Zack Storms is a personable guy, even over Zoom. As he subconsciously touches the scruffy sideburns sticking out under his ball cap, the Connecticut-raised scientist, entrepreneur and investor doesn’t seem like any of those things. He’s got more of a relaxed, Matthew McConaughey vibe, and it’s that energy that makes what he’s doing in the Edmonton investment scene so innovative. Plus, his name is Zack Storms.
When he moved to Alberta in 2012, Storms was still in academic mode, trying to spin his research on detecting bacteria in food into a company, on his own. But, as he spent time with different friends launching their businesses, and got his MBA at the University of Alberta, he transitioned more into the hands-on, entrepreneur world. Two years ago, as Edmonton’s start-up ecosystem started to flourish, he finally found his home.
“My philosophy is have fun, make friends, build companies,” he says. “But, at the time, I was a bit low, because I was trying to build a company for over three years, and it wasn’t really working. Then I started working for my friend’s company in 2019, and it was great. I wanted more fun experiences with other entrepreneurs where it doesn’t feel lonely and desolate, and I think that’s how the [entrepreneur] community felt at the time, too.”
So he invited the community to his birthday. It was at Polar Park Brewery on May 16, 2019, and marked the first “Thursday Night Tradition” — officially called Startup TNT, where entrepreneurs and investors meet, mingle and maybe make money — that continues (digitally) to this day. At the same time, Storms learned about investment summits, where angel investors pool their own money and democratically select start-ups to fund.
“We pair that with TNT, over about eight weeks, and it all culminates in an afternoon event. In 2020, $1.365 million transpired in deals with eight [out of 109] companies in the whole year.”
So, it’s like Shark Tank? “People say that, and the angels are making their decisions at the event, but there’s been eight weeks of prep going into it. No one is walking on stage pitching for the first time. It’s a community, it’s public, and it builds up to the event.”
And, unlike celebrity businesspeople sitting under TV studio lights with an air of superiority, TNT’s angels often need education themselves. Even for those with backgrounds in private equity or mergers and acquisitions, angel investing has many niche terms unique to that type of financing. So TNT provides one-on-one workshops for angels to understand the jargon. They then come together as a group to analyze the (roughly 40) companies that apply, screen them, score them, then break into smaller groups to talk to the most promising start-up owners in follow-up meetings. “As an angel investor, you don’t have to be super sophisticated, you don’t have to know all the answers, you can just be like, ‘I’d like to support local entrepreneurs,’” Storms says. “We all have a lot to learn, we all can up our game, and I think that mindset of empowerment was missing a little bit in the conversation two years ago.”
What wasn’t missing two years ago, Storms says, was the hard work and hustle of Edmonton’s entrepreneurs. It’s just that, thanks to TNT and other entrepreneurial events, they’re now meeting each other and making waves. “It seems like almost weekly, there’s another company announcing that they just raised more money. Jeff Bell from Edmonton Global just released a report saying [Edmonton region tech companies] raised $246 million in the last 12 months. I think, two years ago, the community was doing a lot of stuff underneath the surface that people didn’t realize. And now those stories are coming to the surface.”
Storms dreams of the day when each of the finalists on the TNT summit stage receives funding, but emphasizes that generating dollars is not the only goal. It’s the long-term structure, the hands-on training and relationship-building that makes TNT unique. “There are situations where companies don’t raise money, but maybe they meet a new business mentor or consultant. I think sometimes we put too much pressure on ourselves to perform. And we’re unsatisfied. But building a company shouldn’t be the loneliest, most stressful thing you’ve done in your life, it should be the greatest thing you’ve ever done.”
This article appears in the May 2021 issue of Edify