Thiago Olson runs one of Atlanta’s newest venture funds, bridging the gap between fledgling startups and the city’s established Fortune 500 companies.
Founded in early 2017, it's called Engage Ventures, and serves as an independent venture fund to connect early-stage startups with the resources of major Atlanta companies like Chick-fil-A, Delta Air Lines, Invesco Ltd., The Home Depot and UPS. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed became an advocate for the fund following a 2013 visit to Silicon Valley, where he met with venture capital funders and tech sector entrepreneurs.
"This is really a culmination of a lot of years of talking about it," says Olson, who serves as managing director of Engage.
Engage Ventures will host its first three-month program in the fall, and is accepting up to eight companies. Participating startups—who must apply by July 8—receive $75,000 in funding and mentoring from company executives.
Though he's now on the venture capital side, Olson has also been a startup founder. Following a stint at the U.S. Department of Defense, where he worked on alternative energy sources, Olson co-founded a mobile payment company called Stratos. He sold the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based business in 2015.
Olson moved to Atlanta in 2016 and became an entrepreneur in residence at Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) and a venture partner at the venture fund Tech Square Ventures. He spoke with Crain’s about the Atlanta startup scene and how he leads Engage.
Q: How did Engage get corporations on board to fund this venture?
These are small checks for these large companies. We wanted to make sure they stayed engaged. Basically, the main ask was if they were to partake, that the CEO of the company itself would actually join Engage and we would be meeting pretty actively and just really keeping them engaged. Bud Peterson, the president of Georgia Tech, is also on the board and was instrumental in helping bring this together. The chairman of the board, Martin Flanagan, who’s the CEO of Invesco, also played a huge part in bringing together a lot of these executives. Me being a new entrant to Atlanta, these were not my existing relationships, that’s for sure. They really helped in kind of pulling this together. My partner in this on the Tech Square Ventures side is Blake Patton. He used to be the director of ATDC in Atlanta and was also a part in helping put all this together.
Q: How did the idea for Engage Ventures begin?
Atlanta has the third-highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies across the nation. When you really start looking at it from a competitive angle, it’s pretty unique because a lot of these companies—and all of these companies in Engage—are non-competitive, which allows them to play in the same sandbox… The mayor has also spent some time out on the West Coast. Marty [Flanagan] had been out on the West Coast and had kind of come back. There has been this desire to put something like this together, and ... the general thought going around is that this is kind of putting meat on bones and getting the thing officially started.
Q: How is the Atlanta startup scene?
Growing at a very rapid pace. Where it is now is very much different than five years ago and certainly 10 years ago. First of all, when you ook at different cities and locations and whatnot and the startup culture there, one of the key pieces is talent. Obviously, we have Georgia Tech, a lot of the major universities right around here, which is definitely helpful. The culture is a major piece and as we see exits of larger, graduated startups, a lot of those entrepreneurs either end up going back into the startup ecosystem or participating from an angel perspective, so there’s a lot of angel and early-stage investment available for startups now in Atlanta.
A major area that we’re going to be finding at Engage is really providing some of the early-stage capital that’s needed for these entrepreneurs before they get to viable financial measures that a little bit more of a traditional investor is going to feel comfortable with. The stereotype has been typically that investors in the Southeast will be looking for your more standard financials and having already been at certain revenue marks before they’re going to invest. So we can really play in that early stage. It’s an exciting time for Atlanta and where it is from a growth perspective.
Q: What could be done to make the Atlanta startup scene better?
You don’t want to just try to copy something else that exists. [Silicon] Valley has a very unique history and kind of background. From a competition standpoint, you can’t compete from a capital perspective and availability of capital. New York has other specialties. The way I look at it is you step back and look at what is really unique and special about the region. We have a lot of these kind of other pieces—the amount of Fortune 500, 1000 companies and fintech companies that are in Atlanta, that hotspot in conjunction with the fact that these companies have displayed a willingness and a want to work with early-stage companies. To me, that’s something that’s very unique and special about Atlanta that other locations do not have.
I think there’s an opportunity to brand Atlanta as the place to come for access distribution and everything that comes along with what you think of when you think of a Fortune 500 company.
Q: How did you arrive in Atlanta?
After Stratos was acquired, my wife and I were looking at where we wanted to be living next. It was between New York, the Bay Area and Atlanta. We have a lot of family and friends in Atlanta, but the thing that really attracted me is while my network wasn’t there, it was what I would call a rapidly growing market. It was something where I could have an impact and really be a part of something that’s up and coming. So we moved down to Atlanta.
Q: How does your career experience help you lead Engage Ventures?
I’ve recently been through it, is one easy way to say it. I’ve gone through raising venture capital… and growing a team and what it looks like from starting from a few people and scaling up to 40, 50 people. What does that look like? What are the problems you run into? One thing that I end up saying a lot [is that] building a brand—and not just a local market or a regional brand but building a national and a worldwide brand—always just really excites me. That’s what I’m here to do with Engage is really establish Engage as a worldwide brand. We’re bringing in startups and companies from anywhere in the country or even the world, for that matter, to engage with companies right here in Atlanta where we can help.