July 15, 2024

Advancing Business Excellence

Pioneering Corporate Success

How Indigenous B.C. businesses are raising venture capital

Raven takes flight as a First Nations-led venture capital firm fills major funding gap

Indigenous Peoples in B.C. have been entrepreneurial for time immemorial, although many say that in recent decades they believe they have been unfairly left out of being able to access venture capital to pursue their dream companies.

This has prompted the creation of programs to support Indigenous entrepreneurs, and has led to some venture capital funds that specifically seek out Indigenous-owned investee companies.

Just this morning, the Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) announced that it is committing $250 million to help Indigenous and Black-led businesses.

BDC has long had an Indigenous banking department. One portfolio company, Indigenous Growth Fund Inc., is an open-ended debt fund that provides lines of credit to Indigenous financial institutions across Canada, which in turn provide loans to Indigenous entrepreneurs.It counts $153 million that is currently committed by accredited investors.

There are other loan programs run by organizations such as the 100-per-cent Indigenous-owned All Nations Trust Co.

The B.C. government’s Indigenous Small Business Resources program is another place for Indigenous entrepreneurs to look for help. It lists 22 different available programs — some run by outside organizations and 20 of them exclusively open to Indigenous people.

Venture capital funds aimed specifically at First Nations entrepreneurs are, however, comparatively rare.

“Raven [Indigenous Capital Partners] is the only venture fund that exists with a thesis to fund Indigenous and Native American entrepreneurs,” Raven’s general partner Althea Wishloff told BIV.  “There is no other venture fund with a similar thesis.”

Raven tends to provide Indigenous-led equity investments, which are between $250,000 and $3.5 million each, to businesses with substantial Indigenous leadership and solid prospects, she said.

The venture capital firm launched in 2018 with a $25 million fund. A $110 million fund came later. BIV reported on that fund in January 2023, when it was known as a $100-million fund. One non-equity fund that the Raven Fund Group is involved with is its $20.4-million initial outcomes fund. 

“We have a mix of institutional corporate partners,” said Wishloff, who is originally from B.C. and is a member of the Gitxsan Nation. “BDC is our anchor LP [limited partner] for funds.”

BDC provides a minority component of the equity investments with the rest coming from a mix of institutions and corporate partners, Wishloff said.

There are about a dozen people at Raven who are focused on executing the company’s venture fund strategy, she said.

Since inception, Raven has made 20 investments, she said.

Indigenous people in B.C. have long been entrepreneurial 

Back in the 1700s, Indigenous people fished and hunted animals such as sea otters. They harvested trees and added value to the wood. They were also avid traders, providing items such as blankets.

Settlers paid Indigenous people who worked entrepreneurially as guides to guide them through trails. Members of the Kwakwaka’waku alerted Hudson’s Bay Co. representatives about the presence of coal underneath their village in present-day Port Hardy, according to historian Rick Mickelburgh’s 2018 book On The Line: A History of the British Columbia labour movement.

Fast forward to today and that entrepreneurial spirit lives on. 

Raven’s most recent investment announcement was for Artemis—a company based in Vancouver even though its website lists a Seattle address as its contact location.

That funding round took place last summer, though nothing was announced until May 22 of this year.

Artemis raised $1.5 million in pre-seed funding. Raven led the round with Telegraph Hill Capital, Ripple Ventures and angel investors rounding out those who participated.

Artemis executives had been acquainted with partners at Raven long before the investment.

Wishloff and other partners then conducted due diligence between May and July last year and were impressed enough to lead the fundraising round.

Artemis employs five people and has a 1,200-square-foot office near Smithe and Cambie streets, Artemis co-founder and CEO Josh Gray told BIV.

“We’re looking to hire probably another two to five people by the end of the year,” he said.

Gray, a serial entrepreneur, co-founded Artemis with William Shi, who he said he has known since middle school.

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Artemis CEO Josh Gray | Submitted

Their company makes software that helps companies “clean up their data,” or essentially standardize it so data input from different sources is consistent, searchable and usable.

“Companies today are swimming in data but what’s difficult about that is that data is actually really messy,” he said.

It is messy because data-set owners have often input data from various tools, such as Salesforce Inc.’s (NYSE:CRM) customer relationship management software, Intuit Inc.’s (Nasdaq:INYU) Quickbooks and other software from HubSpot Inc. (NYSE:HUBS), Gray said.

In HubSpot, he suggested, the software might list customers as “customers,” whereas in Stripe’s software, those customers might be listed as “accounts.”

Corporate names might include “Inc.” or “Ltd.” in certain instances, and drop the abbreviations in others.

“To get any sort of value out of the data, you have to clean it, you have to make it reliable,” Gray said. “Once it is clean and ready to go, you can start to extract value out of it.”

He said his technology employs artificial intelligence (AI) agents that plan and execute tasks for users.

“Let’s say I’m a data engineer and I’m building an analysis to understand marketing on our website and how it is impacting our bottom line,” Gray said.

To clean and build data sheets, that data engineer would likely have to document a lot of data, he said.

“I need to document what the formulas are that I’m using and what columns and tables I’m using. A lot of that documentation work is taking you away from doing the hard work of building that analysis.”

His company’s AI agents, he said, can read code that users are writing, understand how it is being used and then document it for the user.

Gray described his company as “pre-revenue,” with about 30 customers using the platform as part of a beta phase.

He is aiming to start charging some customers to use the software later this year.

Gray attended many trade shows this year and he said that networking is helping to get the word out about his company.

“We’ve seen really good traction with the in-person events,” he said.

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