Founder Focus: Venture Capitalist, Brenda Irwin, Part 2
Yesterday we shared part 1 of a fascinating conversation with Brenda Irwin, venture capitalist and cycling enthusiast. Today we’ll learn more about her tips for wellbeing, technology and wearable solutions, and the best advice she ignored along the way.
I suspect you’re living a life that is authentic to your business brand. What are your go-to health and wellness tips and technology?
#1 Tip → The highest impact tip is to become immersed in a community that lives and breathes a healthy, active lifestyle. Friends, family, work mates. Everywhere. Seize every opportunity to be the role model in your professional and personal life. Take the lead on getting outside when the default tendency is to book the boardroom. The more you are immersed, the deeper the commitment becomes part of who you are and who people expect you to be. The indoor coffee meeting becomes a ‘let’s go for a walk and chat’ and eventually becomes ‘let’s do a couple laps of Stanley Park on the bike before we hit the café to talk shop’.
#2 Tip → Stick to what works for you when evaluating new accessories, devices and wearable products. Keep exploring options, but if the latest innovation does not add a new dimension to your health and fitness regime, stick with what motivates you. This may appear counter-intuitive to investment in innovation, but the intention is pure. The goal is to seek strategies and technologies to motivate and inspire, not frustrate.
I am a data junkie … I love metrics. At the moment, no matter what I try, I default to running and riding with my Garmin watch and heart rate strap. In today’s terms that may be considered ‘old school’ considering the innovative alternatives. A near term goal is to try a new textile product with embedded sensors to see how they match up to my legacy tools. I have also started to train with power indoors and am completely addicted to it. My next purchase will be a power meter such as the new 4iiii ‘Precision.’ It is a small, affordable option for the avid age group triathlete, i.e. me.
What are the digital health technologies and wearable tech solutions you’d like to see on the market?
In digital health, the one stop shop ‘personal health COACH.’ I want to use a product that has my entire personal health record, my training patterns, my history, what worked and what didn’t, stress management and response indicators, in the moment health measures, career, personal and competitive recreational aspirations integrated — brain activity monitoring, social network, predictive analytics — all of it dialed in as a virtual coach. The dream digital health product will measure, motivate and manage my emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing.
And in wearable technology, a product that accurately predicts fatigue and lactate threshold is a game changer. An affordable accessory will enable amateur, professional and recreational athletes to optimally adjust nutrition, hydration and power during training and race environments. The challenge to date has been development of a product that (1) has precision sensors, (2) is integrated in a comfortable and practical textile for use in all sporting conditions, (3) is transferable across sports, and (4) has low enough cost of manufacturing to be affordable and practical for widespread consumer adoption.
Your partner Simon Whitfield talks about “Moonshots” and the need to believe that anything is possible. Tell us more, as he’s talking to all of us, not just entrepreneurs and elite athletes.
Yes, Simon has a wonderful personal reflection about Moonshots that draws from a Fareed Zakaria podcast, ‘Moonshots to Mars’ – visualizing successful colonization of Mars through to the possibility of 3D printing a functioning human heart.
In 1994, Simon was a high school student in Sydney. He was seated 500m from the Sydney Opera House when the announcement was made that Sydney would be hosting the 2000 Olympic Games, the inaugural year for triathlon. During the chaos following the announcement he walked over to where the start line for his race would be and he visualized, for the first time, being in the exact spot six years later, listening to the Canadian anthem play for him.
Following the announcement, Simon had the inherent belief that it was possible. He began mapping out what it would take to execute on his personal moonshot, not just to win gold, but to win gold the first year triathlon would be represented at the Olympics. He created a moment that he could revisit, reconnect and rely upon.
Simon believes executing on a moonshot begins with visualizing achievement of the outcome. Be able to see that it will happen. Take time to sit with it, connect with it. Never lose the connection or belief in the possibility of achieving what you were inspired to pursue in the first place.
You’ve been in venture capital since 1999. What’s different about this venture cycle?
A compelling difference, the rise of the micro, angel and strategic venture capital funds; there is an unprecedented level of activity from high net worth individuals, ‘super angels,’ and family offices competing in venture rounds. These groups are investing directly or through some of the new online platforms. The traditional venture LP’s, such as pension funds, are starting to return to venture funds but it is a more competitive market with increased funding options for entrepreneurs. The dynamic of the venture capital ecosystem is changing dramatically.
There has also been substantial growth in the participation of strategic corporate investors. Deep pocketed strategic funds investing early minimizes the need for venture groups in a syndicated round. For example, we co-invested in Wiivv with the venture capital arm of one of the world’s leading providers of specialty chemicals (Evonik Industries AG). They have a chemical that is widely used in the 3-D printing industry. Wiivv provides a platform for Evonik to access mass 3-D printed consumer markets, and Evonik brings unique market relevance to the table.
A third difference is the role data plays. Venture backed companies have always been expected to meet specific deliverables on predetermined timelines to secure follow on financing. In the current cycle, new methods of accessing data, as well as expectations of data analytics and insights are changing the financing paradigm. VC’s demand data. Entrepreneurs must deliver data. The quality and timeliness of actionable data insights will determine a company’s longevity.
What can startups learn from the prior venture cycle?
Simple. Valuations will contract. I have witnessed a crazy number of entrepreneurs ooze pride around their high valuations in the past year, perpetuated by too eager ‘friends and family’ rounds in an inflated market. The cram down rounds will come. They always do once the IPO window shuts. Entrepreneurs must research and justify a valuation with credible, current metrics. I place a lot of weight on market relevant M&A trends to justify both valuation and exit potential. Pre- or early-stage revenue valuation is an art, however, it does need to be based on some fact.
Another piece of advice for entrepreneurs, focus on the savvy, connected strategic funds early on. They will be high touch and have high impact. Don’t spend all of your time and resources chasing the big fish VC’s. Demonstrate your business case, product viability, and sustainable competitive advantage, and the VC checks will find you. There is always money for a compelling business! Always.
What’s the best advice you’ve ignored?
It was an opportunity that I ignored, or rather rejected, more than it was direct advice.
A dear friend, serial entrepreneur ‘Jim’, pulled out his ‘secret idea file’ and put it in front of me. I was 24 and in management at his company. I recall the moment as if it were yesterday. He said, “Pick any one of these ideas I have about new businesses that need to be started, and I will invest in you.” My response was, “Thank you, but none in the file resonate with me. I need to follow my passion and right now that is teaching.” I resigned shortly thereafter to attend Teacher’s College.
In retrospect, now that I know what I know about starting a business, and how difficult it is to get that first investor, let alone have somebody have so much confidence in your potential they are willing to risk their own money to back you, I have often wished that I had said ‘Thank you’ and ‘When do we start?’ I have no regrets around the decision to become a teacher. However, I do find myself reflecting, on occasion, about the opportunity I was given to be a tech CEO in my 20’s. By the way, that was the era when the computer industry was gob smacked with the arrival of the 100MB hard drive.
What has surprised you the most on your own entrepreneurial journey?
I believe that you create your own possibilities with a balance of confidence, opportunity and action. Even with this belief, it has surprised me how much patience and resilience has been required to rebound from conversations with ‘the doubters.’ We are launching small and visioning big.
My belief in what Simon and I are building was catalyzed from what I saw brewing years ago. The decision to commit to one another and launch the partnership was a decision made out of confidence and opportunity. Confidence in recognizing how well we complemented one another, as well as the deeply held desire to contribute to the health and wellness of others.
How did you come up with the name for your partnership?
I love our name. It represents the essence of entrepreneurial drive. It triggers imagery of a team on a mission.
During Simon’s professional career, his mantra was ‘the relentless pursuit of excellence’. We are carrying on the tradition, applying it to new initiatives, referencing it to inspire management teams, and using it as a theme to align goals within our communities. It is punchy.
Playing a role in the health, fitness and wellness journey of others is energizing. I am proud of what we have started and am stoked about the possibilities ahead.