November 14th, 2017

Interview: Brenda Irwin


Brenda Irwin is a managing partner at Relentless Pursuit Partners, a venture team that invests in preventative healthcare and technology companies that impact health and activity. She is extremely passionate about health, so much so that she braved one of Vancouver’s notorious rainstorms to ride her bike to this interview. Brenda has a lengthy and impressive portfolio in a range of market sectors, including drug development, biotech, medtech, digital health, wellness organizations and even 3D printing of biomaterials. She has also been a board director for 15 private and public for profit life sciences and biotechnology corporations.

Aside from her commitment to health, Brenda has also spent a lot of her time working with young people. Early in her career she was a Middle School teacher for the Toronto School District – prior to that she was the Director of a summer camp for years (“Camp Bimini”). For nine years, Brenda was on the board of directors for the Take A Hike – At Risk Youth Foundation, a non-profit organization working to help vulnerable youth positively change their lives through activity based education. She is also a strong advocate for inspiring young women to develop an interest in science and technology, as well as getting women comfortable and passionate about investing.

Current job: Managing Partner for Relentless Pursuit Partners, Atlas Core Angel Group and the Relentless Venture Fund – all co-founded with 4x Olympian, Simon Whitfield.

Hometown: Mount Elgin, Ontario

Education: Undergraduate Degrees in both Human Biology and English from the University of Guelph, a Bachelor of Education from Queens University, followed up by her Master of Business Administration from UBC

First job: ”Village Babysitter” of Mount Elgin

Work attire: ”I like colour and I like being creative” Brenda says. She wants to stand out amongst the men in dark suits and to be remembered as the woman in the bold colours, funky jacket or leopard print sweater.

Currently reading: Paris: The Novel

Hobbies: Antiquing, attending art shows, adventure travel (she has summited Kilimanjaro), international travel (she loves Paris) and being active. “If I haven’t worked out, like gone for a bike ride or a run for a day or two, I will do that over anything else if I have free time. I’ll go for a long ride over going to a movie any day.”

Angel investor she admires: Julia Levy, Founder and CEO of QLT. “She was the first woman angel investor I knew personally, and first person I ever called to help me with due diligence. I called her for input about the reputation of a potential male co-investor as I was new to the community; my instinct was that he would be difficult. She was candid and blunt – one piece of feedback was akin to  ‘he will try to run the company’. Co-investing is a long term relationship; I was so grateful she trusted me enough to share. Julia and I were also on three different Board of Directors together, one for almost a decade. She quietly fueled the healthcare sector across the country. Julia loves supporting scientists.”

Her Road to Angel Investing

With traditional venture funds suffering at the time, more winding up than launching over a decade ago, Brenda pursued angel investors as a syndication solution. While not an angel investor herself at the time, she succeeded in establishing a syndicate of angels to invest alongside her Series A institutional commitment from BDC in two companies.

“There was a time when venture funds were imploding. It is always a challenge to get deals done in healthcare. They require a lot of capital upfront to finance proof of concept to validation, and it only gets more challenging throughout their life cycle. I had to find new investors with deep pockets and follow on capacity; I had to find new ways of doing deals.”

One creative strategy that worked out was when she asked her friend Richard Glickman to set up a lunch with some of his associates. “I didn’t know anyone else around the dining room table except Richard, our host. The invited group were his friends, all men, and most of them had made money on his company that had a significant exit, so it was a friendly room. The fundraising CEO’s job was to talk about the business and technology. Mine was to frame why it was a great investment opportunity.  I stated why I had the confidence to lead the deal (representing BDC), and why I wanted to invest even when other institutions were shying away from pre-clinical investments at the time. I declared that, “I need you now and I need you later.” So the co-investors had the means to write six figure cheques then as well as when the company returned in 18 months to do a follow-on round. Also it was important that if there was a bridge, they would support funding the interim steps and be okay with that. I had handshakes on $675,000 worth of investments at that lunch. Enough to fill the balance needed to get the Series A funding closed.”

The Challenges and Rewards of Preventative Health

 One of Brenda’s driving forces, fueling her commitment as an investor, has been that her career choice has an impact on people’s health. Unfortunately the road hasn’t always been easy. “The concept of preventative health for venture is relatively new and the reason it’s only now emerging is because historically preventative health has had a ‘light weight’ association with potential for financial returns.  The assumption being that you can’t prove ‘preventative health strategies’, it is not possible to measure. That’s changing. Seriously. Since we started this new venture, I think back to one of the last deals I did at BDC. It was a preventative health deal, the only one I ever did institutionally. I’m so happy that I did it … I could go back to those deal pages and see the trends that I highlighted seven years ago, and why it was the right time to invest in this type of a business, and most have come to fruition. Back then, it was also before the availability of personal health data has become what it is today and the ability to get data from different sources. Years ago, most people in the industry dismissed preventative health and restricted their thinking – to most it was only about supplements and lifestyle programs.”

Brenda is passionate about preventative health and wants others to see the value in it. “Preventative and proactive health strategies includes consumer health products to corporate wellness programs to seniors health management, in ways that are not just therapeutic, so much more than drugstore devices. Simon and I started angel investing in anything that contributed to living active, healthy lives. “I know what is driving me at the end of the day, it is having an impact on people’s health.”

Why Female Investors Matter

Brenda’s short answer is simple, “Women think differently. Physiologically we are different; our brain chemistry is different and as a result we honestly process and manage relationships differently.”

She detailed this by describing a company in her portfolio  where she was the only woman involved – investor, board to management. She said it all came down to listening to the needs of each of the other four investors – all men, each with a different fund – and all with materially more investment in the same company than she represented.  “I’m the one that structured a solution that worked for the individuals as well as their funds – we got the company financed at a difficult time. I know it’s because of how I managed my professional relationship with each of them. They all trusted me and were candid with me about the challenges they were facing. They would tell me things that they just would not share with their male counterparts – ego really. I just listened and asked a ton of questions.

My working operating assumption is that women make more effort to develop a relationship with the individuals they’re working with – a professional relationship that includes understanding what makes them tick outside of the boardroom. What are they up against within their own organizations. It doesn’t mean having to go for a beer, it just means finding opportunities to have conversations, asking questions and understanding what else is going on in people’s lives.”

“I think that acknowledging how we ARE different is one of the things that’s often missed with women in business and it’s an advantage. People always declare “Oh we’re the same. Oh we’re the same,” for fear of creating a disadvantage, even if it’s in our own head. But there are fundamental differences and they are beneficial.”

Tips & Tricks for New Angels

Health is Brenda’s main interest and when it comes to investing she believes the best way to start is by focusing on what you are passionate about and what interests you – it is a tough business and you often need to draw fuel from your core. “My undergrad was human biology, not plant biology or general biology, it was human biology. I knew very early on where I liked spending my brain time. And I think as a new investor, you have to think about your interests. If you have a true interest in crypto currency, knock yourself out – develop expertise in the domain. Learn about it, attend special events on the topic, read articles from thought leaders, let people know of your interest. You may find deals in that area, or get invited into deals just so you can get your feet wet – there’s a network effect that will happen. But it is important for people to know where your areas of interest are, versus simply ‘I want to do angel investing’.

Not everyone can be an expert, but focusing on your interests can be the first step. “There’s such diversity around industries and I think if you don’t know what you don’t know, there’s benefit to sitting in environments where you can experience multiple industries. I also think that there are people who are new to investing who want to try it, but part of what keeps them from trying it is their perceived lack of domain expertise. You don’t have to have the expertise, but think about what you like, think about where your interests are – having said that though, I encourage some fundamental understanding about the industry or business to underpin an investment decision.

And when it comes to the Boardroom or due diligence meetings, Brenda shares “there’s always the people around the table that are the strategic listeners and thinkers, the ones who ask the questions nobody wants to ask. That’s always been me. I am okay with discussing uncomfortable topics, calling out the ‘elephant in the room’. And I will not be the one to say, “well I know better. I know how to run your business.” I don’t. But I know to surround myself with the right experts and I think as a tip for angels, surround yourself with people you trust, who will help you learn the business.”

Brenda doesn’t expect prospective angel investors to know everything, but she feels knowing yourself and trusting yourself is important. She calls herself an “expert generalist.”  “You don’t have to know it all, you just need to know enough about where your strengths and weakness are when deciding to make any investment.”

The Importance of Female Role Models

While Brenda was teaching, she felt it was always a struggle to motivate her female students. “ I had to work so hard at creating confidence in my girls to chase science, not just get through their credit because it was a credit they had to get, but to actually be inspired about what science offered.”

Her favourite teaching experience was when she personally developed a program called “Building Bridges”. She partnered with engineering students from the University of Toronto and created a full day to expose her students to what engineers may do as a career. “We brought the university and middle school students together for a day participating in creative, strategic and constructive ‘science’ experiments.  She also brought in an inspirational keynote speaker to her school, a female executive of colour, an engineer working in the automotive industry at GM Canada, who had designed the corvette for years. “Most of my students were either Jamaican or Somalian, so to see a woman who represented them, a top executive, an engineer, designing cool cars that all the boys wanted to drive, it was profound. The shift in the classroom, the boys, everything. I think it translates to investing as well, it’s very similar. We need to see ourselves represented.

As a woman in a male dominated setting, it really comes down to confidence.”