Toronto executive Mark Attanasio has spent 20 years in the financial and investment industry, gaining significant expertise in early stage investing, mergers & acquisitions and advising clients on raising growth capital.
He has carried this expertise to Hillcrest Merchant Partners, a Toronto-based merchant bank that he co-founded with partner Donato Sferra and that is focused on companies either in early development or established growth stages.
Through his work at Hillcrest Merchant Partners, Mark Attanasio and Donato Sferra have supported a range of brands, such as WeedMD, Canopy Health, Khiron Life Sciences, Phivida, Bedrocan Canada, to name a few
Can you tell us a bit about what you do at Hillcrest Merchant Partners. The firm invests in a range of fields including technology, communications, infrastructure, wireless and even metals used in batteries. How do you assess the businesses you invest in?
Mark Attanasio: I really enjoy advising businesses at various stages in their development on what it takes to set themselves up for real growth. I’ve always had a passion for stock markets and a passion for developing ideas into businesses, plus I enjoy listening to ideas from other venture capitalists and entrepreneurs.
We look for companies that are not only getting into an industry, but intend to innovate within it. We have no real interest in investing in companies that are creating copied styles of products and are trying to compete with other providers who also are creating the same types of products. We want to nurture the companies creating real solutions to real, difficult problems.
With the recreational cannabis market in Canada continuing to experience a boom, what are some of the most attractive areas of investment in this market? Do you see the medical research field within the cannabis industry growing equally?
Mark Attanasio: I believe that over the next five years, there will be significant breakthroughs in using cannabis for treating major illnesses. It’s clear that there’s strong interest in using cannabis products for their therapeutic properties. As a venture capitalist, I foresee investment in cannabis startups will reach a new high while researchers continue to test cannabis and its properties as a treatment for various diseases and illnesses.
On the recreational side, there are so many businesses coming up in the cannabis industry, and it goes far beyond simply production and distribution. Other aspects of their business models will need to include data-based business and market intelligence tools, digital solutions for order and sales management, payments processing, compliance and seed-to-sale tracking.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs or young professionals entering the business world, or in the venture capitalist industry?
Mark Attanasio: Aspiring entrepreneurs must start young and learn about leadership, financing, failure, and perseverance. Technology should also play a role in education starting in high school and continuing through university and business school. In the global economy, companies will need to innovate in cyber security and cloud-based computing. In turn, I think anyone entering the global workforce without a solid grasp of technology and its trends is at an immediate disadvantage, especially considering recent advances in AI and machine learning.
You mentioned the importance of technology, especially in school, for up-and-coming professionals. Considering how rapidly digital technologies are advancing, are companies finding it challenging to stay current? As an investor, how do you tell which companies have the right leadership to see them through?
Mark Attanasio: Technology is now used for school assignments, learning tools via online applications, day to day banking, and general social interactions. It is very hard to enter the global workforce today and not have a sound understanding of technology. Given globalization, using tech-based tools has become a requirement in the workplace with cloud-based storage and cyber security being very important challenges for companies.
An effective leader in this changing environment is one who accepts and can embrace technological change. By this, I mean a leader needs to understand that technology is not something that can be treated as an option for a business, but instead, capital needs to be allocated to staying current and at the forefront of technology to ensure their businesses stay relevant. Technology has to be at the forefront of every leaders’ purview, if he or she wants to have a thriving organization in today’s digitized world.