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8 investors discuss Stockholm’s maturing startup ecosystem

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In the realm of European startup ecosystems, Sweden — largely Stockholm — ranks very close to the behemoths of London, Paris and Berlin. And with 10 million people, the nation certainly punches above its weight, having produced unicorns such as Spotify and Klarna, to name only two.

As a result, the eight investors we surveyed are characteristically bullish about the future, despite a pandemic strategy that became more restrictive in the second half of last year.

Sweden’s initially laissez-faire approach to controlling COVID-19 might have helped its tech ecosystem ride out the uncertainty. “Sweden is more open and is ahead of the pandemic curve, so more people are coming here than the other way around,” said Jacob Key, founding partner with Luminar Ventures.

Several people we spoke to said they saw green shoots regarding revenue growth and retention in their portfolio companies as founders adapted to the pandemic. Areas that are benefitting include digital health and remote work for obvious reasons, but given Sweden’s strength in fintech and gaming, those sectors are both well positioned to thrive.

As consumers become more desirous of sustainability, responsible shopping, green travel and plant-based food alternatives “will likely contribute to a surge in companies in this space,” said Sofia Dolfe of Index Ventures.

Oversaturated areas are media/adtech and wellness/fitness apps.

Some of the trends these investors are excited about include deep tech, AI, machine learning, healthcare/medtech, industrial IoT, energy storage and energy-efficient power generation, robotics, intelligent production and additive manufacturing.

“I think there is a lot of interesting stuff coming out of Stockholm and accelerating with all recent success stories,” said VNV Global’s Bjorn von Sivers.

Here’s who we spoke to:


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Jacob Key, founding partner, Luminar Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
AI automation, democratization, SMB SaaS.

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

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Real-time sustainability health trackers for both consumers and businesses.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Super dedicated and talented team going after major problems.

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?
Adtech companies, consumer lending companies, e-commerce retail, niche problems.

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

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?
Gaming, fintech, applied AI, security, e-health. Mindler, Insurello, Hiberworld, Greenely, Normative, Marcus Janback, Tanmoy Bari.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Strong momentum, more and more serial founders and experienced founders, strong broader ecosystem, product and tech-led founders with a global view.

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?
Sweden is more open and is ahead of the pandemic curve so more people coming here than the other way around.

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?
Travel, mobility, nice-to-have SaaS, recruiting. They should focus on work, event, travel 2.0 security, sustainability, e-health and entertainment.

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?
Not really. Focus on resourceful execution, digital-first sales, extend runway. Biggest worry is a much cooler investment climate.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
E-health, gaming, remote work, fintech.

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.
Founders seem even more dedicated, digital transformation happens much faster.

Bjorn von Sivers, partner, VNV Global

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Business models with strong network effects. Mobility and micromobility services, Digital health, online marketplaces.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
SWVL, Babylon Health, Voi Technology.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Startups addressing climate change, either indirect or direct. I think it will grow immensely over the coming years.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Business models with strong network effects.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
VNV Global has a global mandate. Approximately 10% of the portfolio is Sweden/Stockholm based.

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?
Any consumer service coming out of Stockholm eco system. In the portfolio I would highlight Voi Technology and Fredrik Hjelm (micromobility) and Grace Health founded by Estelle Westling and Thérèse Mannheimer that is building a digital health clinic for women in emerging markets.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
I think there is a lot of interesting stuff coming out of Stockholm and accelerating with all recent success stories. Spotify, iZettle, etc.

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?
It will probably increase a bit, but not significantly.

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?
International travel still has a lot of uncertainty and low visibility. Digital health and micromobility is defiantly seeing unprecedented demand.

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?
Not really impacted our strategy. I would say founders think a lot about the funding climate and how to best plan in this lower visibility environment.

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

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 fast recovery in our mobility businesses, which essentially saw activity drop significantly in late March/early April and has rebounded strongly since May

Ashley Lundström, partner, EQT Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
I’m personally excited about investing in teams solving important problems — the ones that affect disadvantaged populations, society at large, the environment, etc. And the exciting part is that we’re seeing more and more of this — especially from serial entrepreneurs who have built companies, maybe even had good exits and now want to dedicate their skills to meaningful journeys.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
It actually hasn’t been announced yet as we literally closed a few days ago and it’s one that our AI platform Motherbrain pointed us to. It’s one of those companies that when you hear about what they’re building you just say, “Oh of course, that’s a no-brainer.” It’s a great example of a product-led company seeing strong organic growth from a global user base and we’re chomping at the bit to start working together. Prior to this, my latest most exciting investment is Anyfin. Anyfin is a prime example of the potential of Stockholm’s second generation teams, coming out of the Swedish unicorns iZettle, Klarna and Spotify. They’re a fintech building financial wellness products for users who need it the most. They’ve started with targeting interest rates head-on via a refinancing product and are launching more products and markets with the Series B funding raising they secured this spring.

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?
I’m keen to see teams who combine market experience with startup experience. All too often teams are either one or the other and I’d love to see a team come together where one co-founder says, “I know this problem inside-out because I’ve lived it” and another co-founder who says, “I know how to build and bring ideas to life.” This combo would be really powerful. Over and above that, I’m generally focused on investing in teams solving problems that are shared by huge bases — either consumers or the long tail of B2B. One must in my book is that the product has to be consumer grade. This is obvious for consumer (although not always a given), but it’s something that we’ve become religious about in B2B too.

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’re in the business of exceptions so I find it hard to rule out a category altogether due to competition. That being said, there are always sectors where it’s tricky to envision a winner-takes-all or winner-takes-most, for structural reasons, such as some types of recruiting or staffing, D2Cs or digital health services.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Our strategy is to be local with locals and we invest broadly across Europe and, in specific cases, in the U.S. So, while personally my time’s spent somewhat weighted toward the Nordics, more than 50% of the companies I work with are outside the Nordic countries. Motherbrain has helped us flatten geographies further, discovering great startups regardless of where they’re located, and we regularly invest in great teams outside our local ecosystems.

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?
There’s a lot of talent for consumer products coming out of the Nordics — particularly fintech in Stockholm (Tink, Anyfin, Brite), gaming in Finland (Small Giant Games, Reworks, Traplight), and a range of products out of Copenhagen including edtech and health tech (Eduflow, Corti). The great engineering talent we have in this region is also producing incredibly strong tech teams — particularly in Finland, such as Varjo, Speechly and Robocorp. We’re even starting to see some interesting activity in quantum computing (e.g., IQM) in the region. There are also some moonshot companies coming out of the Nordics that we’re excited about long term, such as Solein, Einride, Heart Aerospace and Northvolt.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The Nordic countries continue to punch above their weight and I am confident that this trend will continue — meaning the investment opportunities will be many. As the ecosystems mature, the quality will continue to improve, which also speaks to this trend over time. Historically, downturns have produced strong tech companies, so I wouldn’t be surprised if investors are keeping a close eye on the region to make sure they get the chance to back some of the most seasoned entrepreneurs who will most certainly be looking for ways to make the most of the current climate.

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?
I believe we’ll see more remote teams, absolutely. However, I still think the hubs will be strong and important pieces of the ecosystem and I don’t think we’ll see these cities shrinking by material numbers. Though if people leave the most expensive cities, who could blame them? I do, however, think we’ll see a more sharp trend of teams that were fairly local in the past, expanding to new geographies. And what may happen is that in itself will reveal new talent pools, which over the long term could create more hubs.

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?
Tech is in a great position overall because businesses are generally either working on digitization, which is seeing acceleration out of COVID-19 … so tech falls clearly on the right side of that line, or green field modern or even futuristic ideas. Of the latter, of course, some of these ideas are nice-to-haves, which struggle when consumers are facing tough financial situations, but plenty are services that we believe we’ll see working out long term. Of course anything physical, where the team isn’t able to adapt the product quickly, like events or exercise services, will face temporary dips, but if these companies were originally betting on long-term trends, we believe that they’ll still be in good positions going forward.

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?
COVID-19 hasn’t affected our strategy, but it has helped us keep our eye on the ball in terms of making sure we stick to our strategy and stay mindful of our own runway — funds have that too! The advice to our founders has been the following: (1) Extend the runway so you keep your options open, and then (2) be as aggressive as you possibly can. We’re encouraging teams to act quickly — both in terms of making internal decisions and in getting products to market to test them out. Our founders’ biggest worries are uncertainties around how long “this” will all last — and our advice here is that they should operate as they always do and not wait for things to change, rather be ultrarelevant in the market you’re in.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes! We’ve got a couple companies who are really well positioned — particularly Wolt (food delivery) and the mobile games companies we’ve backed (Popcore, Reworks, Traplight, etc.). The current climate is especially favorable for these types of companies, and we’ve got great founders at the wheels who have been able to take advantage of the opportunities presented and who have seen tremendous growth as a result.

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 efforts by the public sector, including healthcare providers, to accelerate digitization has been refreshing. Sectors who have all too often had plenty of excuses for being slow and conservative have suddenly made big leaps — and they’re proud of themselves for having done so! This gives me hope that there will be new or renewed appetites even as things go back to normal.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
The Nordic countries have many great examples of digital tools used by the general public to conduct their everyday lives digitally. I would encourage founders and business leaders to look to these examples and see if there are opportunities to build for other geographies. Scandinavian trendsetting isn’t just for fashion and interior design!

Ted Persson, partner, EQT Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
My main passion lies in backing ambitious teams solving real problems with real technology. So, pretty deep tech sometimes — the anti-thesis of “yet another B2B SaaS company solving almost the same problem in almost the same way.” I’m also interested in product and design-centric teams using superior UX to democratize something that previously was limited to a privileged few. Currently, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about and doing research into the future of the creative industries, marketing, product design, etc.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
This spring, I’ve led or been involved in four investments across quantum computing, group collaboration and two in the design and development tooling space. None of these have been announced yet though. The last announced investments were Sonantic and Frontify — both very cool companies.

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

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
As we’re looking for outliers, it’s hard to generalize. But I get more excited about companies tying to solve hard problems rather than just piecing together a few APIs (which anyone can do).

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
I personally don’t have a geographical focus and enjoy working with our teams across Europe and the world, but since I live in Sweden, my network is slightly stronger here. Our proprietary AI platform Motherbrain also ensures we find rapidly growing or under-the-radar startups outside of our local ecosystems and networks.

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’re pretty good at gaming, entertainment, music and fintech in the Nordics. It’s also easier to find really great designers here than in other parts of Europe.

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, for sure. It’s too early to tell, but a couple of portfolio companies have given up on their physical offices and a lot of startup people I know are working from across the country. I for sure think this will lead to a more international climate.

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?
A lot has been written about this already and, just like every other investor, we’ve spent a fair share of the spring mapping this out. All in all, tech is in a good position.

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?
There’s been no change in our strategy. There was some initial confusion for obvious reasons and we took a short break to make sure our portfolio was in a good position to endure. Now, we’re back to normal and have made our first investments where we haven’t met the teams physically.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, certainly in a couple of areas, such as food delivery, gaming, remote working and collaboration.

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.
When people around myself, parents, older relatives, all of a sudden embrace digital tools and ways of working fully.

Sofia Dolfe, principal, Index Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
I love products that give people a strong feeling of community, of belonging to a group of like-minded people, and a sense of being invested in its success. Users are so passionate about the product that they can’t stop themselves from recommending it to their friends, and their affinity with the brand grows over time. Search for these types of businesses often leads me to consumer businesses and marketplaces that are customer-centric and bring communities together.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I am interested to hear about new takes on education in a post-COVID world in which people may be more open to challenge the traditional ways of learning.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for founders who are inspiring storytellers. So much of building a business is about getting everyone to come along for the ride, from the senior execs joining you, to the customers taking a chance on a young yet unproven business, to investors taking a leap of faith and sharing in your ambition. Founders who are great storytellers, are hungry and dream big from the get-go, and have the humility to know what they don’t know, will be in my view those who have the best chance at making it big.

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?
Stockholm has historically been at the forefront of both fintech and gaming, and I do think these sectors are well positioned to thrive. Financial services will continue to be transformed, and the modern banking infrastructure in the Nordics makes this an attractive place to start a fintech business. As for gaming, the region has a strong track record and a high concentration of both studios and developer talent, making it a particularly fertile ground for breakout successes. A newer, fast-growing theme in the region is conscious consumption. Stockholm has a long history of eco-friendliness, and the maturity of CSR, responsible shopping, green travel and plant-based food alternatives will likely contribute to a surge in companies in this space. I’m excited to meet with founders who care deeply about this endeavor.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Stockholm has proven itself to be a strong tech hub, and it has many of the necessary ingredients for continued successes. For one, founders think big and global from the start. Sweden has a population of 10 million, and founders creating category-defining companies know that they must enter other markets to dominate. The scale of companies such as King, Spotify and iZettle has also shown that success is within reach and cultivated a sense of courage among aspiring entrepreneurs. Sometimes the world risks underestimating the Swedes because they tend to be understated but as the track record of Sweden shows, they overdeliver.

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.
A few weeks ago I saw a handwritten note in the entrance of an apartment building in Stockholm. One of the residents was offering to purchase groceries, medication and other essential items to those unwell or at risk in the building. I’m hopeful that in times of difficulty, we are reminded of the importance of our local communities, of taking responsibility for others, and of how valuable a simple act of kindness can be to building relationships.

Staffan Helgesson, partner, Creandum

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Transformation of old and large industries such as transportation, construction, real estate, etc. Digital health — we will need to transform current health industry.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Mavenoid. Automating tech support globally. Ex-Palantir founders.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Insurance markets have not yet seen the wave of startups that the general fintech industry has seen.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Crazy ambitious entrepreneurs with their eyes set on disrupting a global market.

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?
Many consumer verticals are tough to penetrate given big tech and related oligopoly. But every time I say that new phenomenal companies emerge. Such as Creandum’s portfolio company Kahoot that just listed in Oslo for $1.5 billion.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Creandum invests all across EU. No set targets — we just want to find the best entrepreneurs.

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?
If picking one industry we’re very excited about digital health with Stockholm-based Firstvet and Kry/Livi. (telemedicine for humans and pet owners).

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Stockholm/Nordics is a very sophisticated ecosystem that consistently keep producing global winners on a regular basis.

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?
Great companies will increasingly be built anywhere and we as an industry need to adapt. Those venture firms adapting best and fastest will be the winners going forward. I foresee a second green wave, like in the 70s, where people will move out from cities and/or have a dual-home setup.

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?
Travel and entertainment obviously. But even in these industries there will be winners going forward if they can ride the wave of digitizing (for example, tickets and events).

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?
It’s all about access to long-term capital and track record. Creandum’s strategy has not changed at all.

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

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.
Closing a fully remote investment. Company called Meditopia — in Turkey of all places :-).

Tanya Horowitz, partner, Butterfly Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Deep tech, AI, machine learning, healthcare/medtech, industrial IoT and related cloud services and communication solutions, Energy storage and energy-efficient power generation, robotics, intelligent production, and additive manufacturing.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Uute Scientific has created a natural product containing a specific mixture of microbes, which can be applied to various consumer products. These products decrease the probability of getting immune-mediated diseases, like asthma or Type 1 diabetes and consequently improve quality of life.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
In the region (Nordics), would like to see more in energy storage, power generation and energy/carbon reduction technologies. Food tech and agtech are an area to look toward given the world’s increasing population. Edtech due to the COVID crisis.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
We are looking for a strong team with unique tech aimed toward a global market.

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?
Media/adtech unless truly unique seem to be oversaturated; also wellness/fitness apps, etc.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Finland 40%-50%, Sweden 30%+, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Baltics remaining 20%.

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?
Industries: Health/medical.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
I think in Finland and the entire Nordics there is ample opportunities to invest in stellar teams and technologies that have a global market. The talent pool and support of the startup ecosystems are top notch.

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?
I do not see startup hubs losing people in the Nordics. I do however see founders coming from geographies outside major cities.

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?
Obvious is retail, restaurants, service industry. Also education (edtech) should be an area to really look into. Online entertainment (OTT), logistics (food, goods delivery), 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?
It has only affected it slightly, we were lucky that we were almost at the end of our investment period and our portfolio of companies are set for this current fund vintage. We are the leading seed-stage deep tech investor in the Nordics and therefore most of our companies have fared OK.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, some of our portfolio has benefited from the pandemic, while others suffered with customers initially but seem to be recovered now.

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.
We are raising Butterfly Ventures Fund IV and started before the pandemic hit. While this has slowed us down slightly, our anchor and other LPs are rock solid and we as a team are committed to getting the first close done ASAP to capitalize with that dry powder in early 2021. While my heart goes out to those who have not been so lucky, personally we have been blessed to not have had direct tragedies related to the pandemic … and my son is happy and healthy and that alone gives me hope everyday.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Global LPs should really explore Europe more, especially the Nordics!

Sanna Westman, principal, Creandum

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Well, we typically say that if you invest in trends you’re late to the party … but of course there are some macro movements that are exciting and we monitor closely. For me personally digital health is one of those areas, it’s not new but constantly developing and has of course been further accelerated the past year. Another area that is really interesting are products that help you be a better leader/manager/company. I’m not sure how to productize this but there’s a huge opportunity in amplifying leadership. We’ve seen success with companies giving the individual user superpowers (no-code tools, productivity tools, etc.) but how about helping people scaling themselves and their teams? Remote work has a lot of benefits, but puts new challenges on managers. I also believe we’ll see more quality companies battling climate change in different ways.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
SafetyWing — on the intersection of social security and remote work.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
There’s plenty more to do within B2B commerce: marketplaces, e-commerce enablers, new ways of financing, etc. Sure there are companies, but no way near as many (good) ones as it should be.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
A short time to “Wow.” Solutions that can give the user an instant value and then continue to add to that value they more they use the product

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?
Mobility and delivery in general is quite crowded. Also open-banking payment solutions has seen a huge surge.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
The Nordics is along with DACH one of the key focus markets for Creandum, though there’s no set allocation for any certain geography. We strive to back the best companies regardless of where they’re located.

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?
Compared to other hubs there is a very high product focus in general, and given that Sweden is a small market the mindset is also international from day one. I think that makes more of a difference than a certain vertical. In terms of exciting companies Kive and Depict are worth keeping eyes on for the very early stages. For the more mature startups Kry and Firstvet are doing great as early enablers of digital health.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Increasingly competitive but also a lot of strong talent.

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?
Even before the pandemic very few startups in Stockholm had 100% of their workforce in one location anyway, a hybrid setup was and continue to be very common.

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?
As the fund invests with a very long time horizon, +10 years, the short-term impact is not a key concern but of course we think about the long-term effects on e.g., business travel. We tend to look for the opportunities more than the drawbacks though, and there will be opportunities for new companies in industries that have been heavily impacted. It might actually prove to be good timing to disrupt.

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?
Initially we were cautious around runway and worked closely with the portfolio to make sure they could survive for a longer time should revenues decline and funding not be available. Summing up 2020 though, we were fortunate to look back on a year where many companies had overperformed and were able to raise significant up rounds. Great companies are created in all times and were committed to find the best seed and Series A companies.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Definitely. We’ve seen several examples of V-shaped recovery, with revenues bumping back above pre-COVID levels and continuing on that trajectory.

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 hustle and optimism among entrepreneurs we meet. The “impossible is nothing” attitude is really inspiring.

Who are key startup people you see creating success locally?
I’d say some of the active “stay in the background” angels/mentors that are supporting a new generation such as Joachim Hedenius (Kry, CTO) or Johan Crona. And Susanna Campbell/Cristina Stenbeck who have been very active in their joint investments, often finding opportunities the VCs miss.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Atomic, which only funds the startups it launches, just closed its newest fund with $260 million

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Jack Abraham has a lot of confidence in what he’s building. Then again, you can’t be immodest or unsure of yourself if you’re going to bet exclusively on your own startups as an investor, which is precisely the model that Abraham’s San Francisco-based venture studio, Atomic, has followed since it was launched nine years ago.

It all started with $10 million of Abraham’s own money, capital he amassed by selling his first startup, a local shopping engine called Milo, to eBay in 2010, for $75 million. Abraham had dropped out of Wharton as an undergrad with $500,000 from a professor who believed that Abraham — whose father founded ComScore — would himself be a company-building machine.

The professor had good instincts. After selling Milo at age 24, Abraham spent more than three years building products inside of eBay and learning how to lead multiple teams before beginning to look outward, making angel bets, including on Uber and Pinterest, and, he says, spreading around some of his ideas. (Among these, he says, he “invented Postmates. I gave the founders literally the idea for the company; they were working on a B2B company at the time. I was fairly early on there; that helped spawn the whole food delivery thing.”)

He had so many ideas — hundreds, he says — that not long afterward, he created Atomic with cofounder Andrew Dudum, a Wharton peer who is also the son of entrepreneurs and who also dropped out of college to join the startup world. (Dudum’s first stop was a then-nascent startup backed by Sequoia Capital.)

At first, Atomic worked on one company. The following year, it worked on two. By 2018, the outfit had built out a team that could handle many of the back-end functions that startups need to thrive, from recruiting to accounting, and launched 10 companies. Impressed investors gave the firm $150 million to create even more startups.

By then, Abraham and Dudum had brought in two other general partners: Chester Ng and Andrew Salamon. Salamon left in 2019 to launch his own venture studio, Material, with Blue Apron founder Matt Salzberg. The same year, JD Ross, one of a handful of cofounders of the newly public company Opendoor, joined Atomic as a general partner.

The firm has only picked up speed since. Indeed, at this point, Atomic has created “dozens” of startups — including roughly one per month last year, says Abraham. It also just closed on $260 million in new capital commitments, including from a prominent university that now serves as its anchor investor but would prefer not to be named publicly.

Citing “proprietary aspects” to the model, Abraham declines to explain how Atomic’s economics work, except to acknowledge that it operates in “more of a fund context instead of a holding company” where investors would essentially be buying stakes in Atomic itself.

Certainly, it’s easy to appreciate the enthusiasm of Atomic’s investors, including early backers like Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen. Abraham and Dudum are both compelling storytellers, as we’ve witnessed first-hand in interviewing them at different times. The firm is also starting to see some exits.

One of Atomic’s creations, the telehealth company Hims, was taken public in January through a blank-check company in a deal that valued the company at $1.6 billion, and its shares have been rising since. As of this writing, the three-and-a-half-year-old outfit — run by Dudum, who is doing double-duty as Hims’s CEO and a general partner with Atomic — boasts a market cap of $2.9 billion.

Atomic also sold a voice-powered sales startup, TalkIQ, to the company Dialpad in 2018 for what Forbes reported at the time to be a “little under $50 million.” TalkIQ had raised $22 million altogether.

More exits are coming, suggests Abraham. “There many companies we have that are now approaching the sort of growth and run rate where they have the ability to go public, even as soon as in the next year,” he says.

One of those eventual prospects is Replicant, an autonomous call center startup that has raised $35 million since its 2017 founding, including a $27 million Series A round led by Norwest Venture Partners back in September. Another Atomic startup, Homebound, a three-year-old home-building outfit that handles everything from financing to construction, has also enjoyed some momentum, as well as attracted $53 million from investors.

Though Atomic prides itself on “pressure testing” its ideas, not every startup has been a hit with users. A photo-sharing app called Ever was quickly shut down after NBC reported that the photos people shared were used to train a facial recognition system — tech the company offered to sell to private companies, law enforcement and the military. A sleep-tracking specialist, Rested, was also shut down.

Meanwhile, ZenReach, a Wi-Fi marketing company that had collected at least $94 million from investors through 2018, laid off 20% of its employees that same year. A CEO who’d been brought aboard by Abraham and who was previously an operating partner with Atomic, has since moved on to a role elsewhere.

If not all of its ideas set the world on fire, Atomic has no shortage of others.

Asked about some of the areas where he sees the most opportunity to innovate, Abraham quickly ticks off “healthcare, finance, education, real estate, and other large industries where truthfully, when you’re inside them, you understand how broken they are, and they are broken up and down the entire stack.

“You study them,” he says, “and then you wonder how is this possible this happened.”

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Facebook’s Oversight Board already ‘a bit frustrated’ — and it hasn’t made a call on Trump ban yet

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The Facebook Oversight Board (FOB) is already feeling frustrated by the binary choices it’s expected to make as it reviews Facebook’s content moderation decisions, according to one of its members who was giving evidence to a UK House of Lords committee today which is running an enquiry into freedom of expression online. 

The FOB is currently considering whether to overturn Facebook’s ban on former US president, Donald Trump. The tech giant banned Trump “indefinitely” earlier this year after his supporters stormed the US capital.

The chaotic insurrection on January 6 led to a number of deaths and widespread condemnation of how mainstream tech platforms had stood back and allowed Trump to use their tools as megaphones to whip up division and hate rather than enforcing their rules in his case.

Yet, after finally banning Trump, Facebook almost immediately referred the case to it’s self-appointed and self-styled Oversight Board for review — opening up the prospect that its Trump ban could be reversed in short order via an exceptional review process that Facebook has fashioned, funded and staffed.

Alan Rusbridger, a former editor of the British newspaper The Guardian — and one of 20 FOB members selected as an initial cohort (the Board’s full headcount will be double that) — avoided making a direct reference to the Trump case today, given the review is ongoing, but he implied that the binary choices it has at its disposal at this early stage aren’t as nuanced as he’d like.

“What happens if — without commenting on any high profile current cases — you didn’t want to ban somebody for life but you wanted to have a ‘sin bin’ so that if they misbehaved you could chuck them back off again?” he said, suggesting he’d like to be able to issue a soccer-style “yellow card” instead.

“I think the Board will want to expand in its scope. I think we’re already a bit frustrated by just saying take it down or leave it up,” he went on. “What happens if you want to… make something less viral? What happens if you want to put an interstitial?

“So I think all these things are things that the Board may ask Facebook for in time. But we have to get our feet under the table first — we can do what we want.”

“At some point we’re going to ask to see the algorithm, I feel sure — whatever that means,” Rusbridger also told the committee. “Whether we can understand it when we see it is a different matter.”

To many people, Facebook’s Trump ban is uncontroversial — given the risk of further violence posed by letting Trump continue to use its megaphone to foment insurrection. There are also clear and repeat breaches of Facebook’s community standards if you want to be a stickler for its rules.

Among supporters of the ban is Facebook’s former chief security officer, Alex Stamos, who has since been working on wider trust and safety issues for online platforms via the Stanford Internet Observatory.

Stamos was urging both Twitter and Facebook to cut Trump off before everything kicked off, writing in early January: “There are no legitimate equities left and labeling won’t do it.”

But in the wake of big tech moving almost as a unit to finally put Trump on mute, a number of world leaders and lawmakers were quick to express misgivings at the big tech power flex.

Germany’s chancellor called Twitter’s ban on him “problematic”, saying it raised troubling questions about the power of the platforms to interfere with speech. While other lawmakers in Europe seized on the unilateral action — saying it underlined the need for proper democratic regulation of tech giants.

The sight of the world’s most powerful social media platforms being able to mute a democratically elected president (even one as divisive and unpopular as Trump) made politicians of all stripes feel queasy.

Facebook’s entirely predictable response was, of course, to outsource this two-sided conundrum to the FOB. After all, that was its whole plan for the Board. The Board would be there to deal with the most headachey and controversial content moderation stuff.

And on that level Facebook’s Oversight Board is doing exactly the job Facebook intended for it.

But it’s interesting that this unofficial ‘supreme court’ is already feeling frustrated by the limited binary choices it’s asked them for. (Of, in the Trump case, either reversing the ban entirely or continuing it indefinitely.)

The FOB’s unofficial message seems to be that the tools are simply far too blunt. Although Facebook has never said it will be bound by any wider policy suggestions the Board might make — only that it will abide by the specific individual review decisions. (Which is why a common critique of the Board is that it’s toothless where it matters.)

How aggressive the Board will be in pushing Facebook to be less frustrating very much remains to be seen.

“None of this is going to be solved quickly,” Rusbridger went on to tell the committee in more general remarks on the challenges of moderating speech in the digital era. Getting to grips with the Internet’s publishing revolution could in fact, he implied, take the work of generations — making the customary reference the long tail of societal disruption that flowed from Gutenberg inventing the printing press.

If Facebook was hoping the FOB would kick hard (and thorny-in-its-side) questions around content moderation into long and intellectual grasses it’s surely delighted with the level of beard stroking which Rusbridger’s evidence implies is now going on inside the Board. (If, possibly, slightly less enchanted by the prospect of its appointees asking it if they can poke around its algorithmic black boxes.)

Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St John’s University Law School, was also giving evidence to the committee — having written an article on the inner workings of the FOB, published recently in the New Yorker, after she was given wide-ranging access by Facebook to observe the process of the body being set up.

The Lords committee was keen to learn more on the workings of the FOB and pressed the witnesses several times on the question of the Board’s independence from Facebook.

Rusbridger batted away concerns on that front — saying “we don’t feel we work for Facebook at all”. Though Board members are paid by Facebook via a trust it set up to put the FOB at arm’s length from the corporate mothership. And the committee didn’t shy away or raising the payment point to query how genuinely independent they can be?

“I feel highly independent,” Rusbridger said. “I don’t think there’s any obligation at all to be nice to Facebook or to be horrible to Facebook.”

“One of the nice things about this Board is occasionally people will say but if we did that that will scupper Facebook’s economic model in such and such a country. To which we answer well that’s not our problem. Which is a very liberating thing,” he added.

Of course it’s hard to imagine a sitting member of the FOB being able to answer the independence question any other way — unless they were simultaneously resigning their commission (which, to be clear, Rusbridger wasn’t).

He confirmed that Board members can serve three terms of three years apiece — so he could have almost a decade of beard-stroking on Facebook’s behalf ahead of him.

Klonick, meanwhile, emphasized the scale of the challenge it had been for Facebook to try to build from scratch a quasi-independent oversight body and create distance between itself and its claimed watchdog.

“Building an institution to be a watchdog institution — it is incredibly hard to transition to institution-building and to break those bonds [between the Board and Facebook] and set up these new people with frankly this huge set of problems and a new technology and a new back end and a content management system and everything,” she said.

Rusbridger had said the Board went through an extensive training process which involved participation from Facebook representatives during the ‘onboarding’. But went on to describe a moment when the training had finished and the FOB realized some Facebook reps were still joining their calls — saying that at that point the Board felt empowered to tell Facebook to leave.

“This was exactly the type of moment — having watched this — that I knew had to happen,” added Klonick. “There had to be some type of formal break — and it was told to me that this was a natural moment that they had done their training and this was going to be moment of push back and breaking away from the nest. And this was it.”

However if your measure of independence is not having Facebook literally listening in on the Board’s calls you do have to query how much Kool Aid Facebook may have successfully doled out to its chosen and willing participants over the long and intricate process of programming its own watchdog — including to extra outsiders it allowed in to observe the set up.

The committee was also interested in the fact the FOB has so far mostly ordered Facebook to reinstate content its moderators had previously taken down.

In January, when the Board issued its first decisions, it overturned four out of five Facebook takedowns — including in relation to a number of hate speech cases. The move quickly attracted criticism over the direction of travel. After all, the wider critique of Facebook’s business is it’s far too reluctant to remove toxic content (it only banned holocaust denial last year, for example). And lo! Here’s its self-styled ‘Oversight Board’ taking decisions to reverse hate speech takedowns…

The unofficial and oppositional ‘Real Facebook Board’ — which is truly independent and heavily critical of Facebook — pounced and decried the decisions as “shocking”, saying the FOB had “bent over backwards to excuse hate”.

Klonick said the reality is that the FOB is not Facebook’s supreme court — but rather it’s essentially just “a dispute resolution mechanism for users”.

If that assessment is true — and it sounds spot on, so long as you recall the fantastically tiny number of users who get to use it — the amount of PR Facebook has been able to generate off of something that should really just be a standard feature of its platform is truly incredible.

Klonick argued that the Board’s early reversals were the result of it hearing from users objecting to content takedowns — which had made it “sympathetic” to their complaints.

“Absolute frustration at not knowing specifically what rule was broken or how to avoid breaking the rule again or what they did to be able to get there or to be able to tell their side of the story,” she said, listing the kinds of things Board members had told her they were hearing from users who had petitioned for a review of a takedown decision against them.

“I think that what you’re seeing in the Board’s decision is, first and foremost, to try to build some of that back in,” she suggested. “Is that the signal that they’re sending back to Facebook — that’s it’s pretty low hanging fruit to be honest. Which is let people know the exact rule, given them a fact to fact type of analysis or application of the rule to the facts and give them that kind of read in to what they’re seeing and people will be happier with what’s going on.

“Or at least just feel a little bit more like there is a process and it’s not just this black box that’s censoring them.”

In his response to the committee’s query, Rusbridger discussed how he approaches review decision-making.

“In most judgements I begin by thinking well why would we restrict freedom of speech in this particular case — and that does get you into interesting questions,” he said, having earlier summed up his school of thought on speech as akin to the ‘fight bad speech with more speech’ Justice Brandeis type view.

“The right not to be offended has been engaged by one of the cases — as opposed to the borderline between being offended and being harmed,” he went on. “That issue has been argued about by political philosophers for a long time and it certainly will never be settled absolutely.

“But if you went along with establishing a right not to be offended that would have huge implications for the ability to discuss almost anything in the end. And yet there have been one or two cases where essentially Facebook, in taking something down, has invoked something like that.”

“Harm as oppose to offence is clearly something you would treat differently,” he added. “And we’re in the fortunate position of being able to hire in experts and seek advisors on the harm here.”

While Rusbridger didn’t sound troubled about the challenges and pitfalls facing the Board when it may have to set the “borderline” between offensive speech and harmful speech itself — being able to (further) outsource expertise presumably helps — he did raise a number of other operational concerns during the session. Including over the lack of technical expertise among current board members (who were purely Facebook’s picks).

Without technical expertise how can the Board ‘examine the algorithm’, as he suggested it would want to, because it won’t be able to understand Facebook’s content distribution machine in any meaningful way?

Since the Board currently lacks technical expertise, it does raise wider questions about its function — and whether its first learned cohort might not be played as useful idiots from Facebook’s self-interested perspective — by helping it gloss over and deflect deeper scrutiny of its algorithmic, money-minting choices.

If you don’t really understand how the Facebook machine functions, technically and economically, how can you conduct any kind of meaningful oversight at all? (Rusbridger evidently gets that — but is also content to wait and see how the process plays out. No doubt the intellectual exercise and insider view is fascinating. “So far I’m finding it highly absorbing,” as he admitted in his evidence opener.)

“People say to me you’re on that Board but it’s well known that the algorithms reward emotional content that polarises communities because that makes it more addictive. Well I don’t know if that’s true or not — and I think as a board we’re going to have to get to grips with that,” he went on to say. “Even if that takes many sessions with coders speaking very slowly so that we can understand what they’re saying.”

“I do think our responsibility will be to understand what these machines are — the machines that are going in rather than the machines that are moderating,” he added. “What their metrics are.”

Both witnesses raised another concern: That the kind of complex, nuanced moderation decisions the Board is making won’t be able to scale — suggesting they’re too specific to be able to generally inform AI-based moderation. Nor will they necessarily be able to be acted on by the staffed moderation system that Facebook currently operates (which gives its thousand of human moderators a fantastically tiny amount of thinking time per content decision).

Despite that the issue of Facebook’s vast scale vs the Board’s limited and Facebook-defined function — to fiddle at the margins of its content empire — was one overarching point that hung uneasily over the session, without being properly grappled with.

“I think your question about ‘is this easily communicated’ is a really good one that we’re wrestling with a bit,” Rusbridger said, conceding that he’d had to brain up on a whole bunch of unfamiliar “human rights protocols and norms from around the world” to feel qualified to rise to the demands of the review job.

Scaling that level of training to the tens of thousands of moderators Facebook currently employs to carry out content moderation would of course be eye-wateringly expensive. Nor is it on offer from Facebook. Instead it’s hand-picked a crack team of 40 very expensive and learned experts to tackle an infinitesimally smaller number of content decisions.

“I think it’s important that the decisions we come to are understandable by human moderators,” Rusbridger added. “Ideally they’re understandable by machines as well — and there is a tension there because sometimes you look at the facts of a case and you decide it in a particular way with reference to those three standards [Facebook’s community standard, Facebook’s values and “a human rights filter”]. But in the knowledge that that’s going to be quite a tall order for a machine to understand the nuance between that case and another case.

“But, you know, these are early days.”

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Sequoia Capital India’s Surge invests $2M in sales engagement platform Outplay

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A Zoom screenshot showing members of Outplay's team on a video call

Outplay’s team members on a video call

Sales engagement platforms (SEP) help sales teams automate and track the large number of tasks they need to do each day as they contact leads and hone in on potential deals. Focused on small-to-medium-sized companies, SEP startup Outplay announced today it has raised $2 million from Sequoia Capital India’s Surge program for early-stage startups.

Outplay was founded in January 2020 by brothers Ram and Laxman Papineni and now counts more than 300 clients. Before launching Outplay, the Papineni brothers built AppVirality, a referall marketing tool for app developers.

Laxman told TechCrunch that Outplay’s customers come from sectors like IT, computer software, marketing and advertising and recruiting, and most are based in North America and Europe.

Outplay is designed for teams that use multiple channels to reach potential customers, including phone calls, text messages, email, live chats on websites, and social media platforms like LinkedIn or Twitter. It integrates with customer relationship management platforms like Salesforce and Pipedrive, giving sales people a new interface that includes productivity and automation tools to cut the time they spend on administrative tasks.

Screenshots of Outplay's sales engagement platform for automating sales tasks

Outplay’s platform

For example, Outplay can be used create sequences that send initial messages through different platforms, and then automatically follows up with new messages if there isn’t a reply within a pre-set time frame. Outplay also provides analytics to help sales people track how well sales campaigns are working.

Two of Outplay’s biggest competitors are Outreach and SalesLoft, both of which hit unicorn status in recent funding rounds. Laxman said Outplay is focused on ease of use, with other differentiators including more integrations with CRMs and other software, and a strong customer support team.

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