Telus Corp. Telus has launched a $100-million fund to back enterprises aiming to sell “socially responsible” products and services.
The Vancouver telecommunications giant, already one of corporate Canada’s few active companies investing in venture capital, is setting up the Telus Pollinator Fund to invest in for-profit companies building digital products to help improve health care, as well as those that support “social and economic inclusion,” sustainable agriculture and reducing humanity’s environmental footprint.
Jill Schnarr, Telus’s chief social innovation officer, said in an interview that the social impact fund is an extension of the telecom’s long-standing venture capital investing efforts through its Telus Ventures arm. The venture capital business is overseen by Rich Osborn, who will join the Pollinator Fund’s advisory board, along with Ms. Schnarr, chief financial officer Doug French and managing partner Blair Miller, a 21-year Telus veteran.
“Because of our leadership in philanthropy and social capitalism we thought we’d bring together the best of Telus Ventures with the best of our philanthropy … and actually create a fund where we can invest in business that generates both a financial return as well as a social impact return to benefit our society,” Ms. Schnarr said.
She acknowledged that expected returns from the Pollinator Fund’s investments, in the range of 2 per cent to 10 per cent, will be lower than typical returns for venture capital, which tends to target high-risk startups with the intent of creating highly valued, fast-growing companies.
“We are investing in for-profit companies with the intention to support them so we can make money so we can drive our economy forward,” Ms. Schnarr said.
“But we’re only investing in new, responsible and sustainable companies that are doing business differently than perhaps the traditional way of doing business” and putting sustainability at the forefront, she added. “Think of it like Dragon’s Den, but for good.”
The fund’s initial investments include a $2-million commitment to Windmill Microlending, which provides small loans to skilled immigrants and refugees with professional credentials in their home countries to earn the Canadian equivalent qualifications. It is also providing $1.5-million to U.S. startup Tidal Vision, which aims to transform crustacean shells into a biopolymer material for industrial applications.
The fund intends to invest about $20-million a year for the first five years, committing $1-million or more for each deal.
Like its Canadian telco peers, Telus has seen profits dip this year as pandemic-related travel restrictions cut into roaming revenue, which are charged when wireless customers use their devices abroad. Still, Telus boosted its dividend earlier this month and has made several recent acquisitions, including a $1.2-billion purchase of data service provider Lionbridge AI.
In running the new social impact fund, Telus will draw on lessons it’s learned from its experiences investing in health care and agricultural technology. Telus has been a player in the health care sector for about a decade, buying several electronic-medical-records companies. Its new Telus Agriculture unit is aiming to digitize the world’s food-supply system, bringing together seven agriculture technology, or agtech, companies that Telus has acquired in the past two years.
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