VCs from Accel and SoftBank talk Europe’s startup scene, what they expect in 2020, and the future of SoftBank
If you haven’t noticed, Europe’s startup scene is in full bloom, with more than $30 billion deployed in startups across the continent over the last 12 months and more than 20 countries now home to a so-called unicorn company.
Investors around the globe are jumping into the pool, too. Consider that the Ontario Municipal Employees Retirement System (OMERS) is currently investing a €300 million fund in Europe. Abu Dhabi’s state investor, Mubadala, last year announced it was launching a $400 million fund to back European startups. And that’s saying nothing of the many Europe-based venture investors who are either raising new funds or recently closed them.
Atomico, for example, one of the continent’s biggest early-stage firms, closed its most recent fund with $765 million in 2017 and is reportedly out fundraising again. Others of all different sizes have recently announced new vehicles, including Balderton Capital, which last month closed a new $400 million fund; United Ventures, a 6.5-year-old, Milan-based early-stage venture capital firm that last week closed its second fund with €120 million in capital commitments (nearly double the €70 million it raised for its debut fund); MiddleGame Ventures, a 1.5-year-old, Luxembourg-based fintech-focused investment firm that recently held a first close on a fund that’s targeting €150 million altogether; Northzone, a 23-year-old, London-based venture capital firm that closed on $500 million in capital commitments for its ninth fund (its largest to date); Ada Ventures, a new London-based seed-stage venture firm that just closed its debut fund with $34 million; and Dawn Capital, a nearly 13-year-old, U.K.-based early-stage venture firm that in summer raised $125 million for an opportunities-type fund.
To find out more about what’s happening on the ground, we sat down at Disrupt Berlin earlier this month with two London-based investors — Carolina Brochado, who late last year left Atomico to join SoftBank’s Vision Fund, and Andrei Brasoveanu of Accel — to discuss where the money is coming from, which European cities are becoming more interesting to both of them, and some of the challenges they face in covering so many different regions.
We also talked specifically with Brochado about whether SoftBank is changing up its tactics in light of some bets that aren’t panning out as intended — and whether she has any qualms about the outfit’s biggest investor. Our conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity, follows.
TC: We’re all meeting for the first time, and I thought we could do everyone here a service who wants to understand both of you better by talking a little bit about who you are and what you focus on. Do you want to start Carolina? I know you studied in the U.S…
CB: Yes, so I’m originally from Brazil. I moved to the U.S. for university, spent over 10 years in the U.S., [and I] have worked in in large cap private equity, have worked at a pre launch, launch, [then failed] startup, and then have spent a lot of my time in Europe, which has been seven years now, at an earlier stage VC firm called Atomico . . . and for the last year, I’ve been at SoftBank Vision Fund, investing at the growth stage.
AB: I’ve been with Accel for six years. I’m originally from Romania and spent 10 years in the states like Carolina, studying and working in New York in high frequency trading. At Accel, I’ve been focused most of my time on enterprise software and financial services and I’ve been very excited to back European founders from London all the way to Bucharest. Accel is one of the few Valley-based venture firms with on-the-tground presence in Europe. We’ve been here for 20 years, and we really believe in having a local approach to investing.
TC: Carolina, you switched from Atomico to SoftBank this year. Why?
CB: There’s a lot of push and pull with these sort of things. Europe is such an incredibly exciting place right now, and to be totally honest, back [when I moved here] in 2013, I didn’t totally see it, but over the years, you realize how many incredible entrepreneurs [are here], how many incredible teams, and the opportunity that lies ahead. And firms like Accel and Atomico were paving the path of the capital structure in Europe, which is actually very young; maybe the past 15 years, there’s been VC in Europe, and now you starting to see the fruits of that and the exits.
So for me, part of it was while there are great funds at the early stage, there’s still a lot of underfunding at that later stage, so I was really excited about doing growth in Europe and putting significant amounts of capital behind founders who want to go for the really big outcomes.
TC: You now have an insider’s view of these two very important firms. What are some of the biggest differences between Atomico and SoftBank, aside from the different stages at which they invest — how do maybe the processes differ?
CB: There’s obviously a difference in size — Atomico was 70 people and SoftBank is a 500-person organization. There is an interesting founder-led approach to both organizations. They are both very mission- driven by founders who want to change the world and by founders who want to be the best at what they do, which is really exciting.
One of the key differences at SoftBank is that it’s really global firm [with] offices everywhere. We have offices in the U.S. We have offices in Asia. We have offices in Europe. For me, it has been a really interesting platform to see what other great founders are doing in other places of the world.
And then, just because of the sheer size of the organization, you have a group of 50-plus operating partners who may have really deep areas of domain expertise like talent but who are also helping our companies do business development, and who can look at our ecosystem — which today is over 85 portfolio companies — and make connections, and win business and actually win profitability for companies across and within that ecosystem.
TC: You’re both [in Berlin right now] from London. Andrei, do you run into each other in deals, or are your worlds vastly different?
AB: I would say we have quite different focus areas, we’re very much early-stage focused as our sweet spot [though] some of our companies, when they get to that mature stage, may benefit from working with SoftBank.
CB: We try to stay very close to the great companies at Accel, so they’ll nudge us [when it’s the right time].
TC: Who are you seeing coming into deals who you might not have when you joined Accel in 2014?
AB: It’s interesting. Since I joined Accel, the quality of investors in Europe has increased dramatically. So we’ve seen quite a few former operators, for example, [meaning] very successful founders who are now starting the starting their own funds. We’ve seen more family offices enter the industry. We’ve seen more U.S. capital in the market. And in general, I think [all] has helped raise the bar in terms of the quality of capital available to founders across Europe. And many of these folks, especially the local players, have been good partners for us.