Inspiring Founders: Everyone said no to Helge Seetzen

Several of Helge Seetzen’s operational team at TandemLaunch cracked up as he tried his hardest to pose for pictures in a serious-looking face. Of course, that set off a chain reaction whereby Seetzen then couldn’t hold a straight face.

The folks at TandemLaunch seem to get along well with a boss who probably doesn’t take himself too seriously. But make no mistake about it: as Seetzen and company head into their third fund (this one worth $12 million), this CEO means business.

The St-Henri-based accelerator has been in business for nearly six years. After two successful funds and having accelerated and commercialized 13 teams of early-stage university technology, things are moving well for TandemLaunch.

But the fact is, no one took Seetzen or his idea seriously six years ago. Not even some of his most well-meaning, closest friends.

“Everyone thought I was nuts. I mean, truly nuts,” Seetzen told MTLinTECH. “If you listen to traditional venture capital mantra, everything we did here was ‘wrong.'”

TandemLaunch calls itself a “synthetic” accelerator. It scouts out some of the world’s foremost university research in “deep tech” fields, like photo optics, motion-sensing, computer vision, portable display technology and more. Through agreements with universities, TandemLaunch takes the research and headhunts teams to commercialize it into real products. Each team gets about $750,000 to go from research to follow-on investment.

Sporting such portfolio companies like Landr, SPORTLOGiQ, wrnch and Irystec, Seetzen claims he’s producing more series A funded companies than “probably most, if not all of the accelerators in Canada.”

Not only that, the accelerator has attracted 40 different limited partners into its newest $12 million fund, including Guy Laliberté, Nathalie Marcoux and Jean-François Grenon. Mark Cuban is investing in Sportlogiq and Wrnch, making personal sales calls to NBA teams.

“You cant pay for that kind of marketing,” Seetzen said, as proof that his new fund is reflective of TandemLaunch’s “smart money” approach: no institutional investors, but rather dozens of individuals with proven track-records within entrepreneurship. The LPs are all investing about $200,000-$300,000, but TandemLaunch effectively forms three-year relationships with influential people.

But it wasn’t always like this.

Helge Seetzen

Seetzen arrived in Montreal in 2010, three years after he sold his company, Brightside, to Dolby for US $28 million. Seetzen was the largest shareholder and he did it while still working on his PhD at the University of British Columbia (UBC). All told, he ended up spending most of 2007-2010 in Sunnyvale and Santa Clara, California.

“I think I set foot on campus maybe three times, even though I was technically still a student,” he said.

While in Vancouver, he met his future Montrealer wife, engineer Dominique Anglade, now Quebec’s Minister of Economic Development, Innovation and Export Trade.

Back in Montreal, TandemLaunch was born, but his peers didn’t approve. Working with “super deep tech” and hardware wasn’t encouraged in 2010. At the time, one created web applications.

The second problem people had with TandemLaunch was that it wanted to commercialize university research. Seetzen said this still hasn’t been done properly, despite billions of dollars being spent by universities every year.

“The reality is in every single city people have been trying to do tech transfer and it doesn’t work at all. The numbers are horrible.”

But that wasn’t all. People thought Seetzen was even more crazy to think he could build not one company, but multiple companies at one time.

“And the last one that drove everyone crazy, especially the VC community, was that we were going to build these companies synthetically. In other words, we’d pull people together who didn’t know each other to lead a team,” said Seetzen.

“Five years ago, people thought that was totally impossible. ‘You’ll never get anything done.’ Then we built the first few companies in that method and people sort of grudgingly said ‘maybe.'”

And so Seetzen and company kept pulling teams together and watching them grow into Series A-funded ventures. Just a few of the firm’s latest successful rounds was Landr, an audio post-production platform that raised US$6.2 million from Warner Music and others including rapper Nas, Wrnch’s $1.8 million round led by Mark Cuban and Algolux’s $2.6 million round led by Real Ventures.

To build these teams, TandemLaunch headhunts the best in the business, or at least, the best they can find. Sometimes the firm must convince people with multiple six-figure job offers on the table. In the case of Irystec’s Tara Akhavan, Seetzen somehow managed to convince the CTO to literally drop her wedding plans to come work with him (Akhavan did end up marrying a year later, said Seetzen).

Most times these teams won’t even be on the same continent while being recruited, other times they’re decades apart in age.

“Now when you see these guys, they’re genuinely the founders of the company and they believe in it,” said Seetzen.

Helge Seetzen

Seetzen chats in his St-Henri office with Irystec CEO Simon Morris.

Convincing Irystec’s CEO Simon Morris to head up the team was a bit more difficult. Morris, a tried-and-tested leader of several previously successful companies, had only recently sold his last venture for US $38 million (on a $3 million seed round) when Seetzen came calling. Morris declined the offer at first, but eventually gave in.

“A guy like that is gold-plated. He can work wherever he wants,” said Seetzen. “He’s not gonna go into a normal accelerator with a bunch of 22-year-olds, where they teach them how to make a powerpoint presentation. That’s not going to happen.”

Now it’s replication time for TandemLaunch. With the new fund all set, Seetzen and his team will seek to build out about four to five teams over three years until 2019. They’ll target 15 ventures on the high end and 12 on the low end.

So what’s it like to be the leader of TandemLaunch, with things seemingly going well after years of people saying “no”?

“We’re quite happy,” said Seetzen. Literally seconds later, he was off to one of a string of meetings on his Friday afternoon.


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