After a couple of years at the Royal Bank of Canada, Karamdeep Nijjar came to a realization. “If I did a remarkable job, I would add a couple million dollars to the bottom line of a company that’s throwing off billions a quarter in profit,” he remembers thinking. “I’m not really moving the needle in any way.”
The job Nijjar does these days gives him much more scope to have an impact. INovia Capital, where he is a partner, is one of Canada’s most prescient early-stage venture capital firms, with investments in many of the country’s most promising technology startups. At 34 years old, Nijjar already has one nine-figure exit to his name (adtech firm Chango, which Rubicon acquired for US$122 million last year). He’s also the firm’s lead on such promising portfolio companies as Clearpath Robotics, and video analytics and hosting firm Vidyard. And that’s just the start of a long list of funding deals.
Nijjar got his undergraduate degree in computer science at the University of Waterloo, and after his RBC epiphany, he headed back to campus. Western University’s Ivey Business School had a one-year MBA, a good way to pass a year while he figured out what he wanted to do with his career. His alumni mentor at Ivey was Roger Chabra, then of GrowthWorks and now at Rho Canada Ventures. It was Chabra who introduced Nijjar to the world of venture capital and to iNovia. (The two men’s firms later went in on Chango’s Series B round.)
At many venture capital firms, Nijjar would have needed to spend a long time carrying water for partners before he got a seat at the table. Not so at Montreal-headquartered iNovia. Nijjar was working his first solo deal—a venture-round investment in Vidyard—within a year and a half of arriving at the office. “One of the mantras they have at iNovia is that they’ll give you enough rope to hang yourself with,” Nijjar says. “They really put a lot of trust in their younger team members, and if [you] perform, they’re willing to give [you] more freedom and resources.”
For a firm that makes a lot of bets, iNovia’s win count is notably high. Nijjar says that’s partly because the firm is good at distinguishing valuable problems from merely hard ones. It also only backs companies it thinks have a real chance to “own” the category they’re competing in. “I’m not interested in funding anything [that another] team working out of a garage in Mountain View or office in Bangalore can easily take on,” says Nijjar, who’s based in Toronto. He points to his past few investments, in sectors he calls “opaque, occasionally regulated and usually off the beaten path”: industrial robotics, legal research, used car sales and so on. “These are not sexy markets, but they are representative of large parts of the economy where everyone else isn’t climbing over themselves to throw cash at the next big thing.”
Many VCs are former founders themselves or have worked in the startup world before switching sides. Nijjar says his lack of entrepreneurial experience actually works in his favour when he’s looking for investment opportunities and closing deals—he doesn’t have personal success stories to “pattern match” potential investees against or operational dogmas to foist on them under the guise of help. Instead, Nijjar builds a relationship with each company’s CEO or founder. “We’ll get the first call not necessarily when things are going well but when things are going badly, and we can have open and frank conversations,” he says.
Nijjar is at pains to downplay his role in the success of his portfolio companies. “Your choice of investors will never make your company, but it can ruin [it],” he tells founders. But his passion for the work and his belief in its importance is clear. “It is a privilege to work with entrepreneurs who are building the future,” he says. “The day I don’t love my job is the day I’ll find a new one.”