HomeCanadaInterview With Phoebe Kitchen, Vice President of Growth Equity at Inovia 

Interview With Phoebe Kitchen, Vice President of Growth Equity at Inovia 

Phoebe Kitchen - VP Inovia
Phoebe Kitchen – VP Inovia

Phoebe Kitchen, Vice President of Growth Equity at Inovia, replied to our questions about her background, Inovia and their overall strategy, introduced some portfolio companies, and shared with us some thoughts about the future of the tech landscape.

VCWire: Hi Phoebe, can you please tell us a bit more about you? What’s your background? 

I grew up in London and started my career in investment banking, working within the UK M&A team at Deutsche Bank for 3.5 years. Whilst I enjoyed the analytical rigour, it is during this time, that I wanted to transition my passion for investing and building entrepreneurial communities into a full time role. 

Subsequently, in 2020 I joined one of the largest Canadian pension funds, OTPP, to pursue late-stage growth equity and pre-IPO investing. I really enjoyed my three years here, where I was able to learn the ropes quickly within a particularly volatile market environment. 

However, during this time, I came to realise that I was most passionate about helping entrepreneurs earlier on in their growth trajectory. As such, I joined Inovia in 2023 to focus on earlier stage investing: from Series B all the way up to pre-IPO. Moreover, I was keen to join a fund with entrepreneurialism in its DNA, where Inovia has grown a strong reputation. Inovia’s London office was established in 2018 by my colleagues, Patrick Pitchette (Partner, ex-Google CFO) and Michael McGraw (Investment Principal), which coincided with the release of our first global growth fund, Inovia Growth Fund I.

VCWire: Can you introduce Inovia Capital? 

Inovia is one the leading Canadian VC funds, with over US$2bn assets under management (AUM). It was founded in 2007 with a drive to build up the Canadian VC ecosystem. At the time, the country was full of great tech companies and talent, however, lacked the domestic capital to help their entrepreneurs scale internationally – a challenge our partners were passionate about solving. Initially we had a classic venture strategy, becoming a full stack model over time through the launch of our Growth and Discovery funds.

I currently sit in the European growth equity team, set up in 2018 as part of the firm’s European office. This expansion to Europe was a straightforward decision. The region has similar dynamics to Canada, with great tech talent and established ecosystems and flywheels, but again, it is very difficult to build truly global companies. Here we are uniquely positioned to help entrepreneurs on this leg of their scaling journey, across the Atlantic and beyond, given the depth of our operational expertise and our vast North American network. For instance, the London office is led by Patrick Pichette (ex-CFO of Google for 8 years) and Raif Jacobs (ex-Deliveroo CFO), with Dennis Kavelman sitting in Toronto (ex-COO and CFO of Blackberry). 

VCWire: What is your overall strategy?

Our last fund – Growth Fund II – was US$450m, and we invest US$20-50m individual cheques in tech companies. We invest in SMB and enterprise software with recurring business models, as well as consumer software with proven unit economics. The companies in our portfolio aim to transform several industries, such as commerce, digital health, fintech, the future of work, cybersecurity and travel & hospitality through technology. Inovia has backed founders across major platform shifts; from the web to mobile, cloud, and now generative AI.

My personal focus – one of the reasons I joined Inovia versus staying in a larger organisation – is that I wanted to contribute to building out the European arm of the firm. I want to be able to drive the strategy and brand building, whilst being a lot more involved in the process than would be possible in a larger fund. 

Moreover, whilst Inovia is largely generalist, I primarily focus on fintech, where I have continued to be excited by three major themes. The first is on the role shift of the ‘strategic CFO’, requiring a next generation of tools, particularly for SMBs and mid-market companies to upskill their practices and drive business productivity. The second, is better serving SMBs through vertical SaaS – a thematic we as a fund have been passionate about for a long time, including investments in Lightspeed (retail) and Booksy (beauty/wellness). And finally, is next generation payments. Here Europe has remained at the forefront of innovation, leading open banking adoption, where there remain significant opportunities ahead. 

VCWire: Beyond capital, how do you support startups?  

We support startups by harnessing the wealth of expertise we have within the Inovia partnership team, in addition to our platform team, supporting our entrepreneurs across CTO, corporate development / M&A, marketing and communications and talent.

I am aware, of course, that a lot of firms will have similar functionality, however, here it is our unique depth of expertise that I believe sets us apart. Whilst marketing and talent are more common across VC firms, we bring unique expertise to our portcos through our tech and corporate development teams. For instance, our CTO Steve Woods was the former Head of Engineering at Google Canada, in charge of thousands of engineers, with a background ingrained in AI. Team members like Steve, who have deep expertise and broad connectivity across the space, are incredibly valuable to founders, particularly during the next phase of AI development.

Additionally, we also have a vast network of ‘Entrepreneurs in Residence’ and Executives in Residence (EIRs or strategic advisors) who work with Inovia part-time to support our portfolio companies, who are all past operators themselves. In Europe, we frequently work with former COO of Square and of Pinterest, Françoise Brougher. She has significant go-to-market experience, particularly in scaling internationally. She offers deep dive sessions to our founders on what is a successful go-to-market strategy, developing your playbook, etc. These more operational sessions are invaluable to portfolio companies at the beginning stages of their journey. 

VCWire: What do you like to see in founders?….And what don’t you like to see in them? Is there something which impresses you at a first glance?    

It might seem like stating the obvious, but I’m always looking for founders to demonstrate the drive and ambition to be an entrepreneur and build businesses. It can be a very challenging process, so it’s important to work with people who are committed and passionate to become visionaries in their field. This can be seen in the best founders that we’ve backed; for example Stefan Batory at Booksy, and Emil Eifrem at Neo4j – both individuals leading the evolution of a whole industry. 

What can sometimes come with confidence however, is ego – which is not what we’re looking for. We want people who align with our values, i.e. who are humble and self-reflective, who are able to look at their work and see where they need to grow and develop. They need to have global ambitions, with the vision to hire beyond the company’s current scale: harnessing the top talent who can help to scale and accelerate a business. Ideally we want to discover founders with whom we can work over time, and the more they can demonstrate their ability to be agile, iterate on their work and build a successful team, the better. 

VCWire: Please, tell us a bit more about the portfolio. You can list five startups whose paths have made you particularly proud.            

Inovia has a portfolio of about 75 tech companies of all stages across North America and Europe. Our growth-stage investments include a great selection of global North American-based and EU-based B2B and B2C companies from several industries, including Lightspeed, Neo4j, Booksy, Hopper, (more below) as well as Zwift, Wealthsimple, and Forward.

Lightspeed – Inovia has partnered with the Lightspeed team for a long time; we initially invested at the Series B stage over 10 years ago, and remain a shareholder today post IPO. Lightspeed is a real Canadian success story. What we have found to be particularly impressive, is twofold. The first is the team’s ability to remain obsessed with building a product their customers love –  a complete omni-channel solution for SMBs – allowing business-owners to remain competitive in today’s environment. The second, is the ability to execute operationally at scale, successfully expanding internationally both organically and through M&A.

Neo4j – Neo4j is a graph database platform that we have backed since 2021. We have continued to be proud of Emil (CEO and Founder) and team’s pioneering approach to the category as a whole – driving thought leadership and innovation over numerous years – with further upside to come, particularly in a GenAI enabled world. They have pioneered the graph world for over 10 years and unlocked incredible use cases from cancer research to the Panama papers and more.

Booksy – Booksy is a salon scheduling and management platform. Led by a very ambitious CEO, Stefan Batory, Booksy has managed to successfully navigate a complex market over the last few years (particularly during Covid). During this time, Stefan and team continued to remain resilient and agile, emerging on the other side as the leading player in multiple geographies, with a product that customers love and run their business on. The team has continued to develop further velocity in their flywheels, from doubling down in payments to growing their marketplace and expanding into new verticals (all challenging to execute at this scale), where we remain very excited about the opportunity ahead.

HopperHopper is a consumer travel management app and B2B infrastructure platform for the industry. Since our initial investment in 2020, the company has faced the challenges of building within a Covid and post-Covid environment, which both greatly impacted the travel industry. Yet, as we saw with Booksy, Hopper continued to remain agile, using their best-in-class mobile-centric user experience to build a true platform across B2C and B2B use-cases. This “platformification” is very hard to achieve, and can only be done by an exceptional team. 

Which sector/s would you bet 2 cents on in the next five years?  

Across the market more generally, we continue to be passionate about the opportunity in generative AI, as published in our CTO’s white paper. Here we remain excited about the opportunity for disruption particularly in vertical specific use cases, requiring a new breed of start ups to adapt to significant industry shifts, in addition to increased complexity across the stack. 

VCWire

08/03/2024