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Lunik: Inside the CIA’s audacious plot to steal a Soviet satellite

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In late October 1959, a Mexican spy named Eduardo Diaz Silveti slipped into the US Embassy in Mexico City. Tall and well-spoken with slicked-back hair, Silveti, 30, descended from a family of bullfighters. He had learned spycraft at the Federal Security Directorate, or DFS, Mexico’s secret police. During the Cold War, the capital had become so overrun by Communist spies that the CIA had enlisted the help of the Mexican secret services in their fight against the Soviet Union. “I had to go … to the seventh floor,” Silveti recalled during an interview with Tercer Milenio, a Mexican television program that aired in 2019. “And there was Scott.” 

Winston Scott, 49, was the first secretary of the US Embassy. That was his cover; he was also the CIA’s most revered spymaster in Latin America. Secrets were a stock-in-trade for the silver-haired Alabaman: a former FBI cryptographer, he had arrived in Mexico City in 1956and turned the CIA station into one of the most successful counterespionage operations in the world. He tapped the phones of the Soviet and Cuban embassies, controlled the airport, and even recruited Mexico’s President López Mateos as a valuable informant, marshalling the cruel and corrupt spies of the DFS into foot soldiers in America’s war with Moscow. He had called Silveti to his office, according to the Mexican, to offer him a top-secret mission that was “tremendously necessary for the United States.”   

If they got things wrong, Scott warned that “World War III could begin,” Silveti said. 

High stakes

Weeks earlier, on October 4 of 1959, a pillar of fire lit up the sky above the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, a remote Soviet space facility. That night, a Soviet Luna 8K72 rocket roared into the sky trailing a plume of white exhaust. As it reached the edge of the atmosphere and shed its booster rockets, the cone-shaped upper stage opened like a Russian doll, giving birth to a smaller space probe: Luna 3. The craft was the size of a large garbage can, and possibly the most sophisticated machine ever sent into space. Its four insect-like antennae received radio signals from the Soviets, who guided it on a journey to see what no human had ever set eyes on—the far side of the moon. 

For two days, the Luna sailed through space, until on October 7, it disappeared behind the moon for 40 minutes. Onboard, the Luna boasted a camera, automatic film processor, and a scanner,and when it boomeranged back past Earth, it transmitted 17 photographs of the moon’s hidden face. In Moscow, the Soviets celebrated their latest space victory over America.

MADISON KETCHAM

It had been two years since the Soviets launched Sputnik 1, the first manmade object in space. As it orbited over Kansas, Iowa, and New York, curious Americans tuned their car stereos to hear its electronic signal. People feared that if the Soviets could shoot probes around the Earth and Moon, they could easily drop a nuclear bomb onto Washington or Los Angeles. In response, the US built rockets and American children learned to cower under their school desks in atomic bomb drills. 

American newspapers suggested that the Luna was a hoax and called it, incorrectly, “Lunik,” like Sputnik. In response, the Russian news agency Tass released the Luna’s photographs, and a map of the moon’s far side with notes in Russian.

“President Eisenhower … he is in a panic,” Scott said, according to Silveti’s Tercer Milenio interview. Eisenhower had spent $110 million—nearly a billion in today’s dollars—trying to launch his own Sputnik, but was losing patience: the CIA’s CORONA program was a secret embarrassment. Seven rockets had failed, misfired, or tumbled into the Pacific ocean without even reaching orbit: meanwhile a Soviet astronaut was already in training to walk on the moon. The Luna spacecraft contained the secrets to the Soviet’s success, and, Scott said, there was an opportunity on the horizon to steal them.

The boastful Soviets had sent their Luna rockets on a world tour. At one exhibition in New York, American spies had confirmed that a Luna on display was legit. The CIA plotted to kidnap the spacecraft, loot it, and put it back without the Soviets knowing. But they dared not tamper with it on American soil.

Then the CIA learned that on November 21 the Soviet exhibition was headed to the Auditorio Nacional in Mexico City. An intercepted shipping manifest described “models of astronomic apparatus.” The dimensions of the crate matched the Luna rocket: 17 feet long and 8 feet wide. Jackpot. The CIA just needed several hours alone to disassemble, photograph, scrape the rocket for remnants of liquid fuel, and inspect the parts for factory markings that could give them intelligence on Soviet operations.

Silveti had reasons to turn down the assignment. According to his book, Secuestro (Hijack), published in Spanish with author Francisco Perea in 1987, Silveti’s wife was terminally ill. He now worked for the Presidential General Staff, and his brother Alberto was the private secretary to President Mateos. Political embarrassment would be a disaster, since the Mexican government tried to present itself as a friend to both the USSR and America. But in a way, Mexico City was the perfect place to steal a rocket the size of a school bus from beneath the noses of the Soviet secret police. 

“I asked myself, What do I do? What do I do?” Silveti recalled when talking to Tercer Milenio

He said he confided in the president’s chief of staff, José Gómez Huerta, who knotted his caterpillar eyebrows, and told him: 

“You do it. Be very careful and keep me apprised of what you are doing. Go ahead.”

Scott and the CIA had already been exploring other plans to steal the spacecraft. On November 19, six miles up the Panuco River from the Gulf of Mexico, two American spies watched the Soviet ship carrying the Luna arrive at the Port of Tampico. 

The first was Robert Zambernardi, an Italian-American CIA officer from Massachusetts. With tan skin and a droopy black mustache, he could pass for a local during covert operations, and was an expert in photography, secret writing, disguise, and womanizing. Zambernardi also controlled a team of mercenaries he called Rudos—“tough guys”—from Mexico’s corrupt and violent Federal Judicial Police. They made treasonous Americans “disappear,” according to Mexican journalist and TV personality Jaime Maussan, who interviewed Zambernardi for a 2017 book about the mission, Operación LightFire

The second man was Warren L. Dean, Winston Scott’s deputy chief of station. A tall and dashing martini man, Dean had joined the FBI and chased Nazis in Bolivia and Chile, before serving under Scott in London and then joining him in Mexico City. Dean watched workers load the cargo from the Soviet boat onto a train, and asked his colleague if they could somehow grab it during its journey to the auditorium.

“We can delay it a few hours,” said Zambernardi,but he dissuaded Dean from staging a Mexican great train robbery, according to Operación Lightfire. “Moving photos are always very blurry,” Zambernardi told him. “We need the train to stop.”

The freight cars were slowly loaded with objects from Russian life—everything from hammer and sickle postage stamps,to fur coats, and instruments that displayed the might of Soviet science: cutting-edge microscopes that revealed the invisible, and world-beating telescopes that scanned the great beyond. Under the unflinching stares of armed KGB agents, workers lifted the Luna onto the train. 

“There are too many loose ends here,” Dean conceded, according to Maussan’s account. “We will do the kidnapping with Silveti.” 

Left to right: Warren Dean, Winston Scott, Eduardo Diaz Silveti, Robert Zambernardi
MADISON KETCHAM

The American and the Mexican made an odd pairing. Dean stood half a foot taller than Silveti, and, while his Mexican counterpart was something of a party animal, the American enjoyed coaching his son’s little league team and doted on Happy, his family’s miniature dachshund, who was heavily pregnant. 

Yet they needed to work together to ensure the Soviets wouldn’t notice a missing spacecraft. 

So Silveti gathered a team of trusted DFS agents and his secretary, Estela, to plan the heist. They plotted a crude distraction at the Soviet’s hotel. Silveti proposed filling the rooms with attractive Mexican and American girls, instructed to befriend the KGB agents. On the closing night of the exhibition, the women would lure the Soviet soldiers to a farewell party at the hotel bar, while Silveti would hijack the truck carrying the Luna back to the train station.

On display

On November 21, 1959, the Soviet exhibition opened to great fanfare. Thousands of Mexicans flocked to the National Auditorium, where they found the entrance guarded by massive Soviet road diggers and farm machinery. Inside, tourists loomed over scale models of nuclear power plants, particle accelerators, and the Lenin, the world’s first nuclear-powered icebreaker ship. Workers buffed the chrome bumpers of teal-colored Moskvitch automobiles, and Mexican children poked out their tongues at Soviet television cameras. But one exhibit truly captivated the crowds.

For weeks, hordes of Mexicans gawked at the giant rocket, listening on headphones to a badly translated recording about the “the boundless creative abilities of Socialism.” By the third and final week of the exhibition, more than one million people had filtered through the auditorium, where armed Soviet guards warned spectators not to stand too close to their spacecraft.

“We didn’t know exactly what fuel they were using. We didn’t even know the type of rocket. It wasn’t so much the spacecraft itself, it was the rocket the CIA was interested in.”

Jonathan McDowell, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

Meanwhile, Silveti pored over street maps, studied routes, and scoped out locations where he might spirit away the Luna and steal its secrets. Even the smallest degree of success could deliver vital information, explains Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist and satellite expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. At the time, the Soviet Union closely guarded its rocketry and the Americans couldn’t work out why their technology was proving so much more successful. “We didn’t know exactly what fuel they were using. We didn’t even know the type of rocket,” he says. “It wasn’t so much the spacecraft itself, it was the rocket the CIA was interested in.”

For good reason: The Luna connected to the same type of rocket that powered the Soviet missiles pointed at the US. Dwayne Day, an American space historian, agrees that the Americans were more concerned with national defense than the race to the moon. The Luna contained “data that they could use to understand the Soviet rocket that launched it,” he says. 

The man in charge of protecting the Luna, Silveti recalled, was Boris Kolomyakov, the Second Secretary at the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City. Kolomyakov, a balding World War II veteran, was a former ranking officer of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police that ran Stalin’s brutal labor camps, and now an agent of the KGB. If Kolomyakov caught Silveti red-handed, he feared he would be imprisoned, or worse. “We were all going to die,” Silveti said during an interview with Telemundo, that aired on KNBC in Los Angeles in 2005.

As they plotted the heist, Zambernardi tried to calculate how much time he needed with the Luna.

“I did some tests,” he told Dean, according to Operación Lightfire. “We need a very powerful flash to be able to capture the details in the dark. The problem is that the flash takes too long to charge. I managed to adapt the flash to 12V batteries. The camera can shoot every 30 seconds.”

To get what the CIA needed, they’d need access to the spacecraft overnight. 

Eventually, they settled on a plan. Silveti and his team of spies would need to hijack the truck carrying the spacecraft on the evening it left the exhibition. They would re-route it to a lumber yard owned by his brother-in-law, where CIA engineers would arrive in the dead of night to dismantle and inspect it. They would have to somehow return it to the Soviets by seven o’clock the next morning. Dean would carefully monitor Silveti, and Zambernardi would deliver the stolen secrets to the US.


With just 24 hours before the heist, Zambernardi opened the day’s second pack of Marlboro reds and watched the arrivals door at Mexico City’s international airport. “My obligation was to control five engineers who were sent from the United States to do the actual penetration of the rocket,” he recalled in the Tercer Milenio program. The CIA had sent four engineers on fake vacations to Acapulco, a five-hour drive away. A fifth, he said, had already arrived in Mexico from “Staff D.”

According to Bayard Stockton, a former CIA officer and Newsweek bureau chief in Bonn and London, Staff D was a squad of burglars and safe breakers known affectionately as “Second Story Men” for their ability to break into buildings via the second floor. These men with ties to the underworld were headquartered in a US Army compound in Virginia, Stockton wrote in his book Flawed Patriot, and only deployed outside of the US. Zambernardi’s Staff D man, he said, was “a mechanical engineer who was an expert in dismantling valves and what have you.”

Zambernardi made four trips to the airport, each in a different rental car. He delivered the engineers to different hotels, giving them information on a need-to-know basis. They knew only to be ready to snap photographs and steal samples of “delicate equipment.” His only other instruction was to avoid enchiladas and margaritas and consume only oatmeal and water. “You’ll be working in an extremely reduced space,” he said, and a bad case of gas could ruin the operation. “Don’t leave the hotel, don’t talk to anyone, and everything will be fine,” he added.

The heist begins

The mission started one evening in late December 1959, just after the exhibition closed. According to a government report, the Soviets believed the show was “a great success,” and were celebrating positive reviews in the Mexican press. Havana, Cuba, was the next stop, but as soon as the Soviets crated the Luna and lifted her onto the truck, it was time for the first distraction.

MADISON KETCHAM

According to Silveti’s book, the Soviet guards poured out of the auditorium bar at four o’clock,and were furious to discover that the Luna had not departed on time. The driver, who was in on the operation, claimed there was a mechanical problem. The Soviets fiddled with the spark plugs, the generator, and the voltage regulator, but nothing could start the engine—Silveti’s men had filed down the distributor rotor.

It was five o’clock by the time a new rotor arrived and the truck roared to life. The delay worked perfectly. The Luna rolled straight into a rush-hour traffic jam, tailed by a truck full of Soviet soldiers. Dean and Silveti followed behind.

The Luna came to a halt at a railway crossing, where Silveti’s men had created a construction problem on the track. A chorus of car horns drew commuters from their cars to protest, as the Soviets decided to peel away. “Thank God the Russians stopped following the truck,” Silveti said on Telemundo. In the confusion, a Mexican agent replaced the truck driver, who was spirited away. Meanwhile, Soviet guards at the train station had been lured from their positions to join the leaving party at their hotel.

It was 5.30 p.m., and the Luna spacecraft had been successfully kidnapped. Now they had thirteen and a half hours to take it away, dismantle it, steal some important pieces, photograph and document the rest, then reassemble the whole thing and return the spacecraft, all before the sun came up.

The driver steered the truck to a lumber yard at the junction of Camarones and Norte 73 streets in the northwest of Mexico City. Silveti had paid his brother-in-law to send his workers on vacation and broke a hole in an exterior wall large enough for a truck to pass through. CIA station vehicles idled outside, their drivers studying their mirrors for agents of the KGB. 

Meanwhile, the farewell party was underway at the hotel. According to Silveti, the Soviet soldiers “let loose with the American prostitutes, and with the drinks.” Zambernardi’s son Paul told me that his father bought LSD to “put a Mickey on them all.” With every shot of tequila, thoughts of shipping manifests and cargo evaporated.

At 7.30 p.m., the CIA’s engineers arrived at the lumber yard and grabbed their nail pullers, wrenches, and screwdrivers. Zambernardi instructed them to start work. “They had to study the hydraulics. They had to study the valves. They had to study the electrical systems,” he recalled.

Among the crew was a quiet CIA officer named Sydney Wesley Finer. The agency had recruited Finer during his senior year at Yale: he was now 29. “He studied Russian linguistics, and he was fluent in Russian,” his daughter, Debbie Remillard, told me. “He was a very, very, very intelligent man … but in today’s terms, he would look like a geek,” she said, describing his thick, black-rimmed glasses.

As the sun set, Finer and his colleagues crowbarred off the crate’s roof, pulling out five-inch spikes. It was hot work. “This was when we were in control. I left the engineers in place,” Zambernardi recalled. “I immediately went back to the [US] Embassy to monitor the Soviet Embassy.” 

As two CIA men stood atop the crate prying up the planks, streetlights suddenly illuminated the scene. The agents feared the KGB had arrived, and froze to the spot holding their tools. “We had a few anxious moments until we learned this was not an ambush but the normal lamp-lighting scheduled for this hour,”Finer later wrote in a declassified paper in the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence

Removing their shoes to prevent leaving boot prints, the engineers climbed in through the truck’s roof in their stocking feet, carrying a drop light and photographic equipment. The men draped a tarp over the roof to prevent the camera flash lighting up the sky.The space was so tight it became clear why Zambernardi had ensured they ate only oatmeal. 

“The payload orb was held in a central basket, with its main antenna probe extended more than halfway to the tip of the cone,” Finer recalled. For hours the men quietly snapped photographs. “They filled one roll of film with close-ups of markings on it and sent this out via one of the patrolling cars for processing, to be sure that the camera was working properly.”The car raced back to a darkroom hidden in the US Embassy.

As Friday night turned into Saturday morning, Zambernardi checked the negatives. They were good.

Meanwhile, Finer and the other half of the team worked on the tail section, trying to break into the engine compartment. After a long hour of turning wrenches and removing 130 square-headed bolts, the crew set up a rope sling to move the heavy metal cap aside. 

Everything that was removable from the craft was removed. Parts of motors, interior components, scraping from the rocket fins, liquids they thought might have been leftover fuel… anything and everything that was of any consequence was stripped and taken.

The engine had been removed, “but its mounting brackets, as well as the fuel and oxidizer tanks, were still in place,” recalled Finer. That was when they hit a problem. The only way to see inside the machinery was to remove a four-way electrical outlet, but it was encased behind a plastic seal bearing a Soviet stamp. The team needed to leave the spacecraft exactly as they found it. But if the Soviets noticed a missing seal, the game would be up. Could they make a replacement in the middle of the night?

The engineers pried off the seal and passed it through the window of a waiting car, which screeched away at top speed. Meanwhile, “the pair in the nose section photographed or hand-copied all markings in the basket area while we did those in the engine compartment,” Finer wrote. 

By three o’clock the Americans had gutted the Soviet spacecraft. “Everything that was removable from the craft was removed,” Silveti told the  Austin-American Statesman newspaper in 1987. “Parts of motors, interior components, scraping from the rocket fins, liquids they thought might have been leftover fuel, anything and everything that was of any consequence was stripped and taken.”

“My technicians were working all that night,” Zambernardi recalled. “That night we developed 280 photographs. We also had 60 samples of valves. We had samples of the fluid, rocketry fluid, or what have you.” 

As they put the assembly back together, the CIA car returned: inside was a perfect counterfeit Soviet seal. They could now reseal the panel and conceal their theft. 

MADISON KETCHAM

Then just before 4 a.m., the yard was plunged into darkness. In the men’s imaginations, armed KGB agents were fanning in to steal back what was theirs. A few tense moments later, the lights came on again. There were no KGB agents, and no machine guns. It was just a typical Mexico City blackout, Silveti reassured them.

In two hours, the Soviets would wake with sore heads and start to count their crates at the train station. Finer double-checked the spacecraft for discarded matches, pencils, or scraps of paper: one tiny trace of their mission would let the Russians know they’d been compromised and spark an international incident. With the scene clear, they bolted the base cap back into position. In a darkened Mexican side street the Americans had peered into the heart of the Soviet arsenal. Zambernardi recalled: “It was all in my hands.” 

Now it was time to escape. 

But reversing a truck carrying a trailer requires skill, training, and space that the agents didn’t have in the cramped lumber yard. In desperation, they had to break their way out. It took nearly an hour for the men to smash a larger hole in the yard’s wall, but by 5 a.m., the truck was back on the street. It arrived in front of the train station as the sun rose above the empty streets. The original driver was placed back in the truck, where he took a nap.

“Approximately five minutes to six, the operation was terminated,” recalled Zambernardi.

At seven o’clock, the gates rattled open. Soviet soldiers barraged the driver with questions. He fed them the story he’d been coached to give: he’d arrived shortly after the station closed—just after the soldiers decamped to their hotel to celebrate—and spent the night dutifully waiting with the cargo. From their car, Silveti and Dean watched as the Soviets waved the truck into the station, unchecked. 

Back in the US embassy, Zambernardi listened to the wires and confirmed that the Soviets knew nothing about the hijack. He stuffed the stolen parts and photos inside a diplomatic pouch and handed it to a driver, who raced to a small airfield. There, according to Zambernardi, US ambassador Robert Hill carried the loot onto a private jet headed for Texas. Silveti said he telephoned Winston Scott with the good news.

Meanwhile, across town, Dean returned to his family. They were worried when he didn’t come home that night, which was unusual. Overnight his dog, Happy, had given birth to a litter of six puppies: Dean and his children fussed over the tiny creatures, and lovingly named each one.

Shortly afterward, according to Silveti, he and Dean visited Gómez Huerta, the Mexican general who had blessed the mission. They presented him with a detailed report of the operation, a scale model of the Luna, and some souvenir photographs.

Later, when he was safely back in Washington, the CIA’s Wesley Finer typed up a report on the night’s events. “There has been no indication that the Soviets ever discovered that the Lunik was borrowed for the night,” he wrote. For decades, Finer’s family had no idea he had ever visited Mexico, let alone been pivotal in an operation there to steal what the Russians called an “automatic interplanetary station.” 

Documented evidence

In October 2019, the CIA responded to a Freedom of Information Act request for more evidence about the “Kidnapping of the Lunik,” and declassified several documents that uncovered more details about the mission. However, during a telephone conversation, the agency refused to confirm the mission took place in Mexico—citing the protection of “sources and methods.” One CIA historian told me they prefer to describe the heist as a “borrowing.” 

The documents contained some detail about the secrets gleaned from the mission: “Covertly, we were able to acquire detailed data about the upper-stage rocket vehicle … the Lunik stage which mates directly to the Soviet ICBM.” After discovering the weights of the propellant tanks and payload, the US could reverse-engineer the vehicle’s performance capability.

Exactly what space probe sat in the lumber yard that night is still unclear. Silveti assumed he had stolen Luna 3, the exact spacecraft that photographed the far side of the moon. But that is physically impossible: the craft was not built to withstand reentry. According to Gunter Krebs, a spaceflight historian and physicist, at the time of the heist, Luna 3 was likely spinning around the Earth at a distance of 310,000 miles, being gradually drawn into the Earth’s atmosphere. According to Jonathan McDowell, the Harvard astrophysicist, what they had most likely stolen was one of the Luna 2 craft which had not been part of a successful launch. 

The stolen information came at just the right time. Just months after the Luna caper, the US successfully orbited a CORONA spy satellite 17 times around the Earth. “Finally, after many, many failures, they got it working,” McDowell says. “It was a very, very big advance … and it completely transformed the arms race.” On August 19, 1960, another CORONA satellite sent a capsule back to Earth, where a US Air Force plane grabbed it in a mid-flight maneuver called an air snatch.

Inside the probe was a 20-pound reel of Kodak film capturing 1.65 million square miles of Soviet territory, including images of Soviet air bases. The CORONA images were low resolution, McDowell says, so having accessed the Luna helped the CIA know exactly what rockets they were looking down at. “Because you had actually seen the damn thing and held it in your hands,” he says. 

“The Air Force said ‘we need tens of thousands of missiles.’ And the CIA came along and went, ‘We’ve counted the Russians’ missiles and it’s not as bad as we thought.’”

“We’re used to thinking of the CIA as the bad guys, right?” said McDowell. “But, you know, the Air Force was like, ‘Oh, we need tens of thousands of missiles.’ And the CIA came along and went, ‘We’ve counted the Russians’ missiles and it’s not as bad as we thought.’” Knowing that the Soviets had far less rocket power than the CIA imagined took the edge off American paranoia. School children no longer hid under their desks, as the duck-and-cover program was slowly stepped down.

The Cold War rumbled on for decades, sometimes taking America to the brink of nuclear war. But the US quickly took the lead in the race to the moon. On May 5, 1961, NASA launched its Freedom 7 spacecraft, sending the first American astronaut into space, Alan Shepard. Winston Scott’s adopted son, Michael, told me he had always been puzzled by a signed photograph of Shepard he found in his father’s papers.

As for Luna 3, the actual probe that photographed the far side of the moon, its whereabouts are “not quite clear,” Krebs, the space historian, wrote in an email to me. Sometime before 1962, he added, it would have reentered Earth’s atmosphere and melted into an enormous fireball.

In December 1962, Dean left Mexico City to become the CIA’s Chief of Station in Ecuador. He arrived in Quito on a plane with his dog, Happy, and one of her puppies, Honey. Over time, the CIA’s work in Mexico slowed. In a review of the agency’s operations in the country a few years after the Luna mission, John Whitten, the new chief of the CIA’s Mexico desk, complained: “The agents are paid too much and their activities are not adequately monitored.” 

At some point the Soviets did discover what had happened to their precious rocket. Perhaps they spotted the counterfeit seal, or opened the engine to find all their valves missing. Or maybe there was a double agent working for the DFS, or even the CIA. 

In 1964, the presidency of Mexico passed from López Mateos to Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, who labeled Silveti a traitor for selling out to the CIA, according to the Austin American-Statesman. The spy fled Mexico with his secretary, Estela. According to Silveti’s book, they had fallen in love after his wife passed away, and moved to Texas, not far from NASA’s space center in Houston. 


Winston Scott died in 1971, having received one of the agency’s highest honors, the Distinguished Intelligence Medal. Michael Scott told me that his father conquered Mexico mainly using his Southern charm. “It wasn’t like he was bilingual or that he had actually spent time down there … [he] dropped into Mexico City completely cold. It’s remarkable.” Zambernardi, meanwhile, enjoyed a long career in the CIA. “He was very, very involved in the Chilean coup,” his son Paul told me, adding that his father knew the notorious drug trafficker Barry Seal. He also claimed that Zambernardi took photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald entering the Cuban embassy in Mexico City before the assassination of JFK.

Mexico dissolved the DFS in 1985, following accusations involving drug trafficking, torture, and a multimillion-dollar US-Mexico car theft ring. Two years later, Silveti published his book, because he wanted “the people of the United States and Mexico [to] realize the boost the American space program got from this hijacking.” By their nature spies are unreliable sources, but Silveti’s account was apparently confirmed by Albert Wheelon, the CIA’s former deputy director for science and technology. In 2005, Wheelon spoke to Telemundo, saying of the Mexican spy: “He gets my thanks.”When the footage was shown to Silveti, his eyes filled with tears. 

But not everyone was happy with his retelling: When Warren Dean saw Silveti on television, he was upset, his son told me. Dean felt Silveti overstated his role. “He was one of the hired hands the station hired from Mexico,” Dean Jr. told me. “It was their job to essentially get the truck into the hands of the station. And that’s all they did.” Dean’s father died in 2007, having received the CIA’s Career Intelligence medal. Zambernardi died in 2010.

To my surprise, I discovered that Silveti, now 91, was living quietly in northern California. I spoke with him by phone twice, in October 2019 and December 2020, asking him to verify aspects of his life and exploits from over 60 years ago. Estela picked up the line when I called. She told me they had just got back from the pharmacy: Silveti was in poor health.

Speaking in Spanish, Silveti refused to talk about the mission, and disavowed his own book, Secuestro, over issues with his ghostwriter, but reiterated the claim that he saved the United States. Silveti seemed to delight in fooling the Soviets. “They were caught so unaware, that when they finally discovered what happened, they didn’t even know which country to protest to,”he boasted in his interview with the Austin American-Statesman. (The Russian and Mexican governments did not respond to requests for comment.) In the end, he thought the Soviets eventually discovered he was involved. 

“At the end of ‘63, as I was walking in the airport, we bumped into Boris Kolomyakov,” he told Tercer Milenio. “And he told me: ‘You son of a this-and-that. I don’t lose the hopes of seeing you hanging in the main plaza in Moscow.’” 

Silveti said he gave an ironic salute and grinned in response: “Thank you, sir!”

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6 Oslo VCs discuss 2021 trends, deal flow and regional opportunities

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The Nordic countries make up just 4% of Europe’s total population, but they account for a significant amount of venture capital investment.

That said, Norway’s VC community has been somewhat dormant for a while. The country makes far too much money from oil, giving it one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds and a large system of socialized support. Not a bad thing, but as a result, there are few “hungry” tech entrepreneurs.

High-profile players like Northzone and Creandum did well with early entries into Spotify and Klarna, among others, and now Norway is catching up with the rest of the European hubs. Among the trends our survey respondents identified were e-commerce, blockchain and crypto, healthtech, energy, mobility and climate.

Investments highlighted included Fairown, Kahoot, Spacemaker, Cognite, Pexip, PortalOne, Dignio, Speiz, Plaace, Glint Solar, variable.co and Nomono. Local investors tend to invest 50% to 90% of their fund into local startups, “but we do look at deal flow in all Nordic countries,” said one.


Use discount code HALLO to save 25% off a 1-year Extra Crunch membership.
This offer is only available to readers in Europe and expires on April 30, 2021.


On the horizon, there is hope for an increased focus on mental health and wellness from organizations, the press and the government; many also celebrated the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, bitcoin’s rise and a new occupant in the White House.

Green shoots of recovery are coming from portfolio revenue growth, exits and IPOs. One investors we spoke to said Norway is “becoming a major hub, with scale-ups and international capital incoming much faster these days.”

Here’s who responded to our survey:


Sean Percival, managing partner, Spring Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
E-commerce.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Fairown.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Martech.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Not just COVID-proof but services that thrive in COVID times.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
In Norway, sustainability-focused companies. Lots of good ideas but little revenue growth proven so far.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
50% Norway, 50% Nordic/Baltic.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Norway does video tech well.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Strong B2B, weak B2C, lots of SDG focus.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
We are not so hard hit in Norway, so Oslo will likely not see much exodus. It’s still the best place to build a company in this country. Although personally I moved to a small village and don’t see myself moving back to Oslo.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
E-commerce is booming here post-COVID, where before it was rather weak.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our portfolio is heavy on SaaS, which has weathered things well. So for our founders, it’s mostly about keeping churn-and-burn rates low to survive.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
In some cases yes, including our e-commerce SaaS companies and my recent Bitcoin exchange investment (MiraiEx).

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Bitcoin’s rise and new open banking solutions have shown the world’s financial engines are still pushing forward. Everything is being built with less friction these days. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know. Iterate is a cool company builder company flying under the radar. Just had their first big investment success/cash out with a company called Porterbuddy.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Norway is slowing, becoming a major hub with scale-ups and international capital incoming much faster these days (recent investments from SoftBank and Founders fund, for example).

Espen Malmo, founding partner, Skyfall Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Skyfall focuses on software companies, marketplaces and hardware companies with a recurring software revenue bundle. We are really excited about the blockchain and cryptocurrency space. Our team has been involved and invested in crypto since 2012, so we’ve been excited about the industry for a long time. We have invested in two great companies in the sector, the blockchain analytics tool Nansen.ai and the cryptocurrency exchange MiraiEx. We also love embedded commerce and social commerce, which we think will boost the more independent long tail of e-commerce in the years to come. Our portfolio company Outshifter is positioned well to utilize this trend.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
It is always hard to pick favorites since we are excited about all our investments, but Nomono is one that really excites us. Nomono is a software and hardware solution to capture and intelligently process voice recordings and spatial audio. The solution enables podcasters to edit their recordings with the click of a button, as a sort of digital audio technician in your pocket.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
This is super hard to pinpoint and it is really challenging to label an industry as overlooked. Bioinformatics is maybe a little bit overlooked in Norway, but I don’t feel that is the case globally. Also, I think the pure B2B SaaS focus of a lot of VC funds makes it harder than necessary to get funding for hardware companies and companies with a rundle business model, even though hardware revenues bundled with recurring software revenues can create extraordinary outcomes due to high order values and strong lock-in effects.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
We invest in strong technical founders solving big problems in markets ripe for change. We usually prefer that the company has a prototype or beta of their solution and some initial market traction.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Both micromobility and telemedicine seem very crowded at this point, and we believe the current market leaders in these sectors will become the winners. I think it will be very hard to enter this space as a new startup at this moment in time.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We have a Nordic investment mandate, but we primarily focus on Norway as we are a Norwegian pre-seed/seed fund and have our competitive insight, network and brand here in Norway. So more than 50% in Norway, but we do look at deal flow in all Nordic countries.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Norway has a great track record within the video conferencing and audio industry. After Cisco bought Tandberg, a world-leading video conferencing company, for $3.3 billion in 2010, Video Valley (the area of Lysaker right outside of Oslo) has churned out a lot of successful companies within the space. For example, Acano (acquired by Cisco for $700 million), Pexip (IPO’ed, now valued at $1.4 billion) and Huddly (IPO’ed, now valued at $0.5 billion). From our own portfolio, both Nomono and Oivi are started by serial entrepreneurs with track records from successful Video Valley companies. Also, Norway is by far the leading country globally in adoption of electric vehicles per capita, and today over 50% of all new cars bought are electrical. This means that Norway is a great playing field for startups piggybacking on the EV revolution and also the green revolution in general. The EV home charger Easee is a company to watch.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Norway is a country where you get access to a highly educated and technically skilled workforce that is proficient in English, and the valuation of the companies is well below the levels you see in the U.S., or even in Sweden. I think Norway is a country to watch, but I obviously also believe that all the Nordic countries will continue to punch well above their “weight class” in the years to come.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Yes, the acceptance of working remotely will democratize the startup ecosystem globally. We should see a relative decrease in growth in the traditional hubs of Silicon Valley/SF, Beijing, London, Berlin and so on, compared to a relative increase in companies formed and managed “in the cloud.” We already have one such company in our portfolio, Nansen.ai, which truly is distributed across the world, “in the cloud,” and has been so from day one.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
We do not invest in sectors that have been hit directly by the pandemic, so we have been lucky in that way.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
No, we have in many ways been affected positively by COVID-19 as we have major investments in companies that are working with remote work, home delivery, e-commerce, cryptocurrencies and so on. In general, technology looks like the winning category during this pandemic, and I believe that will continue.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
As answered above, a lot of our companies are actually performing better than usual amid COVID.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The decline in infections locally and the rollout of the COVID vaccines. Also, Trump leaving the Oval Office. I don’t think I would have managed four more years with him in the spotlight, inciting hatred and nonsense on Twitter.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally, whether investors, founders or even other types of startup ecosystems roles like lawyers, designers, growth experts, etc. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know.
Yes, Johan Brand, co-founder of Kahoot and now an angel investor.

Kjetil Holmefjord, partner, StartupLab

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Sector agnostic. Personally interested in climate.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Latest one announced: Variable.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now? What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Positive impact, fast team, big returns.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
100% Norway.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Video, health, climate.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Getting better every day.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Increase but maybe not a surge.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Uncertain.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
More international competition for investment opportunities.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Vaccine news.

Anne Solhaug Tutar, partner, Antler

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We focus on technology companies and are industry agnostic in general, but in Oslo we have a particular focus on startups within the energy, property and mobility sector.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Speiz, Plaace and Glint Solar are a few examples.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Absolutely! We love any company that removes friction and focuses on solving real problems. Very often we see that the best companies are started by founders that have directly been impacted by an inefficiency or problem themselves, and later dedicate their lives to fixing it. Those founders will go above and beyond, and work relentlessly to understand their customers’ needs. We will see a lot of new opportunities from decentralized finance and a shift to a truly global economy where borders and barriers will be surpassed with smart technology.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
The most important factor for any investment we make: a very strong co-founder team. Beyond that, a thoroughly validated business idea and model, a concept that has the potential to scale, traction; rapid growth week over week and founders solving a real problem and not a made-up problem.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We have a decade behind us of incremental innovations. In the next 10 to 20 years, we will see huge leaps and groundbreaking new technologies. Lots of current small improvement solutions will be replaced by technologies that are dramatically changing the way we live, work, collaborate and act.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We can invest anywhere, but the Oslo branch typically invests in locally established companies. I’d say 90%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Our focus in Norway says a lot about the industries we think have potential for disruption and where Norway holds a particularly strong position; energy, property and mobility.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Compared to other locations, we see that startups based out of Oslo are typically cheaper than in other parts of the world. Investors that are able to identify the right founders can make great investments in Norway. At the same time, Norwegian founders would benefit from more investors with an international focus. The ecosystem of investors and accelerators is rapidly growing in Oslo, and with more and more successful local startups we have a great environment set up for breeding more great companies going forward. We’re very bullish on what will come out of Oslo over the next few years.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Generally we experience two simultaneous trends: More talent being freed up from their previous engagements and more uncertainty, with founders being more on the fence about making the leap. We haven’t made observations of this being connected to specific cities or areas yet.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
I’m not sure it’s wise to develop completely new businesses based on opportunities from COVID only; rather, COVID can, timing-wise, really spark the launch or growth for some and significantly slow down the growth pace for others.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
We invest as per normal and see that there is still a lot of capital ready to be deployed in Norway. Our companies have received a lot of soft funding from government initiatives, which is a huge and highly appreciated help to our portfolio companies. For our startups, and most others, the advice is always to keep the burn rate at manageable levels during this time of extra uncertainty, and plan the fundraising strategy accordingly. Otherwise, it’s never been more important to be lean and agile. The founders that are able to navigate well in a context with lots of uncertainty can do really well in the current climate!

Daniel Holth Larsen, principal, Investinor

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Resource efficiency, healthier lifestyles, internet of behaviors, how we work and learn.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Dignio (SaaS/medtech).

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Forestry technology; a lot of focus on agriculture, but not forestry. Massive market opportunity, well positioned for SDGs, and driven by megatrends (building with wood, etc.).

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
In general: Proven scalability in a massive global market opportunity, with a (both) nice and savvy founding team.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?

  1. I think the consumer fintech space will get hard for startups in the coming years. Banks and institutions have competitive advantages through their large customer bases and access to resources and are investing heavily in the space (both through M&A, but more importantly with in-house initiatives and projects).
  2. Not one particular product per se, but I’m concerned about nice-to-have enterprise products that are not embedded and adapted in several departments of the customer (i.e., a marketing tool solely used by the marketing team at an organization, or a procurement tool used exclusively by procurement). I think many of these services will have a hard time in the tailwinds of COVID, and I think it is essential to get noticed by C-suites and other departments to survive in the longer run (regardless of your size and number of customers).

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%. We are the largest and most active player in Norway by far. In 2020, we did 16 new direct investments, more than 60 follow-up investments, four IPOs, six investments in other venture funds, two complete exits.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
The Norwegian ecosystem will continue to thrive and be more and more relevant internationally in regards to software, particularly B2B software. This is driven by:

  1. Leading technological adaption and usage by the government, institutions and business.
  2. Low risk in career changes: talent fluctuating from leading companies to startups.
  3. Leading support and growth financing initiatives: Innovation Norway, funds, etc.
  4. Great global market access: EU networks, foreign investments, etc.

I think we especially have advantages in subsectors like proptech, energy, healthcare and education. I’m particularly excited about Kahoot, Cognite, Dignio (portfolio), Xeneta (portfolio), Gelato, Play Magnus (portfolio) and reMarkable.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?

  1. Transparent way of doing business: honest, close to zero corruption;
  2. High grade of innovation and many opportunities;
  3. Happy population = happy founders and FTEs, and high productivity;
  4. Favorable policies and regulation (policies and legal proceedings, IPOs, etc.);
  5. No language barriers;
  6. Significant support from government, institutions and local business.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Maybe, maybe not. I still think cities will be the most prominent location for startups as (1) Big business is not rural, and startup founders typically come from banks, consultancies, corporations, etc. and also recruit from the likes of it; and (2) Network access and information is more vast in cities, and even though people are currently staying at home, geographical proximity remains a key factor.
This might happen in the longer run as more corporations recruit more people remotely, but I don’t see this happening the next following years as a consequence of our situation today. I think it will take more time.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Oil and gas; we have not made any new investments the last three years, but still have some companies in our portfolio (mostly specific technologies for the O&G industries). Its attractiveness was obviously declining pre-COVID as well, but the crisis has only made the sustainable shift stronger. I don’t see it rebounding to its previous levels. I think startups have opportunities in business partnerships cross-industry, and we are seeing many examples of that now. I also think that software companies that are thriving in the current market have a clear upper hand in building sustainable long-term cultures in their organizations and attracting talent from those other industries affected (travel, aviation, O&G, retail, hotels and accommodation, etc.).

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Hasn’t impacted it in a big way as most of our companies are performing well. Founders are primarily concerned with the mental health of their employees. My advice: CEOs should especially spend a lot of time on vision and goals, culture, teamwork and collectiveness.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, last year was a record year for us both in terms of exits, IPOs and gross IRR in the portfolio. More than 80% of invested capital is in software, hardware and healthcare, and most of our companies are thriving. We see some, but very few, being negatively affected in a big way.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
I’m doing well personally, but I have enjoyed seeing:

  1. Our fantastic team members and founders getting the recognition they deserve.
  2. Stagnating unemployment, people getting back to work.
  3. Increased focus on mental health and wellbeing from organizations, the press and government.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally, whether investors, founders or even other types of startup ecosystems roles like lawyers, designers, growth experts, etc. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know.
Some:
Kremena Tosheva (SNÖ Ventures, investor), Karen Dolva (No Isolation, founder CEO), Frida Rustøen (Idékapital, investor), Ann-Tove Kongsnes (Investinor, investor), Trond Riiber Knudsen (TRK, investor), Patrick Sandahl (Investinor, investor), Bente Sollid Storehaug (chairperson), Birger Magnus (chairperson), Erik Langaker (chairperson, investor), Anders Kvåle (Arkwright, entrepreneur, investor), Mathilde Tuv Kverneland (Arkwright X, investor), Dilan Mizrakli Landgraff (Antler, investor), Jacob Tveraabak (entrepreneur, investor), Remi Dramstad (Selmer, lawyer), Martin Schütt (Askeladden, founder/investor), Christian Sagstad (Thommessen, lawyer), Jan Grønbech (growth expert), Nils Thommessen (ex-lawyer, investor and board person), Eilert Hanoa (CEO of Kahoot, investor), Tom Even Mortensen (investor, growth expert), Birgitte Villmo (Investinor, investor), Bente Loe (Alliance Ventures, investor).

Magne Uppman, managing partner, SNÖ Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We invest across all digital tech, but some of the areas we have been looking more into lately include health tech, future of work, event and creative tech.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Our latest investment was a follow-on investment in PortalOne, the world’s first hybrid games company. PortalOne converges gaming, shows and the broader entertainment industry into one platform in a really fun and engaging way. It is like nothing you have ever seen before. Spun out of Oslo, they are soon ready to launch in the U.S.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
One space that continues to evolve is the integration of social into various sectors — e.g., social fitness, social shopping, etc. And particularly, how we can recreate the connections that we make in the physical world in the digital version, leveraging the unique accessibility and reach that the digital platform offers.
We also think there are significant advancements to be made within the privacy sector against a backdrop of increased data vulnerability and third-party access to information.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Brilliant and ambitious founder teams. And being in Norway, we want them to target a much larger and hopefully also global market pretty soon after launch. Norway and the Nordics are perfect testing pits, with a digitally advanced, high-trust population, but too small a market for most tech companies that want to become big.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We believe that most areas pretty fast become crowded, and try to avoid companies that do only incremental improvements in oversaturated areas. But we don’t necessarily avoid competition if the businesses have a transformative technology and see solutions or have secrets that others have not yet seen.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
So far we’ve been focused on Norwegian companies only, but with our upcoming fund, we will be pan-Nordic. We expect that about 50% of our investments will be Norwegian, whereas the other 50% will be spread across Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.

Which industries in your city and region seem well positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
We see a good variety of exciting companies from Oslo and Norway. Kahoot, Spacemaker, Cognite and Pexip have been leading the way lately, with new ones like Memory, Tibber, PortalOne, reMarkable and many others coming right behind. We also believe that Norway’s strong roots with industrial companies now seem to move into tech, for example with a highly skilled workforce moving over from the oil and gas industry, as well as really exciting companies coming out of this area — Cognite being a strong example. Norway also has some unique strengths in ocean tech, renewable energy, agriculture and shipping, all fields that we believe will produce exciting startups built around tech advancements.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Oslo is a city with a strong foundation and an exciting momentum in tech. There’s too few local VCs, though, and that creates a funding gap around the Series A stage, but at the same time lots of opportunities for investors taking their time to get to know the ecosystem. They should know that the Nordics are fragmented, so it’s not enough to know Stockholm; they should also invest time in the other Nordic hubs in order to succeed with a Nordic investment strategy.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
The trend of remote work will increase. We have portfolio companies that don’t even have an office today; Confrere, for instance, which offers a video meeting and conferencing platform currently focused primarily on the healthcare sector, has all their employees working remote. But we also see a strong advantage of companies being tightly connected to a startup hub, there is so much learning, inspiration and network to be shared. Hopefully we’ll see even more minihubs being built around the country, and them connecting tightly to each other. There is a lot of potential in more and better collaboration between the different hubs, locally, nationally and internationally.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Some of the industry segments that look weaker are business travel, retail and hospitality. Exciting opportunities exist within event, games, work tools and efficiency, health tech and sustainability. One particularly interesting challenge is to understand and anticipate which of the trends that have arisen during these times will be temporary and which will be permanent.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Some areas have developed fast, and that impacts which areas we focus on. The biggest worries on the portfolio side have been (1) that their B2B sales will be affected and (2) that the investment climate will be more challenging. Our advice has been to secure a long runway for some companies, whereas other companies have accelerated because of the shifts caused by COVID-19 and need to run even faster.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, the first two months were hard for some of the portfolio companies, but after that things recovered and they mostly are back at the revenue growth that they planned for before the pandemic.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
At SNÖ we often draw the comparison between being a founder and the proud heritage we have in Norway with polar explorers and their great expeditions. What our founders have shown the last year, through these uncertain times, gives me good hope that this comparison is valid like never before. Entrepreneurs are the polar explorers of 2021.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally, whether investors, founders or even other types of startup ecosystems roles like lawyers, designers, growth experts, etc. We’re trying to highlight the movers and shakers who outsiders might not know.
There are many in the Oslo scene that have contributed a lot during the last few years; Rolf Assev, Alexander Woxen, Per Einar Dybvik, Tor Bækkelund, Kjetil Holmefjord at StartupLab, Ingar Bentsen and Hans Christian Bjørne at TheFactory, Anniken Fjelberg at 657, Anders Mjåset at Mesh, Heidi Aven at SHE, Knut Wien and Maja Adriaensen at Startup Norway, Lucas H. Weldeghebriel and Per-Ivar Nikolaisen at Shifter. And many more. All great people who deserve praise.


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India’s Paytm turns Android smartphones into POS machines in merchants push

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Paytm said on Tuesday it is turning NFC-enabled Android smartphones into point-of-sale machines, as it looks to win more merchants in one of the world’s largest mobile payments markets.

A Paytm merchant partner will now be able to enable card acceptance feature from their Paytm Business app. Once activated, they will be able to process a transaction by tapping a plastic card to their phone.

Paytm Smart POS supports Visa, Mastercard, and Rupeek, the Indian startup said.

Existing payment devices in the market haven’t proven very successful in reaching small and medium sized businesses in India, most of which remain offline, said Vijay Shekhar Sharma, founder and chief executive of Paytm, at a virtual press conference today.

To win these merchants, Paytm has in recent years rolled out QR codes that work across several payment networks, and launched jukeboxes and other gadgets to make it easier for merchants to accept payments digitally.

With today’s move, said Sharma, “the obligation of buying a POS machine, too, is no longer needed.” The startup said that most new Android smartphone models support the NFC feature.

Paytm also unveiled the newer generation jukebox POS that looks similar to a QR placard. “The reason why merchants haven’t actively adopted many of the existing POS machines is that they are not comfortable with it,” said Dilip Asbe, head of payments body NPCI, at the virtual conference.

The Indian startup, which processed more than 1.2 billion transactions last month, said it will charge a small subscription fee to merchant partners for accessing either of the aforementioned payments services.

The move, which in many ways pits Paytm against Sequoia Capital-backed Pine Labs, a market leader in the POS category but a significantly smaller startup, demonstrates just how aggressively Paytm is expanding its payments platform to go after merchants.

“Just the way, mobile phones saw an evolution from featurephone to smartphone, we believe the merchant PoS market in India is at an inflexion point to evolve from the traditional (aka dumb-PoS) to Smart-PoS. Unlike traditional PoS, which only allows transactions from debit/credit-card, some of the features of a Smart-PoS are: GST compliant bill, scanner/printer, takes all payments including UPI, is Bluetooth enabled and could be customized for different merchants as per their needs. While currently the Fintech companies are offering these devices, we expect banks to catch-up eventually,” wrote analysts at Bank of America in a recent note to clients.

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Taipei-based Influenxio gets $2M from DCM Ventures for its “microinfluencer” marketing platform

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Influencer marketing startup Influenxio's team, with founder and CEO Allan Ko in the center

Influenxio’s team, with founder and chief executive officer Allan Ko in the center

“Microinfluencers” are gaining clout among marketers. Though they may have as little as a thousand followers, microinfluencers tend to focus on specific content and be seen as more engaging and trustworthy by their audience, said Allan Ko, founder and chief executive officer of Influenxio. The Taipei-based startup, which connects brands with Instagram microinfluencers through its online platform, announced today that it has closed $2 million in pre-Series A funding led by DCM Ventures, and is launching a new subscription plan.

Founded in 2018, Influenxio has now raised over $3 million in total, including from seed investor SparkLabs Taipei. It currently operates in Taiwan and Japan, where it has databases of 100,000 and 250,000 Instagram creators, respectively. So far, over 6,000 brands have registered on Influenxio’s platform, and it has been used to run over 1,000 campaigns.

Influenxio plans to use its new funding for hiring and product development. Influenxio’s new subscription plan is a relatively novel model for the field, so one of the startup’s goals is to prove that it works, Ko told TechCrunch. The company also plans to build out its Japanese platform and expand into more countries.

A screenshot of Influenxio's platform

A screenshot of Influenxio’s platform

Influenxio analyzes past campaigns, performance data and client reviews to improve its algorithms. Since the entire campaign creation process–from finding influencers to paying them–is performed through Influenxio, this allows it to gather a wide range of data to refine its technology, Ko told TechCrunch.

Influencers typically make about $35 to $40 USD for each campaign they participate in, and most of the brands the company works with focus on food (like restaurants), fashion, beauty or lifestyle services.

Before launching Influenxio, Ko spent 15 years working in the digital marketing field, serving as an account manager at Yahoo! and Microsoft, and then head of Hong Kong and Taiwan for Google’s online partnerships group. He wanted to create a startup that would combine what he had learned about digital marketing and make accessible to more businesses.

Large brands have used Influenxio to quickly generate marketing campaigns for special occasions like Mother’s Day or Christmas. For example, one advertiser in Taiwan used Influenxio to hire almost 200 influencers in one week, who were asked to test and post about their products, and some of Influenxio’s highest profile clients include Shiseido, Shopee, iHerb and KKBox.

But the majority of Influenxio’s clients (about 80% to 90%) are small- to medium-sized businesses, and Ko said they usually create multiple campaigns to build brand awareness over time, working with a few influencers a month.

Influenxio’s new subscription plan, which costs less than $100 USD a month and is launching first in Taiwan before rolling out to other markets, was created for them. “The first year we launched the platform, we found small businesses want experts and advice,” said Ko. Many don’t have marketing managers, so Influenxio’s subscription plan automatically matches them with new influencers each month and provides them with analytics so they can see how well campaigns are performing.

Influenxio is among a growing number of startups that are tapping into the “microinfluencer economy,” with others including AspireIQ, Upfluence and Grin.

Ko said Influenxio’s biggest difference is its focus on small businesses, and serving as a one-stop marketplace for influencer campaigns. “The important thing for our platform is that it needs to be very easy and simple,” he added. “We spent a lot of time on the execution and details to make it smoother on the advertiser side. For the influencer side, we try to make it more convenient. For example, the way they receive money, our goal is to also make it easy.”

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