Canadian startups find that elusive handshake at CTA@Boston

Ten years and 30 minutes is how Tim Vasko explains it. That’s what it took for the Vancouver-based CEO of Finaeos to meet with Microsoft.

“It took me 10 years trying to connect with them. We had a deal just 30 minutes after arriving in Boston with an introduction from the CTA. Our Microsoft partnership was signed within the week. That’s just one example of how your business accelerates with the CTA@Boston,” said Vasko.

Vasko never thought that elusive handshake would ever come.

“I had pretty much given up on the whole Microsoft thing,” he said. “The CTA@Boston made the introduction, I spoke ‘Microsoft’ to the contact there and he said ‘Wow, let’s do this.’”

Founded in 2015 in Victoria, Finaeos is a fintech platform that builds applications and connects large legacy systems (like the banking sector) to fintech startups.

Vasko had already tried settling his company in Silicon Valley and it wasn’t a good fit. He saw Boston as a potential landing spot because of the city’s strong clusters in both fintech and healthcare technology. Vasko reached out to CTA founder Thierry Weissenburger about applying, and the rest is history. (Finaeos also ended up working together with MIT, which is no small feat).

As it turns out, the CTA@Boston is now ready to take in it’s Fall 2017 cohort of startups, and it’s currently making the call to apply for businesses across Canada. That especially applies to startups in Montreal, just a five-hour drive away.

The CTA@Boston is an award-winning program that connects Canadian companies to US clients, strategic partners, and investors, emphasizing aggressive business development and growth. It’s a four-month residency that includes office space at the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) in Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Boston’s chapter was founded in 2013, four years after the first CTA was established in Silicon Valley by Weissenburger and colleagues. They created the program because a growing amount of Canadian startups were coming home after a few days in the Valley without new clients, or even strong contacts.

“The reality of business when you’re a startup is you don’t have much to show. You’ve got a few ideas and very little credibility,” Weissenburger told MTLinTECH. “We thought to achieve better results for our clients we could give them more time and more credibility in the market.”

And so the Canadian government started offering a space where startups could come for a few weeks or months, have a firm mailing address, access experienced mentors and get introductions to corporate players, all with an extra tinge of credibility.

When Weissenburger first pitched the project he received some criticism by nationalist techies who felt Canadian startups needed to stay and grow in Canada. But those concerns quieted within a few years after over 200 startups had gone through the CTA program. In 2016 it was awarded the Accelerator Program of the Year by the International Business Innovation Association.

He guesses more than 500 companies have graduated from the CTA chapters in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, Denver and Philadelphia. Officially, the CTA’s website pegs the number at 339. Those companies have created 1,326 new jobs, raised $351 million in capital and earned $95 million in revenue.

In Boston, 88 companies have passed through.

The CTA@Boston caters to two branches of startups: those in healthcare and those in any other area of information technology. This is because Boston is such a strong hub for life sciences, including biotechnology and medical devices. It helps when the Harvard Business School lies just down the road.

The chapter has also built up partnerships with Microsoft, HubSpot, SendGrid, Mathworks, and the Harvard Business School, offering $10 million of in-kind or discounted services and products.

As one may expect, not every startup that applies will be considered. Weissenburger said the CTA@Boston looks for at least $1.5 million in revenue. Officially, companies must be post-seed with a proven track record. ICT companies need to have a fully-built and validated product with a differentiated technology. Life sciences startups must be developing an innovative therapeutic, diagnostic, medical device or research tool with a focus on human health care that meets an unmet need.

Weissenburger feels the biggest asset the CTA Boston offers doesn’t have a dollar sign attached to it.

“Usually entrepreneurs start by saying they need money, but the reality is they need talent and the best advice possible. Money is an easy thing to conceptualize while good advice is a bit more difficult.”

To help them get that advice, the CTA in Boston pushes its clients to an independent sort of support group in Boston, similar to the C100 in Silicon Valley. It’s called the CENE (Canadian Entrepreneurs in New England), and it’s been a well-known hit for some years now. Over 90 trained, embedded mentors come in teams to support each client, about 10 to 15 per. It amounts to “very intense mentoring sessions.”

“It’s proven to be very successful,” said Weissenburger. “And one thing I’ve learned is the single most important service is sound advice from people who have seen the movie already.”

For Vasko and his team at Finaeos, that advice was alongside one crucial phone call that he’d spent years trying to chase.

For those startups interested in applying for the CTA in Boston, Vasko said the most important thing was to know your objectives before you go.

“I was really clear about what I had to do,” he said. “Do your research on why you want to land in Boston, invest in being there and you’re going to take advantage of being in the program. You need to take advantage of the connections in Boston.”

(Photo: BARRY CHIN/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

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