Halifax venture capital firm focuses on helping female-led businesses take flight

Dartmouth-based DeNova's company lab in the Burnside Industrial Park.  (Galen McRae/CBC - image credit)
Dartmouth-based DeNova's company lab in the Burnside Industrial Park. (Galen McRae/CBC - image credit)

A Halifax venture capital fund run by women has brought in more than $20 million in three years and its founders say they're hoping to continue bolstering women-run businesses.

Sandpiper Ventures has a focus on investing in women-run tech start-ups in a world where such companies make up a vanishingly small part of businesses.

Women-founded startups only accounted for two per cent or less of venture capital (VC) funding invested in Europe and the United States in 2023, according to the World Economic Forum.

That inequity has made female entrepreneurs more efficient, said Rhiannon Davies, co-founder of Sandpiper Ventures.

"Women have also historically been forced in many ways, due to underfunding, to be more resilient in their pursuit of revenue because they've needed revenues to fund their companies instead of using external capital sources," she said.

And Davies said that delivers a better bang for buck when it comes to building return on investment (ROI).

"So women [are] therefore more efficient in their use of capital, faster to revenue and therefore delivering a better ROI to investors."

Halifax-based Davies, along with co-founders Cathy Bennett and Sarah Young are all seasoned professionals in the field of business. Davis said the three discovered they had a shared experience: finding themselves the lone female in a business situation.

Rhiannon Davies
Rhiannon Davies

Rhiannon Davies is a co-founder of Halifax-based Sandpiper Ventures, a women-led private equity fund with a focus of investing in women-run startups.  ( Galen McRae/CBC)

"We found that we were in many rooms where, whether they be incubators or investment organizations or pitch competitions, where there were very, very few women entrepreneurs and women-led companies," said Davies.

Sandpiper made its first investments in a Dartmouth biotech company called DeNova, located in Burnside Industrial Park.

Company founder Brianna Stratton said, in simple terms, DeNova makes protein for the aquaculture industry using bacteria that are able to consume methane. They produce a protein that can be used in fish food, without using other fish or soy in the process, that contains essential amino acids. She says the next step will be to take the product to market.

Brianna Stratton is the president and founder of De Nova.
Brianna Stratton is the president and founder of De Nova.

Brianna Stratton is the president and founder of DeNova. (Kathleen McKenna/CBC)

"We're very proud to have Sandpiper as an investor," said Stratton.

She began thinking a biotech venture could help fulfil her ambition to take on problem-solving work during her MBA at Dalhousie University.

Her father, who works in ocean sciences, drew her attention to a lack of sustainable protein for fish farms. She realized the potential benefit of deriving a protein from an abundant, non-food resource.

"One of the challenges is we [couldn't] find a protein that's low cost enough and meets our standards from a sustainability standpoint," said Stratton.

Stratton first met Davies years earlier to ask for advice on how women in business could manage a family and a big career as well. The meeting left an impression.

"Our initial conversation was really about being a woman in leadership, building a company and really and building a family at the same time," said Davies.

"{{She is] one of the most brilliant entrepreneurs that I have ever encountered.

"She is incredibly dedicated to building a company in a purpose-driven way."

Sharing knowledge is a key

Davies has since shared her wisdom as a woman in business with Stratton through advice and mentorship. It's why the practice is often referred to as 'angel investing,' because the earliest private equity investors often share their contacts and knowledge along with much needed capital.

That all fits with the choice of the name Sandpiper for the venture capital fund. Davies said the word choice was a calculated one because it highlights the strength of women. Sandpipers are collaborative creatures, moving in sync with one another as they fly.

"It is the female sandpiper that leaves the nest, the male sandpiper takes care of the eggs and takes care of the family. The female sandpiper is out exploring and building things in the world," she said.