Dragons’ Den for athletes: New Toronto event helps millionaire NBA stars invest in local tech startups
When news broke that Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry had invested in Toronto technology startup SnapTravel late last year, NBA player-manager Randy Osei couldn’t stop wondering: How, exactly, had the company landed on Curry’s radar?
After all, the artificial intelligence-based hotel booking service is Toronto-based, and even NBA stars with GTA roots that Osei knew, such as Andrew Wiggins and Jamal Murray, hadn’t heard of it.
“I thought clearly there is some kind of gap because (Curry) is all the way in California,” Osei recalled. “How did he find out about a company here when you guys weren’t paying attention?”
The incident got Osei, an entrepreneur, thinking about how to connect athletes with startups looking for funding. On Thursday, that idea will become reality when he welcomes NBA players and other sports figures to Toronto for his inaugural Athlete Tech Summit.
The two-day event – timed to coincide with Drake’s OVO Fest and Toronto Caribbean Carnival – will connect local startups and entrepreneurs seeking investments with deep-pocketed athletes interested in business opportunities in the tech world. Around 20 professional athletes, many of whom are NBA players, have already RSVPed, but the guest list is being kept under wraps for security reasons, Osei said.
The event will begin with a bash at Montecito, a swanky, Adelaide St.W. restaurant owned by Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman that often hosts Toronto International Film Festival parties.
The following day the summit heads to Artscape Daniels Launchpad, where booths will be available for players and companies wanting to meet. The schedule will be jammed with speeches, panels and pitches.
Local startups, including insurance company Finaeo, will get stage time, as will representatives from more established brands like Shopify and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and venture capitalist heavyweights, including former Dragons’ Den star Bruce Croxon.
Former Golden State Warriors player Al Harrington told the Star he will be on hand to talk about why he became a cannabis entrepreneur with four business investments and how “rolling the dice” on startups “can be a life-changing experience.”
Indiana Fever player Kayla J. Alexander will also make an on-stage appearance. The Canadian WNBA player told the Star she’s been mulling an investment in a Canadian startup, so the summit “couldn’t have come at a better time.”
The connections Osei is hoping will be forged could be invaluable, given that research has shown Canadian startups struggle more with finding funding than their American counterparts do.
Canada’s startup funding troubles have festered as NBA stars are increasingly eyeing tech investments. Long before Curry poured his money into SnapTravel, his former teammate Andre Igoudala funded e-scooter and bike business Lime, personal finance app NerdWallet and mattress purveyor Casper.
Since Igoudala’s investment, U.S.-based Lime has rapidly expanded and is now operating in more than 80 markets. Meanwhile, New York-based Casper landed unicorn status – a coveted title earned when a startup is valued at more than $1 billion (U.S.).
Brooklyn Nets player Kevin Durant has also ponied up cash for Lime and dabbled with bitcoin company Coinbase, spare change app Acorns and cloud-computing startup Rubrik. Coinbase has reached 30 million users and Rubrik was valued at $3.3 billion (U.S.)
Fewer athlete-investors have given Canada much thought for business opportunities, but Osei doesn’t think it will be a stretch to get them investing here given how many spend time in Toronto during their off-season.
“Lebron (James) comes here every year and has an annual party. Danny Green…was coming here for years to…Olympia (Sports Camp) in Huntsville,” said Osei.
“CJ McCollum from the Trail Blazers was just here two weeks ago and he decided to do his (brother’s) bachelor weekend in Toronto. He had the choice between Miami and Toronto and he chose Toronto, which says a lot.”
Osei, who was raised in Scarborough and Brampton, had his own hoop dreams derailed by an injury, but eventually became a player-manager and founded Rozaay Management, a creative marketing and branding agency in Toronto. Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Marc Gasol and Fred Van Vleet are among the dozens of players he’s worked with.
He started thinking more about tech after a visit to Waterloo, one of Canada’s startup havens, around the same time as Curry’s SnapTravel announcement.
Hussein Fazal, SnapTravel’s co-founder, was honoured to hear his company’s deal had inspired Osei.
Curry helped his business because the average customer hasn’t heard of SnapTravel, but is likely familiar with competitors spending millions on branding including Expedia and Booking.com
“That’s something we can’t afford to do,” said Fazal, who noted Curry has visited SnapTravel’s office and worn a hat emblazoned with the company’s logo during a post-game press conference during his team’s championship run.
“We use Steph Curry to almost get an unfair advantage and compete on branding in a way we wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.”
SnapTravel didn’t set out to court Curry. It met the athlete through its long-standing relationship with investor Telstra Ventures, but Fazal was excited by the thought of other startups making such connections at the conference.
So was Davon Reed, an Indiana Pacers player who will appear at the summit to discuss his investment in TruFan, a Vancouver-based platform that helps influencers and brands connect with and reward fans.
He agreed to participate in the summit without knowing anything about it.
“Blindly I said yes because of the opportunities I hear about in Canada,” he said in an email to the Star.
He’s hoping athletes will “scratch their curiosity” at the event and startups will learn about how (athletes) went about making our investments, how we got involved with a company, or just some of our pure passion for tech.
“Those CEOs, founders, etc. are the very people that are sitting courtside, buying season tickets, and even being (a) jersey sponsor,” he said. “I feel like this is just the beginning of very symbiotic relationship between NBA athletes and the tech industry.”