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Secret is out: the North is a great place to invest

Ian Lane reflects on nearly one year at helm of Northern Ontario Angels
Northern Ontario Angels hosted the inaugural Venture North conference in Sudbury in September.

Northern Ontario Angels (NOA) has quietly been playing matchmaker between entrepreneurs and investors for nearly two decades now, and Ian Lane figures it’s high time they started bragging about it.

“I think we have some storytelling to do,” said Lane, who joined the organization as executive director last January. “We should really be proud of the companies and the founders that we’ve supported.”

Since 2005, NOA has closed more than 500 deals worth a total of $729,801,361, creating or maintaining thousands of jobs across the North. The group regularly leads lists of the top angel-investing networks in North America, surpassing similar organizations serving much larger regions.

Not even a global pandemic could slow down its efforts: in 2021, the organization facilitated 61 deals, Lane said, putting NOA in the “top echelon” of angel investment groups.

“Because our region is so big, and we have that presence in chapter communities, our productivity remains pretty robust, and I think our investors have a great deal of confidence in the quality that we present to them.”

NOA is based in Sudbury, but retains the expertise of independent consultants in eight chapter communities across the North.

The group also works collaboratively with the region’s innovation centres, community futures development corporations, chambers of commerce, and other agencies, leveraging their vast networks to connect startups with resources that can help push their businesses forward.

Its success, said Lane, ultimately comes down to relationships. The organization keeps in regular contact with its investors, calling to check in with them and ensuring they’re satisfied with their investment.

“It’s distilled down to person-to-person network connections,” he said. “We pride ourselves on trust and privacy from our investors. Some people don’t want their names to be known, that they are investors, given our small business community, but we’ve built an amazing network.”

Much of NOA’s work supports businesses in resource extraction, exploration, entertainment and life sciences, Lane said, and technology is a common thread that runs through many of them.

It’s the life sciences where Lane gained much of his experience, while in his previous role with the Northern Ontario Health Innovation Cluster at Sudbury’s Health Sciences North Research Institute.

As project manager, Lane liaised with the hospitals, postsecondary institutes and life sciences organizations in Sudbury and Thunder Bay, communities that have become hubs for companies developing innovative, new health-care products and services.

It was also his job to connect with some of those companies to find out why they had chosen Northern Ontario as their base.

“It was really cool to learn from these companies and have a lot of pride that they’ve decided to set up operations in the region,” Lane said.

“When the (Northern Ontario) Angels job came on my radar, I looked at it as: it amplifies all the business development and relationship-building aspects of my current role, and just amplifies it to a degree where it is truly regional.”

Among the broader public, NOA’s reach has largely remained a well-kept secret, he noted. So, this fall, the organization worked to change that, with Venture North, its inaugural regional conference.

The full-day September event featured fireside chats with investors and entrepreneurs, business pitches, and educational sessions with industry experts. Manjit Minhas, a Calgary-based business owner and investor on the TV show Dragons’ Den, was featured as the keynote speaker.

Describing it as a “coming out party that was long overdue,” Lane said the conference served as an opportunity to showcase some of the work NOA has done, and provide insight into what it can do for entrepreneurs looking to start up.

“It’s time to share the advantages of doing business in the North,” Lane said. “I think the secret is getting out there, but we’ve got some work to do, for sure.”

A great turnout and positive feedback mean that Venture North will become an annual event, which will rotate to host communities across the region, and will be supplemented by smaller community events throughout the year.

In October, NOA hosted its first such initiative with Venture North Bay, a pitch showcase featuring three successful entrepreneurs from the area. The organization is already working on a Timmins installment, in conjunction with that community’s economic development agency, Link North.

As NOA plots out its next steps, Lane said it’s focused on working with more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour) investors and entrepreneurs, as well as promoting internally the values of equity, diversity, inclusion and access.

The organization is currently seeking new board members and is actively encouraging people from diverse backgrounds to apply.

“It doesn’t happen overnight, and we’re not the sole organization that’s responsible for it either,” Lane said. “It takes a village to make some of these improvements, but we’re happy to lead it and happy to be participants in it.”