It’s a Good Thing: Venture capitalist Brenda Irwin is betting on health care

For venture capitalist Brenda Irwin, smart technology can do much more than just count our steps—it can save our lives

For the head of Relentless Venture Fund, smart technology can do much more than just count our steps—it can save our lives

When Brenda Irwin was invited by a friend to a Vancouver pitch event in the summer of 2013, she had no intention of investing in anything. The native of Mount Elgin, Ontario, had only left her job with Business Development Bank of Canada (BDC) 18 months prior, and she didn’t have a lot of money to toss around. But as a fanatical runner, cyclist and triathlete, she was drawn to the setup: a 50-kilometre bike ride with Olympic gold triathlete Simon Whitfield, followed by a pitch for the company Whitfield was involved in.

Irwin—who worked as a middle school science teacher in Toronto before pursuing an MBA at UBC and joining BDC Venture Capital in 1999—was trying to figure out her next career move. She knew she wanted to focus on the sciences, from the venture capitalist’s perspective, and was particularly interested in the world of preventative health management.

But it was meeting Whitfield that catalyzed the new direction. “I told him: ‘With my background investing in health, and your background in sport and high-performance…’—it just felt like the right fit to test my thesis about what was happening with sport migrating into medical.”

Within the year, the two had gone into business together—forming an angel group, Relentless Pursuit Partners, that has invested in everything from wearable tech for sports coaches (a device measuring up to 15 performance metrics for more than 30 athletes simultaneously) to a 3D bioprinting platform developed at UBC. “In that process of working with Simon, the Relentless brand was quickly becoming associated with anything to do with health and sport and fitness that was outside of the box of what everybody else was doing.”

In February 2018, Irwin launched the Relentless Venture Fund—an early-stage VC vehicle that promises to deliver “measurable social impact” by investing in technologies that optimize health and access to health care. Whitfield isn’t actively involved in the management of this fund, serving instead as an adviser; Irwin has brought on her former boss Denis Ho (who had been managing director of BDC Venture Capital’s life sciences team) as her venture partner, with Vancity as their lead institutional investor.

The need for the fund was clear, Irwin says: “I did not see anybody doing what we were doing in the Canadian market—and very few in the U.S. that are intentionally focusing on prevention and proactive health management.” Relentless’s first VC investment, in May 2018, was part of a US$26-million round in Vancouver-based medical data firm Canary Medical—money that will allow Canary to develop its “smart” artificial knee implant.

What was once a small niche within the health sector is growing worldwide. In Japan, which has one of the most rapidly aging populations on Earth (one third of its nearly 127 million people will be over 65 by 2025), eldercare has become a boon to the economy—spurring innovation in everything from ultrasonic bladder sensors to a VR app used to rehabilitate stroke victims. Of the 92 Japanese startups seeking valuations at US$1 billion or more, according to a January Wall Street Journal story, 25 are focused on health care.

North America—slow in the race to fund digital health—is just now starting to turn the corner. Irwin notes that wearable tech pioneer Garmin recently partnered with the University of Kansas Medical Center to predict conditions like atrial fibrillation and sleep apnea, while Fitbit last year invested in Sano, a biometric wearable sensor that monitors blood sugar levels. “There’s so much data there—and now we’re transitioning to the idea that this data has to go somewhere,” Irwin says. “That there has to be a way people start using it to answer the ‘So what?’ beyond a great ride.”

Well Financed

Since 2011, annual U.S. venture funding for digital health has grown almost eightfold, to US$8.1 billion, while the average deal size has nearly doubled.