Author: Kris Hróbjartsson (Page 1 of 13)

The NSA Ventures report: Missing data, depth, and doesn’t address the key questions

Three weeks ago, the Ministry for Industry and Innovation (ANR) released a report on the operations and future of NSA Ventures. The report was written by a working group on the matter announced at the fund’s annual meeting last year.

I, and possibly others in the ecosystem, were looking forward to reading the report, which was originally scheduled for late September last year. The funding environment, and ecosystem as a whole, has changed massively in the last several years. (To emphasize, in a recent chat about the ecosystem with a friend who’s been doing this for a long time, he pointed out: “The fact that we’re discussing the ecosystem is a massive step forward from when I was starting out”).

Roughly a year ago at the 2017 annual meeting of NSA Ventures, the Minister for Industry and Innovation, Þórdís Kolbrún, announced a working group to review and propose “well reasoned” changes to the purpose of the fund. The working group was made up of two former board members of the fund, three ministry employees and a strategy professional from a tech company.

Sadly, the overall report was a let down, both in terms of quality of work and lack of critical questioning. Comments, analysis, and discussions in the report suggest that the working group lacked experience with both founding or operating startups and startup investments. No data, outside financial review of NSA, was used to underpin the report. Similarly, no experts or stakeholders were interviewed, and the – in my opinion – big questions around the fund weren’t raised or addressed.

The good

I think it’s important to acknowledge the good points that the report makes, which to me are mainly two points.

First, the group discovered in their work that only looking at NSA Ventures in a vacuum wouldn’t do any good, and therefore suggest a bigger review of the innovation ecosystem in Iceland. It calls for a clear strategy for the Icelandic support system for startups and a unified ecosystem, with clear goals and success metrics, which I applaud. And the Ministry has already, not only because of this report, but it probably helped, announced five project groups that will together create a holistic innovation strategy for the country.

Second, they discuss the need for the Icelandic government to attract high tech companies to the country to enrich the R&D ecosystem in Iceland, using methods such as tax incentives and rebates, as well as easy access for foreign specialists.

Both of these points are in my opinion critical. Sadly, the discussion about NSA Ventures wasn’t this good.

Some background

The future of the fund has been a topic of discussion for a long time. In fact, I wrote one of my longest posts ever on the future of the fund last year, following the minister’s announcement of a working group.

In the last several years there were two big changes in the ecosystem for NSA Ventures. Firstly, in the last five years the number of privately run early stage VC funds went from zero to four. Secondly, the fund – partly due to its evergreen nature – has up until the recent Greenqloud and Valka exits been unable to invest in new companies because it hasn’t had the capital.

This is an important point, because the purpose of the fund has been to finance early stage startup companies, mainly due to a market failure: the lack of access to early stage financing in Iceland.

With private VC funds and an increase in early stage investments from foreign investors, the question should be whether the market failure the fund was founded to address is still there. That question was neither raised, nor answered, in the report.

Now on to the discussion of the report.

Lack of knowledge, data, and expert opinion

Overall, the discussion in the report suggests a lack of knowledge about the sector and understanding of venture capital and startup operations. In addition, use of data to support the report’s findings and discussion of financing landscape developments in the last five years is nonexistent.

The only people the group interviewed was the staff of NSA who all started working at the fund last year with no prior experience with venture investing. No data on investments in Iceland or current access to capital is referenced. No other investors, neither Icelandic VC’s, Icelandic angel investors nor foreign investors, or startup founders were interviewed.

I contacted the ministry for comment which replied with the following statement:

“The working group was composed of specialists in the fields that are connected to the operations of NSA Ventures. The ministry concluded that the group had much breadth and knowledge of the operations and operational environment of the fund, and was well equipped to analyse and assess the options available for the future of the fund.”

Furthermore, on the lack of data, analysis and interaction with the VC or startup community, the ministry commented: “The ministry hired management consultant firm Strategía to analyse how the future operations of the fund should be, both in terms of operations, and in terms of allocation of assets.”

To rearticulate my criticism: My point is not that the individuals in the group lack the ability to contribute to this discussion, but more on the overall composition of the group. The group included no investors or people with venture investment backgrounds (aside from former board members of NSA Ventures), no founders or employees of startups, or direct stakeholders in the ecosystem, nor did the group interview any professional investors, analysts, founders er startup employees or other direct stakeholders in the ecosystem (aside from NSA Ventures employees).

The funding environment

The report briefly discusses the funding environment with regards to other funds. This part is partly factually wrong and partly suggests a lack of understanding of the mechanics of VC investing.

One of the statements in the report is that “it is evidence for the need [of early stage financing funds] that three of the four funds [started since 2015] have already invested all of their capital.” (pg. 5)

This is wrong. Frumtak II, Brunnur and Crowberry all still have capital to invest. Frumtak has stopped doing fresh investments, but a big part of the business model behind VC funds is following up on the more successful companies. Brunnur and Crowberry both still have capital available for new investments.

In addition, last year was the most active in early stage investments in Iceland, ever. Which highly suggests that the market failure NSA was created to solve (i.e. lack of access to capital for early stage companies) is not relevant any more.

The report then goes on to discuss private equity funds (pg. 6), in a somewhat confusing chapter that doesn’t make much sense in the context. It acknowledges the Technology Development Fund as an active participant in the early stage funding environment, but never mentions the host of foreign VC funds that have invested in Iceland in the last years or the angel investment community.

Later in the report, the summarisation of the funding environment is depicted as follows:

“With a stronger Research fund and Technology Development Fund the environment for entrepreneurs has changed as access to funding for the first stages of innovation has increased. After the grants, there are however few options in spite of the addition of new funds. NSA is one of those funds, but it hasn’t been able to invest much over the last years, in addition to the limited capital of other funds. Thus, the gap between grants and early stage investments has grown bigger.” (pg. 7)

This analysis is, in my opinion, wrong, and suggests a lack of knowledge about the Icelandic ecosystem.

  • First of all, now that we no longer have capital controls, entrepreneurs have much more options in terms of early stage funding than before (which Northstack’s data supports).
  • Second, in spite of NSA being strapped for cash and unable to invest, the last three years have been very active in terms of early stage investing, both because of Icelandic VC’s participating, because a much more active angel community in Iceland, and because Icelandic entrepreneurs are fetching foreign seed money.
  • Third, the Technology Development Fund has recently started awarding much bigger grants for shorter time periods (eg. 50m or 70m over two years), which borders on being a seed investment. Which means the gap hasn’t grown bigger, but smaller.

Where is the discussion of the real questions?

With all the above being said, my main issue with the report is the complete lack of discussion about the future set up of the fund and fundamental questions about its purpose and contribution to the ecosystem. When our minister Þórdís announced the working group, she said that the group should make “well reasoned suggestions on the future set up of the fund.” The following questions; what I hoped would be discussed and opined on, were nowhere to be found:

  • Is the market failure the fund has been focused on fixing still an issue today?
    When the working group was started, the minister mentioned that the fund was originally created to counter a market failure in access to early stage capital. Today, we have four private VC funds focused on early stage companies, increased early stage investment activity from foreign investors, and the number of early stage investments has been steadily growing for the last years (last year was the best ever).
  • Is it the role of the government to compete with private firms, or should it support and accelerate the overall environment?
    In today’s environment, we have four VC funds investing in early stage, and one evergreen government backed fund. In the early stage startup market, funds compete – among other things – on the price of money (how much equity the fund gets in exchange for their cash). NSA Ventures is now, for the first time, an active participant in a competitive market, i.e. the government is competing with private firms. The main difference is that – unlike in private VC funds – the investors at NSA Ventures do not have skin in the game (i.e. their own money in the fund, their compensation directly linked to outcomes of the fund, or their job security connected to the performance of the fund) which makes it easier to give discounts.
  • Why does it seem to be hard for NSA to exit their investments and recycle their capital?
    The report correctly states that many of the companies have been in the fund’s portfolio for a long time (the average “lifetime” in the portfolio is nine years with seven companies having been in the portfolio for more than ten years). However, the report doesn’t raise any questions on why. For anyone with knowledge of VC mechanics, a 9 year average portfolio lifetime is very high, especially when you appreciate the fact that most VC funds operate on a 7-10 year horizon.
  • Should the way NSA Ventures appoints members of the board, which is based on lobbyist and stakeholder institutions, remain the same?
    Lastly, the fund’s board, which has a very important say in all investment decisions, is appointed – by law – by lobby groups. That means the board is usually made up of professional lobbyists or board members of lobby groups that often lack experience in technology, software, investing, or business.

The startup ecosystem has come a long way in the last several years. At the same time, politics have become increasingly interested in innovation and the knowledge economy. This leads to a will to make things better, shown through legal acts, committees, and panels discussing meaningful changes for the ecosystem.

While we’ve come a long way, there are still opportunities for it to become better generally, and the government’s participation to be more focused and effective specifically. Especially when it comes to utilising data to drive analysis and decisions, and asking experts to participate in policy making.

Although this report was a letdown, I’m hopeful that the new Innovation Policy Committee’s will be sourced with subject matter experts, both living here and abroad (some of our best people leave the country, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask them to help).

Because if we’re investing time and money in making the startup ecosystem better, the people and companies of the ecosystem – the reason why we’re trying to make the ecosystem better – should be a part of the discussion.

[Disclaimer: Kiddi recently started working for a company where NSA Ventures is a shareholder]

This post is a part of the Memo, a regular commentary and analysis newsletter by Kiddi, founder of Northstack. You can sign up here.

“Iceland is sold out” and the competition for tech talent

“Iceland is sold out!”

That is how Skúli Mogensen, founder of WOW air described our current talent situation at Startup Iceland last week. It refers to the feeling that our talent pool is too small, and tech companies can’t fill the positions they’re trying to. (Note: it’s possibly a fact, but I don’t have the data – if you have data on access to tech talent please let me know).

When QuizUp went out of business, WOW air hit the jackpot. At the same time that a bunch of talented developers lost their job, the airline was looking to other long-haul low-cost airlines with big bets on technology. WOW hired several QuizUp developers that helped create the technical and organisational underpinnings of a new department, Wow Labs. At the same time, Icelandair was going through a similar phase, with Icelandair Labs (yes, the naming is … similar).

Now, a little under two years later, Sveinn Akerli, WOW’s CIO, announced in an interview with Viðskiptablaðið that the company was looking to hire 100 developers in Iceland, multiplying their current development team. Sveinn said in the interview that they expected to hire a mix of of Icelanders and foreigners.

In addition to WOW’s massive expansion, we have NetApp Iceland still working on their expansion – currently 9 open positions in Iceland. Bókun was recently acquired with plans to grow their operations in Iceland, Teatime Games just raised $7.5m and is hiring, and we’ve had the best fundraise quarter for a long time.

Our talent building process lacks an essential step

Although the Universities are now churning out fresh developers as never before, we’re still lacking in talent. We’re a generalist nation, and once you require deeper skills or specialities, the number of people that possess them dramatically decrease.

In my view, one of the reasons behind this is lack of international presence in the labor market, both as employers and as employees. We can have the best university system in the world, but if there aren’t employers to take the fresh graduates and train them in international collaboration, work systems and discipline, there will always be something missing. In addition, international presence wouldn’t only create a tech industry with more, and interesting employment options, but would also increase competition between workplaces, putting pressure on Icelandic companies on keeping their stuff together.

The same applies to employees. Iceland is a tiny blip in the middle of nowhere (or well, we’re actually smack between two big markets, which can be an asset). We’re extremely homogenous with similar experiences, thoughts, and viewpoints. Bringing in foreign talent that has tried working in companies with large sales forces, that face heavy regulatory scrutiny, expect professionalism in internal processes and challenge their coworkers, would be very helpful to our industry.

And what are we doing about it?

Many regions, especially those that realise that they need to move away from a completely resource based economy to a more knowledge and innovation driven economy, employ things like business development agencies to drive interest in setting up shop in their region. To my knowledge, Iceland as a nation has only done that proactively for old-world industries like aluminium and silicone plants.

We have an organisation that probably should own these projects, Íslandsstofa – Promote Iceland, but to my knowledge not much proactive business hunting is being done. Why don’t Google, Spotify, Microsoft, Netflix (and so forth) have an development office in Iceland? That’s a question someone, somewhere in the business and innovation government ecosystem should be asking themselves right now.

On the talent side, the Ministry for Innovation, Federation of Icelandic Industry and Promote Iceland are working on creating a one-stop shop for everything you need to know to relocate to Iceland. With the 2016 Innovation Bill, foreign specialists are granted a 25% tax discount for the first three years of their stay, which signals a will to increase the number of expats here. But the marketing of Iceland as a workplace, and indeed this initiative, has been lacking. In 2017, 83 people applied to use it, 54 got accepted. So, tiny numbers, but it’s something. We shouldn’t only be marketing ourselves as a tourist destination; we should be marketing ourselves as a great place to work and live.

In addition to that, Northstack is running an experiment, by creating the first international, tech sector focused job board. (sorry for self-promotion, I promise the reason for this email wasn’t to plug). Hopefully by increasing the awareness of people outside of Iceland about the availability of jobs here, we’ll attract some talent.

This post is a part of the Memo, a regular commentary and analysis newsletter by Kiddi, founder of Northstack. You can sign up here.

Dohop raises €3m from EasyJet and current investors

Flight search company Dohop has raised €3m from EasyJet and current investors. EasyJet’s participating is at €2.25m with current investors adding €750k to the round. EasyJet’s investment comes in the form of an convertible bond that can be converted into a 15% stake in the company.

In an interview with Vísir, CEO of Dohop Davíð Gunnarsson comments: “EasyJet and Dohop work closely together. The airline offers Worldwide by EasyJet which assists its customers with finding connecting flights through other airlines. The technology behind that is powered by Dohop, and EasyJet sees this project as a key step in the airline’s future growth.”

Read more here:

Italian bank UniCredit invests €3.1m in Meniga

UniCredit today announced it has signed a strategic partnership contract with digital banking company Meniga, integrating the company’s solutions into the banks offering and investing €3.1m through it’s equity arm UniCredit EVO (Equity Venture Opportunities).

“We are very pleased with this partnership with Meniga,” said Gianni Franco Papa UniCredit General Manager and Chairman of UniCredit EVO.

“Thanks to it, we will offer one of the best solutions available on the market, helping our customers to much more easily manage their banking and financial activities, while enjoying a simple and tailored user-friendly experience.”

Georg Ludviksson, co-founder and CEO of Meniga commented: “The partnership represents the biggest PFM deal in Europe to date and the Meniga team is excited to be part of UniCredit’s digital transformation journey. The investment from UniCredit EVO will enable us to keep momentum and focus on the continuous development of our products to ensure we are delivering the most innovative digital banking solutions to our clients.”

Meniga raised a $3.7m strategic round from Swedbank earlier this year.

Here are the ten companies participating in Startup Reykjavik 2018

Summer is the time of Iceland’s most well known accelerator, Startup Reykjavik. Around that time, ten companies are selected to participate in the program which is owned by Arion Banki and executed by Icelandic Startups. This is the seventh consecutive year the accelerator is run.

This year, the number of applications was 270, with around half of the applications coming from outside Iceland. This year’s batch of ten companies will include three from outside Iceland: UK, Sweden and Spain.

The companies selected are the following:

1. Anymaker – Digital studio developing 3D modelling and AR interaction apps for kids.

2. Blockcycle – Platform using the blockchain to track packaging waste.

3. Ekki Banka – Simple platform helping customer to access own financial information.

4. Huginn.care -A cloud-based solution for caretakers, companies and organizations, to simplify incidents- and diary registrations.

5. Koride – Koride offers a ridesharing solution for adventure-seeking travelers in Iceland.

6. Leiguskjól – Leiguskjól is a fintech company focusing on solutions for the rental market

7. Melius – An easy-to-use smart attachment for any smartphone, which uses a proprietary object tracking algorithm with a servomotor mechanism to record any activity.

8. Sea Data Center – Sea Data Center is seafood information technology company – Bloomberg for the seafood sector.

9. Taktikal – A flexible API based platform that enables customers to design, initiate and track digitally signed documents for processes like customer onboarding and other business relationships.

10. Unify Me – Platform powered by cPaaS technology (Twilio & Nexmo) affordable for any business. A single unified Communication platform as a service based on software with service in 105 countries.

The ten teams will receive mentoring from various entrepreneurs, investors and business directors during the ten weeks program in order to further develop their businesses and bring products to market. Arion Bank, through its daughter company Startup Reykjavik Invest ehf., invests 2.4 MISK in each participant company in exchange for a 6% ownership.

Four things you should know about Startup Iceland 2018

This week is Startup Iceland week – when Harpa is filled with startup people from all over the world. It also marks the start of summer, which is often a fairly active season for the startup scene in Iceland. To commemorate that, we have 4 things you should know about Startup Iceland 2018.

The founder of WordPress is coming

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and probably most known for developing WordPress, the CMS that reportedly powers as much as 25% of the web today (including Northstack). He will be joined on stage by technology journalist Om Malik for a fireside chat.

We have a lot of Americans joining Startup Iceland

A 57 person group from George Mason University in Washington, DC is flying to Iceland to participate in the event. The 2018 version of the conference also marks the first time that US founders are joining the event, which means we’ll have an international day for sure.

Lína and Skúli among others will represent Iceland

Sigurlína Ingvarsdóttir, the senior producer of FIFA at EA Games (yes, that FIFA, where you can play the Icelandic National Team), will fly over to give a talk about diversity. Skúli Mogensen, founder of Wow air, will also give a talk.

Reykjavik is part of AngelHack Global Series

Startup Iceland has partnered with digi.me and Angel Hack to bring us the Data Hack Iceland 2018, part of AngelHack Global Series. Between May 29-30, teams will compete in three categories: Using Digi.me’s data consent platform, hacking for good, or simply something entrepreneurial. Prizes include trips to Slush 2018.

Teatime Games raise $7.5m Series A led by Index Ventures with participation from Atomico

Mobile gaming company Teatime Games just announced a $7.5m Series A round led by Index Ventures. VC fund Atomico also participated in the round. The investment brings total investment in the company to roughly $9m dollars, including a $1.6m seed round in late 2017.

“Games have always been an inherently social and multi-layer experience,” says Thor Fridriksson, CEO, and co-founder of Teatime Games.

“The overwhelming majority of mobile games, however, are single player experiences, while most multiplayer mobile games are turn-based and are played against invisible opponents. We are building Teatime Games on the premise that mobile games players crave a more social and personalized experience than they are currently getting, where communicating with friends and fellow players in real time not only enhances a game but is as important as the game itself. That’s why we’re developing the first real time communication gaming platform for mobile.”

The company will use the investment to double the team in Iceland, with a specific focus on software engineers.

Index Ventures investor Guzman Dias commented: “Like all the best games studios, Thor and the Teatime team have extraordinary pedigree in mobile games, accumulating years of experience of scaling up a gaming platform with over 100 million users. At Index we have been lucky enough to team up with games pioneers such as Supercell and King, and we believe Teatime have a similar size opportunity today – to lead the next wave in mobile games, by building the technology to spark a real time revolution in social games with the social element at its heart.”

The company was co-founded by ex-QuizUp CEO Thor Fridriksson, CFO Ymir Finnbogason, CTO Johann Bergthorsson and COO Gunnar Holmsteinn.

Teatime is currently hiring. Check them out on the Northstack Job Board.

Arctic Green Energy complete $150m equity and debt financing

Icelandic-Chinese Arctic Green Energy, developer of geothermal district heating projects in China, has completed a $150 million equity and debt funding with Chinese investors. Included in this funding round is a loan from the Chinese Development Bank. The investors were CITIC Capital and China Everbright Limited in addition to the bank.

“We have been working with Arctic Green Energy for three years now, and this milestone in the company‘s development confirms all of the accomplishments it has achieved so far in implementing geothermal technology in China and abroad.“ says Mr. Fanglu Wang, Senior Managing Partner for CITIC Capital.

Cities consume 70% of energy globally, and Arctic Green Energy’s plan is to create zero emission cities through renewable resources, technology and infrastructure. Most of their current projects are based on geothermal energy.

“The completion of this USD 150 million financing round is a significant step for Arctic Green Energy,” says Haukur Harðarson, Founder and Chairman of Arctic Green Energy in a statement.

“We welcome China Everbright to broaden the investor group to strengthen its ties with China, and build on this success in other markets. CITIC Capital and China Everbright are two global investment firms with strong roots in Asia that have special focus on clean energy and will now take part in our mission to create zero emission cities with clean, profitable renewables.“

Kúla 3D closes $300k seed round and releases lens for smartphones

Kúla 3D, maker of 3D lenses for cameras, just announced it closed a $300,000 seed round. This is the first fundraise for the company, which has previously received financing from the Technology Development Fund.

“My daughter was two years old when I started experimenting with a prototype of 3D lenses,” says Íris Ólafsdóttir, founder and CEO of Kúla. “When I look at the pictures it’s like stepping into a time machine. I still get this wow feeling, but people really need to experience it to understand.”

Kúla is releasing Kúla Bebe, a 3D lens for smartphones. The device enables people to take 3D photos and videos on their smartphones, and comes with simple software to view their creations. Kúla had previously released Kúla Deeper, a lens for DSLR cameras. Kúla Bebe was financed through a Kickstarter campaign.

Kúla Bebe is produced in Iceland, and packaged at Kúla’s Headquarters at Innovation House in Eiðistorg. People will be able to buy it at Vodafone stores in Iceland, with global availability to follow shortly.

Meniga raises $3.7m from Swedbank

Nordic bank Swedbank today announced it had invested $3.7m (€3m) in Meniga in a strategic financing round which includes other key customers of the company.

“We see Meniga as an innovation partner to give our customers a digital experience that includes a better overview and insights of all their finances both from Swedbank and external parties. We are very pleased with the agreed partnership,” says Lotta Lovén, Head of Digital Banking at Swedbank in a statement.

Georg Ludviksson, Co-founder and CEO of Meniga commented: “We are delighted to welcome Swedbank as a strategic investor and look forward to playing our part in their digital transformation.”

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