BCE Inc.’s BCE-T Bell Canada has launched a corporate venture capital arm, joining a slew of prominent Canadian corporations that have committed to backing technology startups since a downturn hit the sector last fall.
Bell said Tuesday that its venture capital unit will back companies that provide advanced technology to help differentiate its 5G and fibre networks. It will focus on those specializing in network security, the internet of things, robotics, telematics, clean technology, augmented and virtual reality and the metaverse. The unit is starting with 11 investments, including some made by Bell years ago.
The telecom giant has tapped treasurer and senior vice-president of corporate strategy Curtis Millen, a former investment banker, to lead the unit along with three colleagues. Mr. Millen said in an interview that “this is really an extension of capital allocation decisions” previously made by the corporate strategy and M&A group to build, buy or partner with companies.
Now Bell will also invest in companies ranging from startups that haven’t taken products to market to those with established demand and millions of dollars in revenues. Mr. Millen said Bell Ventures would typically invest $5-million to $15-million a company and could lead financing rounds or join syndicates as an investor. Final investment decisions will be made by CEO Mirko Bibic. Unlike some corporate venture funds, Bell isn’t just backing companies it hopes to some day own outright.
The Globe and Mail reported in July that BCE was exploring whether to revive an investment program for startups, 15 years after spinning off its venture capital unit. Other Canadian companies that have launched venture capital divisions since last fall include Canadian Tire Corp. CTC-T, Thomson Reuters Corp. TRI-T, Spin Master Corp., Quebecor Inc. QBR-B-T, Constellation Software CSU-T and Deloitte LLP.
The surge of Canadian corporations plowing into venture capital follows a prolonged period, ever since the 2008-09 credit crisis, when the country’s largest companies were largely inactive in the space. Through the 2010s, the few examples with venture capital arms included Telus Corp. T-T, Power Corp. of Canada POW-T and Intact Financial Corp. IFC-T.
The billionaire Weston family started a venture capital firm in 2019, and Shopify Inc. SHOP-T and Alimentation Couche-Tard Inc. ATD-T began funding startups during the pandemic. Cadillac Fairview Corp., Magna International Inc. MG-T and Canadian financial services giants made some early-stage deals in recent years.
BCE began dabbling more actively in venture capital recently, investing this year in Vancouver’s Sanctuary Cognitive Systems Corp., which is trying to develop general-purpose robots with humanlike intelligence. It partnered with food delivery robot startup Tiny Brain Robotics Inc., which operates miniature “Tiny Mile” vehicles over Bell’s 5G network. Bell has also invested in AST SpaceMobile, a Texas company working to connect smartphones to satellites, as well as Metaverse Mind Lab, a Toronto AI company that creates startups for the metaverse, and Montreal’s Grandé Studios, which provides facilities and technology for film productions.
Bell’s previous venture capital business was more of a pure financial play focused on generating investment returns. This time, the company will look to invest in startups it believes could benefit from the company’s management and technology expertise and leverage its network assets and strategic relationships, ultimately to drive the adoption of technology and expand Bell’s business.
“Don’t get me wrong, we like turning one dollar into two” as an investor, Mr. Millen said, “but we’re more likely to be able to add value if we’re actually leveraging our strategic capabilities.”