came on board in 2009.

Since 2014, NOA says, it’s brokered 193 deals and contributed more than $93 million to the regional economy. “They’re doing anywhere from 17 to 20 deals a quarter, closing on a quarterly basis what most groups close in a year,” says Karen Grant, a former board member..

In June, the Angel Capital Association, a North American umbrella group with 68 member organizations, named the NOA as its top organization of the year. It also honoured Long-Irwin with its lifetime-achievement award.

“We’ve been extremely successful because we have a lot of wealthy people living in the north that have made their money in the north,” Long-Irwin says. “They want to make sure they support local businesses and growth because that’s where their kids live and that’s where they want their grandkids to live.”

Peter Dal Bianco, a consultant with NOA, is happy to share his expertise.. “People who succeed in business up here, they’ve earned their success,” he says. “That same feeling permeates through all of northern Ontario. We’ve taken on whatever they have to throw at us, whether it’s political, environmental — if we can pass that on when you get to a certain stage of your life when you can say, ‘I’ve survived, I’ve succeeded and, maybe, now I can have some significance.’”

Former nurse Sheri Tomchick credits the mentorship provided by Dal Bianco and NOA with helping her found her own health-care staffing agency, Plan A, several years ago. “The NOA really matched me up with someone who knew what I needed and who had the compassion to see I’m not just a stupid girl with a stupid business idea,” she says. “I wasn’t getting that same respect from banks. I was getting, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing.’”

The agency now has 24 franchises in Ontario and one in British Columbia. Tomchik, though, worries that she may have to relocate one day. “I’d like to hope we’ll stay here,” she says. “But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t concern me,” noting that it can be difficult to fill open positions.

Angel investment may be exactly what the region needs, says Lakehead University economics professor Livio Di Matteo. “Remoteness itself is not a problem, per se, provided you have access to networks that allow you to export goods and services,” Di Matteo says. “I think this organization is a good thing in terms of spreading entrepreneurship and investment programs.” But, he cautions, there are no guarantees: “In the long run, investment potential — it’s hard to really know. It’s limited to an extent to the size of the market and shifts in the global market. There’s always a risk; that’s why they call it entrepreneurship.”

Aho is optimistic. He says that there’s more local tech talent than ever and that Sudbury has some advantages over larger centres. “Small towns are better for innovation,” he says. “We don’t have access to what the bigger cities do. There are some products that are coming out of San Francisco that are really solving San Francisco problems — like, there are apps that compare ride-share apps. We don’t need anything like that. I think we can get remote networks. Now, we can work everywhere.”

The funding he received through NOA during the early days of TimeHero, he says, helped him compete with much larger businesses: “They take the biggest risk when there’s no other way to do it.” And local business, Aho believes, benefits when investors know and understand the community. “It’s somebody who believes in you and believes you can pull it off,” he says. “If you can’t go to a bank, there’s no one who can touch you but angels.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Deltek is a British company. In fact, it is American. TVO.org regrets the error.

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