John Albright is the Co-Founder and Managing Partner of Relay Ventures, an early-stage VC fund focused exclusively on mobile innovation, as well as one of HIGHLINE’s investors.
As a highly successful and experienced VC, John has extensive experience assisting entrepreneurs with longterm growth plans, from helping shape company vision to developing aggressive financials strategies. Through his support, he has helped hundreds of entrepreneurs scale their businesses, leading to huge profits, exits, and IPOs.
Strongly involved with his investments and the startup community, John currently serves as a director of Fuse Powered, Achievers, ClearFit, Blue Ant Media, InPowered, Difference Capital Funding, Kira Talent, theScore, OCAD University, and Bionym. He also serves as an advisor to The Next 36, Ryerson Digital Media Zone, and OCAD University’s Imagination Catalyst.
He previously served on the boards of Aepona (acquired by Intel in 2013), Fun Technology (IPO in 2003, acquired by Liberty Media in 2006), Q9 Networks (IPO in 2004, acquired by Abry in 2008, then Bell in 2012), Descartes (IPO in 1997), Triple G (IPO in 2001, acquired by GE in 2003), QuickPlay Media (acquired by Madison Dearborn in 2012), Bioscrypt (IPO in 2002, acquired by L-1 in 2008) and Sirit (IPO 1998, acquired by Federal Signal 2010).
John is a Chartered Financial Accountant and received his Bachelor of Business Administration degree from the Schulich School of Business at York University. John is based out of Relay Ventures’ Toronto office.
Q&A with John Albright
How has your vision for Relay Ventures evolved since you founded it in 2008 (then called Blackberry Partners Fund)?
Our definition of mobile has changed as the mobile technology has evolved. Our definition of mobile today includes everything from the sensor to the cloud, and includes any connected devices and any enterprise that mobilizes their business for the consumer. With IoT, hardware companies have really come to the forefront and are ripe for VC investments — we did our first hardware deal in 2013 and have done two others since.
A lot of innovations come out before their time, and you can’t always be certain the market is ready. What has been your biggest investment “gamble” to date? How did it play out?
I’ve been doing this since 1996 and those early days were like the wild west. We’ve had some successes from the early Internet days, and some successes in the early mobile days. Outside of a couple of IPOs, the technology and teams we’ve invested in have ended up at some of the Valley darlings like Google, Apple, Intel and Yahoo.
You recently led (along with Ignition Partners) a $14M Series A round on Nymi. Why are wearables like the Nymi Band — a wristband that uses your unique heartbeat to unlock devices, remember passwords, and even enable remote payments — so disruptive? Why invest?
We believe for wearables to be a part of our everyday lives, they need to do much more than fitness tracking. It seems like we’re reading about a different data breach each week, and securing identity — whether it’s personal or for business — is top of mind for everyone from parents to CIOs. By providing a unique and secure identifier, Nymi can be the central point for all secure and/or personalized transactions, from password management and payments, to opening the door for your car and turning the lights on when you arrive at your house.
Which investments are you most excited to see evolve in 2015?
We have close to 30 active portfolio companies, which are all evolving rapidly in different mobile sub-sectors. The adoption of wearables will be interesting to watch because they’re really at an infant stage, but mobile is clearly having a profound impact on how enterprises sell, market and service their customers and employees.
What factors give you the confidence to invest in a startup? What do you look for in the product? The founder?
As a VC, we look for a lot of things; however, confidence in the capabilities of the founding team is essential. We look for people who are truly thought leaders in their industry and have the perseverance and drive needed to carry out their visions.
What really impresses us is a founder who knows their industry inside and out, and is able to clearly explain why they believe their solution will solve the problem they are addressing.
Lack of focus is a huge problem for early-stage entrepreneurs, and so, even if the solution changes — as it does — we look for someone who is laser-focused on what the market needs and continues to answer the question, “How does my solution address the problem?”
In a product we look for:
- Unique IP and defensibility
- Could be doing something unoriginal in a very interesting and novel way
- If heavily technologically-driven, we look for patents and IP ownership
- We look to the future –> how can the product evolve and solve changing needs in the market place?
After seeing hundreds of startup pitches/presentations over the years, what piece of advice or insight can you offer founders who want to stand out?
Be confident in your product, team and business, persist in your efforts, and don’t stop innovating.
About Relay Ventures
Relay Ventures is an early-stage VC firm focused exclusively on mobile technologies, “from the sensor to the cloud.” Founded in 2008 by John Albright and Kevin Talbot, Relay Ventures has made 76 investments in 46 companies, had one IPO and 15 acquisitions. Their most recent investments include Nymi, Appcelerator, PumpUp, Fuse Powered Inc., TouchBistro, Scanadu, mojio, and Curriculet.
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Want to learn more about Relay Ventures and their team? Read our recent interview with Relay Ventures VC, Alex Baker.