4, January 2023
The impact of Unicorns in Alberta.
Unicorns – startups that reach a valuation of $1 billion – are widely celebrated. This Blog starts by looking at some recent Alberta based Unicorns, and then asks what impact they have in Alberta.
There have been 5 Unicorns in Alberta in recent years, all in Calgary:
- Solium Capital (financial management software)
Solium Capital’s business is managing financial benefits. Founded in 1999, the technology and services firm provides equity-based incentive plans and savings programs, real-time benefits management services for companies and their employees. Through its online application, Shareworks, the firm allows administrators and employees the ability to view and manage their holdings. Solium was acquired by Morgan Stanley in 2019 for $1.1 Billion and re-named Shareworks. It is reported to have around 450-550 employees, most in North America.
- RS Energy Group (oil and gas software)
This company was founded in Calgary as the Ross Smith Energy Group in 1998, as a data analytics firm specializing in upstream oil and gas industry. It was acquired by the Investment Technology Group (a US based data and analytics firm) in in 2011 and subsequently by Warburg Pincus (a US private equity firm) in 2015. It was acquired by the Enervus group, an Austin, Texas based data analytics company specializing in the oil and gas a sector, for a price reported to be $1 billion in 2020. At the time of the acquisition it was reported to have over 300 employees in Calgary, Houston, New York and Philadelphia. The co-CEO of the RS Energy group, Manuj Nikhanj, is now President of Enervus.
- Parvus Therapeutics (drugs for autoimmune diseases)
Parvus was founded in 2017 by Dr. Pere Santamaria, a professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Calgary, to commercialize drugs based on his discovery in 2004 of a new way to treat autoimmune diseases. In 2019 Parvus entered into a worldwide collaboration and license agreement with Genentech, a San Francisco-based biotechnology company that specializes in the discovery, development and commercialization of new medicines. Parvus is responsible for preclinical and Stage 1 clinical trials, while Genentech is responsible for Stage 2 trials and commercialization. Parvus is reported to have about 12 employees.
- Benevity ( charitable giving software)
Benevity was founded in Calgary in 2008 by Bryan de Lottinville, and became a certified B corporation in 2010. It provides charitable donation-management and grant-management platforms. Its customers include Nike, Coca-Cola, Google, and Apple.
In 2020 Hg Capital (a British investment trust) purchased a majority stake in the company for $1.1 billion US. Benevity is reported to have more than 350 employees, about half of them in Calgary.
- Neo Financial (banking technology)
Neo Financial was founded in 2019 by two of the founders of Skip the Dishes – Andrew Chau and Jeff Adamson – and Kris Read. It offers financial services through a relationship with ATB Financial. Ultimately it aims to compete with the Big Five Canadian banks. It is reported to have over a million customers. It took over Hudson Bay’s credit card business in 2021. It achieved its unicorn status in 2022 through a $185 million CDN investment by Valar Ventures, a New York based venture capital firm. It is reported to have 650 employees.
Four of the five Unicorns have an international customer base. Neo Financial is the exception in that it has a focus on the Canadian market. So from a pure business point of view they could move their head offices anywhere where it was most advantageous. Four of the five are “business to business” firms. The exception is Neo Financial that serves consumers.
All of the Unicorns are financed by US or British investors, either private equity or venture capital firms. The business model of these companies is to sell their investment after a period of years, so the ultimate ownership of the firms is uncertain. The exception is Parvus Therapeutics, where the funding comes in the form of a long term collaboration and licensing agreement.
It took most of these unicorns between 12 and 22 years from the time of their founding (or founding discovery in the case of Parvus) to achieve that milestone. The exception is Neo Financial, which reached that status in only 3 years.
- Business structure.
Three of the Unicorns remain as standalone businesses (Parvus, Benevity and Neo Financial). The other two were amalgamated into the acquirers business, were re-named and more or less lost their identities.
It is difficult to get accurate employee information for privately held companies. However, from press reports, the companies have between 12 (Parvus) and 650 (Neo Financial) employees, with a total of about 1,700 in total. It is likely that about half of these are located in Alberta. Because of their international customer base it is likely that future employment growth will largely be outside Alberta. Parvus and Neo Financial are most likely to grow employment in Alberta.
Four of the five Unicorns can be characterized as “software companies” in that core strength is their computer code. The fifth – Parvus – is a biotechnology company. None of the Unicorns is a manufacturing business.
- Connection to the resource sector.
Only one of the Unicorns – RS Energy – has any connection at all to the resource sector, which is the backbone of the Alberta economy. This is surprising in that much of the academic work on competitive advantage places a lot of emphasis on having local customers.
Founders of three of the Unicorns can be characterized as “serial entrepreneurs” (Bryan de Lottinville, Allan Ross, Andrew Chau and Jeff Adamson. Founders of the other two can be characterized as having deep “domain knowledge” (Pere Santamaria and Mark van Hees).
Achieving a Unicorn status is a major accomplishment and a significant psychological boost to the business community. It can also help strengthen the local ecosystem as founders who cash out become investors and mentors for others and may start other ventures. However, for these particular Unicorns their impact on the Alberta economy is likely to be quite limited. Their employment growth is likely to mainly be outside Alberta because that is where their customer base is located. Two of the five have already been acquired by a firm outside Alberta and effectively incorporated into their existing business. One or two of the others face the possibility of being moved out of the province at a future date. So while creating a Unicorn is a very significant entrepreneurial achievement, Unicorns should not be counted on to have a major role in diversifying the Alberta economy.