The 2022 Canada Unicorn Founder Roadmap: The People behind Canada's Flourishing Unicorn-Land
At Antler, we believe every massively successful business begins with an exceptional founding team. In our experience, factors and traits that make founders stand apart vary widely—from excellence in education and a previous place of work to an extraordinary personal journey.
Antler has taken a systematic look at the exceptional founders whose companies crossed the legendary US$1 billion valuation mark in ecosystems around the world—DACH (Deutschland, Austria, and Switzerland) region (2022 and 2021), Africa, and Brazil—with the goal of identifying founder patterns that led to founding a unicorn.
This month, we explore Canada, delving into the backgrounds of local founders, the higher institutions they attended, their work experience before launching their ventures, and more. Globally, 2021 saw a record number of venture capital (VC) investments with more than $650 billion invested, minting close to 1,100 unicorns across the globe. Canada has followed suit.
Who are the most successful founders, and what do they have in common?
We analyzed the backgrounds of 56 founders from 26 unicorns that were founded in the last 27 years in Canada and are still privately held. While in the past, Canada’s tech ecosystem has had a reputation of being in the shadow of the US, perceptions are changing thanks to its tremendous success over the last five-to-seven years. In 2021 alone, we saw 15 Canadian startups attain unicorn status—more than the number of unicorns created in the entire history of the Canadian private sector before then. So far in 2022, six new Canadian unicorns have already emerged (source: Crunchbase data).
To identify leading indicators of the unicorn landscape, we analyzed 49 founders from 29 emerging unicorn companies that are on track to become the next unicorns, often referred to as soonicorns. These startups have raised more than US$100 million and/or are currently valued above US$300 million.
Key findings: the exceptional people behind Canada's flourishing unicorn-land
Here is a closer look at the backgrounds of the exceptional people behind Canada's flourishing unicorn-land.
Based on our analysis of Canadian unicorns (56 founders and 26 startups) and soonicorns (49 founders and 29 startups), for the most part, we found a similar outcome to our other Antler counterparts in DACH, Africa, and Brazil. The typical founder of a unicorn is male, middle-aged, and has an academic background from a top business or technical university. We found the pool of Canadian founders to be highly diverse in terms of nationalities, with about 25% of unicorn and sooniorn founders originating from other countries.
The representation of female founders is extremely low. With only three out of 56 unicorn founders being female (less than 5%) and two out of 49 soonicorn founders (less than 5%), there continues to be an immense diversity gap in the ecosystem. We are beginning to see early signs of a shift as more women-centric VC firms are coming to the forefront, and traditional VC firms have started to actively and intentionally provide the space and opportunity to invest in women-led businesses. At the grassroots level, there have been several initiatives in place by public and private sector organizations for women seeking a career in STEM.
The founders had considerable experience before building their startup—on average, founders had eight years of work experience before starting their unicorn journey. The average age of the Canadian unicorn and soonicorn founders is 31, compared to the global average of 34. Furthermore, about 50% of the founders had prior work experience at or building another startup.
Going forward, we expect to see this trend continue. With a steep growth in the number of startup programs linked to universities in Canada, there is a growing number of graduates who are choosing entrepreneurship as their immediate career post-graduation.
However, through Antler’s lens, we’ve found that experienced founders with a strong background and pedigree in the area they are innovating in (domain or technical expertise) generally have an added advantage compared to founders without such experiences. These founders usually address a pain point where they have direct experience and an existing network of contacts and relationships in those fields to validate the problem and solution.
The distribution of successful Canadian startup founders is highly skewed to those with a degree in STEM. About 65% of unicorn and soonicorn founders have a technical background. It is interesting to note that ten unicorn startups exclusively comprise founders with a STEM background. In comparison, only one startup has an all-business founding team.
The University of Toronto stood out as the primary unicorn maker, accounting for ~15% of the overall graduate pool. The University of Waterloo and McGill University also produced a high number of unicorn and soonicorn founders. There is also a non-zero representation from Ivy League schools such as Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.
A vast majority of founders have a Bachelor’s as their highest educational degree (50% of the unicorn founders and 56% of the soonicorn founders). It is interesting to note that there is a marked increase in the number of founders with a Ph.D. in the soonicorn data. This corroborates the rise in the number of deep tech companies in the soonicorn pool.
Previous employment experience
Canadian unicorn and soonicorn founders’ experience is similar to founders in the African and Brazilian regions (as reported by Antler teams): they previously worked at various organizations with no clear dominant company. The most repeated previous employer of successful founders, albeit not very common, include McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group (BCG), IBM, Apple, SAP, and Google.
We also find that the majority have experience working in more than one company. Out of 56 unicorn co-founders, 60% have previous experience or expertise in the sector in which their startups operate.
Due to the rich and diverse founder experiences, the unicorns and soonicorns are spread across several industries and focus areas. We see diversity not only within the unicorns and soonicorns subgroups but also across the two subsections (please see Exhibits 1 and 3).
Who invests in Canadian unicorns and soonicorns?
In 2021, Canadian tech startups collectively raised a total of US$13.6 billion, a record that more than doubled the previous year's figure (US$5.8 billion). Interestingly, there has been a marked increase in US investors' interest in the Canadian startup ecosystem.
This interest is likely due to a rise in the quality of talent in the country. Leading global giants such as Uber, Google, and Microsoft, including several others, have set up a base in major Canadian cities (e.g., Vancouver, Toronto, Waterloo, and Montreal), making them emerging tech hubs. This, in turn, has led to a considerable influx of tech talent to Canada. Canada’s favorable immigration rules coupled with excellent technical universities with reasonable tuition have led to a stark increase in software developers, coders, engineers, and researchers in the country.
In addition, the early-stage investor ecosystem in Canada has improved significantly in the last five years. We have observed that the Canadian institutional investment firms are growing in number and AUM (assets under management) at a rapid rate. However, there is still a significant gap compared to US investor counterparts, particularly in growth-stage financing. Since 2020, more than half of all Toronto-area VC deals have included at least one US investor. This trend is reflected in the data of the most active investors in top-performing Canadian startups.
Building a more diverse startup ecosystem in Canada
At Antler, we scout for and partner with more entrepreneurs around the world than any other investor. We use all of these learnings to understand how to better support our founders and maximize their chances of success. From the first day of engagement—pre-idea, pre-team, or pre-seed—we provide access to a remarkably global community of co-founders, a robust network of talent and ecosystem partners, and expertise to help exceptional founders scale their business to become a defining company of tomorrow.
With the launch of our Toronto office in early 2022, we are helping to build a more diverse startup ecosystem in Canada. Sixty-seven percent of our portfolio companies have a female co-founder and 15 nationalities are represented by the 45 founders in our first residency. We are off to a strong start and committed to contributing to further innovation, economic growth, and development within the Canadian ecosystem.
If you are thinking about building your own category-defining company in Canada, and are looking for high-caliber co-founders along with a door-opening network, apply to Antler Canada!
Don’t hesitate to contact the Antler Canada team if you have any comments or questions regarding this report: Naman, Bernie, Shray, Amy, Alex, Derrick, and Yohann.
*All data were obtained through Crunchbase, Pitchbook, CB Insights, LinkedIn, and other publicly available information. This data was collected on May 31, 2022.
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