Narwhal List 2018: 2017 a good year as more tech firms on path to become unicorns

Veronica Silva
January 24, 2018

2017 was a good year for Canada’s private technology companies, demonstrating that they are increasingly able to attract much sought after venture capital funds. According to the second annual report on Canadian private companies in technology, 2017 was so successful in attracting VC money that 2018 might see a few “narwhals” maturing to become “unicorns.”

The Univ of Toronto’s Impact Centre recently released its 2018 Narwhal List, a ranking of financially attractive private technology companies in healthcare, mobile and telecommunications, internet software and services, hardware and other technologies. Companies on the list are ranked primarily by “financial velocity,” which measures the speed at which companies are able to attract capital.

Charles Plant, report author and fellow at the Impact Centre, tells RE$EARCH MONEY that a number of Canadian firms are on their way to becoming unicorns, firms valued at $1 billion.

“Compared to last year, we have almost doubled the number of firms that are on track to become unicorns in the near future,” states the report. Plant adds that 2017 was also a good year because more Canadian firms are also accelerating their growth. These companies – up to 18 of them -- are on their way to be world class if they continue growing, he adds.

Almost 60%, or 29 of the 50 firms in the list raised a total of $1.2 billion for an average round of $41 million per company. Twenty of these firms are new to the list. “This group raised enough funds to replace a large swath of incumbent Narwhals from last year,” the report states.

Plant says the list of top 50 young Canadian firms focuses on their capacity to scale and is a good indicator of how the country as a whole is doing in terms of growing startups.

The Narwhal List Top 10
Rank Company Founded Total Funding

$US Millions

Financial Velocity Sector City
1 BlueRock Therapeutics 2016 225 112.5 Healthcare Toronto
2 DalCor Pharmaceuticals 2015 150 50.0 Healthcare Montreal
3 Repare Therapeutics 2016 68 34.0 Healthcare Saint-Laurent
4 Hootsuite 2008 230 23.0 Internet Vancouver
5 Lightspeed POS 2005 292 22.5 Mobile & Tel Montreal
6 Thalmic Labs 2012 135 22.4 Consumer Kitchener
7 Turnstone Biologics 2015 50 16.7 Healthcare Ottawa
8 Wealthsimple 2014 62 15.5 Internet Toronto
9 PreciThera 2016 29 14.5 Healthcare Montreal
10 Kik Interactive 2009 116 12.9 Mobile & Tel Waterloo
Source: Impact Centre

Last year, the Impact Centre released a report indicating that there is a cascading effect in which the faster a company raises funds, the faster they are able to grow, and the bigger they grow, the more that they attract more funds. The Narwhal list uses this financial velocity as an indicator of the firms’ capacity to scale.

The Centre released a separate list of Healthcare Narwhals because companies in the healthcare sector require larger amounts of funding compared to other startups.

Healthcare Narwhals
Rank Company Founded Total Funding

$US Millions

Financial Velocity City
1 BlueRock Therapeutics 2016 225 112.5 Toronto
2 DalCor Pharmaceuticals 2015 150 50.0 Montreal
3 Repare Therapeutics 2016 68 34.0 Saint-Laurent
4 Turnstone Biologics 2015 50 16.7 Ottawa
5 PreciThera 2016 29 14.5 Montreal
6 Fusion Pharmaceuticals 2014 46 11.5 Hamilton
7 Northern Biologics 2014 40 10.0 Toronto
8 Highland Therapeutics 2008 82 8.2 Toronto
9 Ilkos Therapeutics 2016 16 7.9 Montreal
Source: Impact Centre


To be able to grow world-class companies, Plant suggests an “integrated approach” to help these firms.

“We need an integrated approach to grow world-class companies. What we have in Canada are small programs that are scattered all over the place,” says Plant. “We don’t have a comprehensive, integrated program that early on identifies the companies that have the potential to scale and coordinate resources between those companies to assist them in scaling (to a world class level).”

He adds that each company has its own set of assistance to be able to grow, and governments launching assistance programs must be able to identify companies to help, and sit down with them to find out what they need specifically.

Among the assistance that startups usually need are access to capital, supply chain networks and markets.

“The problem is the way government rolls out programs, they roll out programs that anybody can be eligible for,” says Plant, adding that the only time government launches programs specific to companies is when a company is big, as in the case of Bombardier, which received financial assistance from the federal and Quebec governments to help it overcome a financial crunch brought on by delays and cost overruns of its C series aircraft.

“We are doing that to large companies – the ones that succeed internationally – but we need to apply the same type of resources, especially programs, that are invented just to meet the particular needs of high-growth companies,” adds Plant.

The challenge though is identifying which small, young companies need assistance so that help can be tailor fitted for them. That’s why Plant suggests that government personnel sit down together – the finance people, the purchasing people, the policymakers -- to identify possible winners and work with them individually.

In 2016, the federal government launched a pilot program, the Accelerated Growth Service (AGS), to help high-growth companies grow and succeed by addressing some of their challenges. Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada works with partner organizations, including Global Affairs Canada; Business Development Bank of Canada; Export Development Canada; NRC’s Industrial Research Assistance Program; and regional development agencies. Partners nominate high-growth firms from their roster of client firms and the partner organizations sit down with the firm to work on specific issues to help them grow. The initiative was reiterated in Budget 2017 along with other initiatives such as Venture Capital Catalyst Initiative and Innovative Solutions Canada.

Aside from Canadian firms potentially growing to unicorn scale, 2017 was also positive because three companies on the list went public -- Real Matters, Clementia Pharmaceuticals, and Zymeworks – and one company was acquired by a Canadian firm. The acquisition of Varage Sale locally by Toronto-based VerticalScope is good news because Canada did not lose another company to a foreign firm.

Plant adds that the companies in the Narwhal List are examples of companies that should be acquiring companies, including possibly foreign ones, instead of being acquired.


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