Canadian sprinter Andre De Grasse is moving into a new lane, backing startups through his newly formed ADG Ignite Ventures.
The six-time Olympic medallist has quietly amassed stakes in four young Canadian companies, typically lending his star-power endorsement to their marketing efforts in exchange for equity stakes in the businesses. They include smart insole maker Plantiga Technologies Inc., portable gym equipment manufacturer Tut Fitness Group Ltd., online mental-health assistance provider MacroMind Media Inc., (known as Headversity) and Disco Inc., an online learning platform. He calls the four investments part of his “side quest.”
Now, with the help of a team of advisers including Bay Street private capital financier John Ruffolo, retired decathlete Michael Smith and BioSteel founding partner Matt Nichol, Mr. De Grasse is hoping to expand his holdings in companies he says speak to his interests and passions. Those include enterprises in health and wellness, sport technology, mental health and e-learning and lifestyle brands. It’s also important to him that he likes – and uses – the companies’ products.
“Of course, I want to bring value to them, because if they’re winning, I’m winning,” Mr. De Grasse said in an interview. “I’m learning as I go but it’s cool to be involved in that environment, learning how this works.”
In so doing, the 28-year-old Mr. De Grasse is following in the footsteps of other well-known athletes, including Serena Williams, Steph Curry, Joe Montana and Alex Rodriguez, who have focused some of their off-field time to backing young companies. “I’m getting to that age where I know I’m not going to be on the track forever, so I’m trying to think of new opportunities off the track,” he said.
Mr. De Grasse began in earnest five years ago after being introduced to Toronto tech entrepreneur and angel investor Candice Faktor by his agent Brian Levine, a friend of hers since high school. She had invested in Plantiga, which used data collected from sensors in insoles to help athletes improve their movement, and convinced him to do the same.
”I thought, what a great idea to match Andre, who’s this ambassador and somebody who’s focused on movement and human potential” to the company, she said in an interview. (Mr. De Grasse later took a stake in Disco, which she co-founded in 2020.)
The sprinter’s management team decided to pursue a more formalized strategy after signing the fourth ad hoc deal last year with Tut, which saw Mr. De Grasse pick up a 4-plus-per-cent stake in the home-gym startup and appear in its promotional materials. “When we started looking at Tut, we said, ‘Let’s go all in here,’ ” partnering with other companies that were “on-brand for Andre,” said Mr. Levine, whose firm Envision Sports and Entertainment also represents soccer star Christine Sinclair.
Mr. Ruffolo agreed to help after Mr. Levine cold-messaged him through LinkedIn in late 2022. Mr. Levine told the financier in their initial meeting that Mr. De Grasse was thinking about his postrace career, which for many star athletes typically includes endorsement deals and speaking gigs (Mr. De Grasse’s current sponsors include Puma, Subway, Oakley and Gatorade).
Mr. Ruffolo said in an interview “what surprised me was he was associated with those four startups. I said, ‘How did that happen?’ And Brian said, ‘Andre really likes those products and services, loves the startup ecosystem and they value him, his brand and authenticity. And instead of paying cash he gets equity.’ I said, ‘Wow, I didn’t know he was a venture capitalist.’ ”
Mr. Ruffolo and other advisers, including veteran private capital investor Mike Lang, helped formalize an investment vehicle to keep doing similar deals. Mr. Ruffolo also agreed to lend help from his firm Maverix Private Equity to provide free advice on potential deals vetted by Mr. Levine’s team. “We’ll run through the financial aspects, making sure the company is on good financial footing,” said Mr. Ruffolo. “We’re doing this for a great Canadian.” His former employer Deloitte has also agreed to provide financial advisory help.
“This is a multistage model,” Mr. Ruffolo said. For now, he said, Mr. De Grasse is providing marketing services and his brand image for equity and may invest some cash into companies. “But when he retires, he’ll pay attention to this on a full-time basis and make the decision whether he raises capital externally” to invest, Mr. Ruffolo said. “That’s Phase 2. I do think this will be the model for Canadian athletes and artists.”
For now, Mr. De Grasse, who also has an upcoming book (Ignite: Unlock the Hidden Potential Within, out in October) to promote, said he doesn’t have much time to focus on business interests. He’s training for next year’s Summer Olympics in Paris after winning the 200-metre title in the prestigious Diamond League track and field series competition this month. He expects to make one or two equity deals a year while he continue to run competitively. But “when I retire, for sure I feel like this will be a full-time thing,” he said, adding he admires entrepreneurs who, like him, apply “the same tenacity, the same work effort” trying to succeed.