“Doctors told me I’d never walk again. They were wrong”: a Q&A with venture capitalist John Ruffolo

“Doctors told me I’d never walk again. They were wrong”: a Q&A with venture capitalist John Ruffolo

He’s as bullish about business as he is about his recovery

Last year, Canadian tech firms garnered a record $14.7 billion in capital funding. What the heck happened this year?
First, the rise of Canadian interest rates caused a decrease in the valuation of homegrown companies, resulting in fewer being financed. But there’s a lot of capital sitting around, and the few companies that do receive it will get huge amounts. Second, a supply-chain crisis and artificially low interest rates abroad have triggered a global recession.

That’s not good.
No, but some of the greatest companies are created during the hardest times. Take Shopify and Wattpad, two companies I backed early on that scaled amid the 2008 financial crisis. There was limited capital flowing, so they grew the old-fashioned way, by offering products people wanted. I think the companies that get through this recession are going to be damn strong, and a lot of them are based in Toronto.

Which Toronto companies, specifically?
One is Viral Nation, which connects influencers with brands to create sponsor­ship deals. The company already has more than $100 million in revenue. There’s also Wealthsimple, which has a good brand and product. I think it’s going to be the de facto non-bank for investing.

In 2020, you were in a cycling accident that left you paralyzed from the waist down. How’s your recovery going?
I like to think I have two jobs, running Maverix Private Equity and doing intense physio, and I try to do both at the same time. I might be at my desk during a remote meeting, practising my sitting and standing. I do physio anywhere from 20 to 30 hours a week, using a walker or trekking poles. The doctors told me I would never walk again. They were wrong. My goal is to walk using just the poles within the next year.

Are you still cycling? 
Yep, and I actually use my legs. I have no mobility below my knees, but the muscles above my knees have mysteriously turned back on. I wear braces to keep my legs steady and use my quads and glutes to push down. I recently rode from Blue Mountain to Meaford and back, which is roughly 50 kilometres. It took me two and a half hours.

You’re also a member of Les Domestiques, a clique of Bay Street big shots who bike together to raise funds for various causes.
The group was founded in 2009 by Tim Hockey, the former CEO of TD Ameritrade. Domestique is a cycling term for someone who tries to help their teammates instead of winning. That’s our club’s ethos. We’re behind the scenes, making stuff happen. We’ve raised hundreds of millions of dollars, with significant donations from the members themselves, funding projects such as the velodrome out in Milton as well as cancer research.

You started Maverix in 2019 to keep talent in Canada. How’s that going? 
Spectacularly. From 2021 to 2022, we raised $500 million. We’ve invested in Agora Brands, which acquires e-­commerce businesses and merges them, as well as Viral Nation. Our  backers include a couple of pension funds, the British Columbia Investment Management Corporation, BMO, CIBC and Manulife, among other companies.

Silicon Valley is way ahead of Toronto in terms of deals made and unicorns born. Do we have a chance of catching up?
No, there’s just too much talent in Silicon Valley. We compete very effect­ively with most other places in North America, but I hate it when people call us “Silicon Valley North.” We’re a great place to be. We’ve got great schools. And kids graduating these days want  to be entrepreneurs. That’s the exciting part. When I graduated from Schulich in 1988, success meant finding a job as an accountant, lawyer, banker or engineer. That’s no longer the case.

You and your wife, Carryn, have two kids, Caymus and Rome, and a Morkie named Cujo. Points for creativity. How did you pick those names?
Cujo is just a fluffy little thing. My wife thought it would be funny and ironic to name him after the murderous dog from the Stephen King novel. And Carryn and I are huge wine lovers, so we named our son after our favourite wine. We named our daughter after our favourite city and gave her the middle name Caia, short for Sassicaia, our second-favourite wine.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.