Features | From Pivot Magazine

The CPA who’s helping to build Toronto’s smart city

As Sidewalk Labs’ director of investments, CPA Nicole LeBlanc scouts out local firms to assist in bringing Google’s vision to life

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Nicole LeBlanc sitting downAs Sidewalk Labs’ director of investments, CPA Nicole LeBlanc scouts out local firms to assist in bringing Google’s vision to life. (Photo by Nathan Cyprys)

PIVOT: What is Sidewalk’s vision for the Quayside project, and where does it stand right now?
Nicole LeBlanc (NL):
The tagline is that we want to build a sustainable, affordable, inclusive neighbourhood with unprecedented access to green space, public parks, affordable transportation and reduced commute times. Basically we are trying to create a radical mixed-use ecosystem around urban innovation, one that can be more impactful than traditional developments. We’re talking about the creation of 44,000 jobs and more than $4 billion in annual tax revenue. I’m going to be launching an entire fund for Canadian start-ups. It’s probably not going to close until the second quarter of 2020, but I have a list of 300 Canadian companies I’ve met with or plan to.

PIVOT: How does accounting factor into your role as director of investments?
When my husband and I moved to Fredericton in 2007, I was looking into what kinds of next steps an accounting career could provide, which is how I found venture capital. I’ve been in VC for 12 years now. I focus a lot on financial analysis—particularly being able to read and interpret a lot of the accounting- and finance-related elements of companies that Sidewalk is assessing. Start-ups put together budgets and forecast models and are trying to understand costs, so as an investor, I have to do a stress test and variance to understand how realistic that is. My question is: How can we best support the company if we choose to move forward with them? Having a CPA designation allows me to take a deep dive and help early-stage companies, which are often very mission-driven, but lack that technical financial background. 

“What we’re doing is new and cutting-edge, and there are always going to be people wanting to ask questions.”

PIVOT: What parts of the job are you most enthused about?
At Sidewalk, one of the really exciting things is learning about how the urban tech ecosystem grows and evolves. It is fairly new, so getting to spend time thinking about hard problems—like climate change, congestion, mobility and affordable housing—and working with start-ups that want to solve them, is refreshing. It’s great to work with entrepreneurs who have big visions and deep knowledge on how to tackle these issues.

My day-to-day is quite varied, which is one of the reasons I like the job. I often host Canadian and international tech companies at our office because it has a lot of visuals of what we’re working on. It might be that we can find a specific strategic area to partner on—stormwater or waste management, mobility aspects like biking or parking, or smart buildings that allow us to better manage energy, services and tenants. The rest of my time is spent managing Sidewalk’s existing portfolio of 10 American companies. I spend my time going to their board meetings, helping them raise money and find talent, building team culture and analyzing their quarterly financials. I’m currently working on expanding that portfolio and am hoping to make a first Canadian company investment very soon.

PIVOT: There’s been no shortage of controversy around the Quayside project. How does that affect your role?
I’m not really involved in that. Our partner, Waterfront Toronto, is backed by all three levels of government. Something like this should not be done in isolation; it needs government involvement, right from the beginning. What we’re doing is new and cutting-edge, and there are always going to be people wanting to ask questions. I appreciate that, because without them, you’re not going to be able to achieve any kind of innovation. 

PIVOT: Does all this coverage affect your interactions with potential company partners? 
A lot of my time is spent doing corporate development work on behalf of Sidewalk—it’s important for me to interact with the tech sector so they understand what we’re working on and how it affects them. We need those companies and accelerators and tech leadership incubators. I need to explain what we’re doing and how our goals are aligned. I’m ultimately not the person that will execute on that—I connect companies with my more technical colleagues who can have a very sophisticated discussion on whatever the topic is, whether it’s mobility or sustainability. That economic-development aspect takes a village.