Maninder Dhaliwal is investing in scalable founders

The chair of TiE Vancouver wants to bolster the local tech ecosystem through early-stage angel investment.

Maninder Dhaliwal, moderating a panel earlier this year on early stage fundraising in 2023 and what founders need to know. Photo: Maninder Dhaliwal

Many in the Vancouver tech community may know Maninder Dhaliwal for her career supporting ventures through Startup Studio, or via the prestigious awards she’s won, such as Business in Vancouver’s Top 40 Under 40. Given her work thus far, she could be on a beach somewhere, laying back and enjoying the fruits of her labour. But instead, she’s found herself settled down here in the city. “I have snowshoes now,” she says. “I want to live here — people are polite. I mean, you go to New York and I just expect them to hold the door open for me, and I end up with my nose busted because they let [the door] go!”

But for Dhaliwal, Vancouver isn’t just winter hiking and manners. She tells me that she also finds an ikigai (a Japanese concept that roughly translates into a life-purpose or meaning) here, thanks to untapped potential she sees in the local tech community. “You go where there is a market need,” she says. And in Vancouver, where no one has been shy about highlighting the lack of early-stage financing for ventures, Dhaliwal hopes to fill the gap as an angel investor. In this chapter of her career, she’s excited to pay it forward — and some returns on an investment couldn’t hurt, either.

Navigating Vancouver as a new immigrant

“I used to watch a lot of Hollywood movies with captions on to learn English,” says Dhaliwal. Born and raised in India to a lower-middle-class family, she was trained as an engineer and eyed graduate school abroad. “In my family, you're an engineer or a doctor, or you're disowned,” she joked with me. “Luckily for me, I was born a nerd. [...] Engineering school just gave me words to explain my deepest feelings.”

Dhaliwal received an offer from UBC to do her Master’s in electrical engineering, scholarship included. But she didn’t have much idea of what was in store. “In every single movie, when they commit the crime, they run for the Canadian border. And then I watched documentaries [about Canada] and they had a lot of polar bears. And I thought, okay, [Canada is] all polar bears and criminals, but the degree is practically free. So let's try.”

Just as quickly as the land of polar bears and runaway criminals opened up a life-changing opportunity for her, the doors seemed to close again. Dhalilwal’s degree had a focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning, and unfortunately, her graduation lined up with the burst of the dot-com bubble. “I graduated in 2002, and there was a recession. This was right after people who did a Master's six months before me were working for [American billionaire] Ross Perot in California and driving Ferraris. And I had to go look for a job.”

It’s a situation many young graduates now find themselves in, and parallels the experience of early-stage startups looking for funding in the current macroeconomy. Only a year ago were tech companies hiring in the thousands, and startups swimming in venture capital funding. Now, we see tech layoffs by the bucketload and are in the midst of a lengthy IPO drought.

Saving money for the next move

Dhaliwal needed to stay in the country for citizenship and couldn’t find work in AI and machine learning. Instead, she tells me construction was the predominant industry hiring engineers at the time, so she called up 500 engineering consulting firms before finally landing a job. Dhaliwal would then spend the next six years honing in on her technical expertise and leadership. “I was traveling around the world doing presentations for large clients,” she says. “And that really teaches you how to communicate with people at the highest level [...] It allowed me to [understand] how to sell to large businesses and what they’re looking for.”

During this period of her career, she was still passionate about working with technology. But she needed the time to build up the financial security for an entrepreneurial career change. “I didn't have the financial resources to build something from scratch, where sometimes you don't earn for a year or two.”

Photo: Jennifer Strang

Eventually, she took the plunge and founded Lions Gate International, a firm she tells me works on technology commercialization. “If somebody is building a technology, [Lions Gate would] help them find the clients to validate,” she says. I asked if there were any companies she’s worked with whose names I’d recognize, or interesting clients she could share. Dhaliwal alluded to legal closed doors without delving any deeper. “A lot of these things have NDAs attached,” she says. Nonetheless, she tells me those learnings formed the foundation of her angel investing journey.

Early lessons for an amateur angel

Dhaliwal first cut her teeth as an angel investor in startups around the same time she founded Lions Gate. “Everybody says, ‘Oh, if you invest in 10 [startups], one will be a unicorn,’” she recalls. So she invested in 10, and all of the ventures failed. Upon doing a post-mortem, she realized that the reasons for failure were complex. “I was young; I didn't understand financial planning at the time [...] Some of them were much bigger issues: wrong timing, wrong market, wrong founders. But of the half of them, their runway could have been extended to give them a better chance.”

She took these investment learnings to a new day job and founded Startup Studio, an accelerator and fund. The firm supports ventures just after a seed raise and prior to a Series A. “When you raise a little bit of money, the countdown starts,” Dhaliwal says. “You don't have a lot of time to experiment and figure [things] out; you need to get to your next raise before the curtain closes.”

A recent TiE event. Photo: Jennifer Strang

She finds this to be the perfect period of time for the private sector to step in. Any earlier than that – at the pre-seed stage – Dhaliwal credits the government for its handle on “de-risking” innovation. “I'm probably the first person to say to you that the government is doing enough [for pre-seed companies],” she says. Dhaliwal asserted no affiliation with any political party, and emphasizes that there are multiple funding programs currently in place. “With IRAP funding and SR&ED funding, the federal government has de-risked creation of innovation. Our British Columbia government, through Innovate BC, is providing the basic structure to start companies. I have to give people credit [...] They are doing their part.”

The critical opportunity for everyone else in the ecosystem, Dhaliwal says, is in taking what the government has built and scaling up. “This is what we are lacking here, Allison: we have a lot of super early [stage companies], and then few make it to the next level [...] You can't learn how to build a startup through books or by reading; you need somebody on your side who has experience. And in Canada, that middle part is really sparse.” During COVID, she found a new, non-profit, angel investing opportunity to address this opportunity. It was called The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE).

Addressing the gap

TiE originally started in Silicon Valley in 1992 as a non-profit organization for entrepreneurs and corporate executives with roots in South Asia’s Indus region, which has brought the tech world many of its notable executives in recent years: Satya Nadella of Microsoft, for example, or Sundar Pichai of Google.

TiE focuses on supporting its members through networking, mentorship, and investment, which Dhaliwal traces back to its cultural roots. “People in Asia deeply care: this is an Indian quality of helping the next generation,” she says. She jokes that this is also where Indian parents can become overbearing. “When Rishi Sunak became the prime minister of the U.K., all my friends of Indian origin were just like – oh my god, we’re never gonna [hear the end of this],” she says.“‘Rishi's mom is going to shame me — I'm gonna run into her in the market, and she's gonna say, ‘My son runs the country, what is your son doing?’”

A panel speaks to the room at a TiE event on exit stories from founders. Photo: Jennifer Strang

Today, the organization has expanded globally with TiE chapters all over the world, and is indiscriminate of members’ ethnic origins. Dhaliwal currently heads the Vancouver TiE chapter, where she leads TiE’s Incubation Lab. The lab is keen to support early-stage founders in cleantech, agtech, and healthtech, who have an eye on scaling in the U.S. The demand in the bigger investment world is for Canadian technologies with intellectual property attached to them, because they scale much faster,” she says. “Cleantech, agtech, and healthtech are three areas where Canada punches above its weight in producing innovation. These are three where you can scale super fast south of the border.” And, Dhaliwal argues, the pull from our American neighbours is strong. “[Investors] want Canadian innovation at Canadian prices.”

When a venture is accepted by TiE Incubation Lab, the organization will work with them for six months, “to make them what I would call ‘more fundable,’” she says. “They all get three advisors and mentors, and one of them we're picking from the U.S., from our TIE network.“ After that, Dhaliwal says TiE Vancouver would invest in the startup, alongside any interested TiE members from its global network. “So we're investing in them as if we were any other investor.”

Dhaliwal hopes the ripple effect in the Vancouver tech ecosystem will be as strong as it is in other cities. “In San Francisco, [let’s say] you launch a company and you make a unicorn: three co-founders with six senior staff know how to build a unicorn now. [...] And all of a sudden you have so many people as investors, advisors, board members, employees,” she says. “A three-to-five-year plan for us is to have all of that experience in the [Vancouver] ecosystem. And that would be used by people who have no affiliation with TiE, and that's okay with us. Because as a non-profit, our job is to do good. And that's what we need to do.”

Join the conversation

or to participate.