Author: Kris Hróbjartsson (Page 2 of 14)

TripCreator raises $3m from a range of VC funds and business angels

Note: This article has been updated to correctly reflect the amount raised to be $3m, rather than $8m (which is the total the company has raised)

Icelandic travel tech company TripCreator just announced a $3m fundraise from various VC funds and business angels, bringing the total raised by the company to roughly $8m.

“We are very excited to be launching the TripCreator platform to everyone in the travel industry, including bloggers,” said Hilmar Halldórsson, CEO of TripCreator.io. “Our disruptive new model of ‘free forever’, combined with our platform that is capable of both incredible speed and analysis options (in numbers that require a Google search to comprehend the magnitude) means we are poised to shake up the itinerary planning industry. We are simultaneously opening sales offices in both London and New York City and plan to move the company to the latter city by the end of the year.”

TripCreator provides white-label as well as branded solutions that can seamlessly integrate with existing platforms through dedicated APIs. The company is also pioneering a new business model for the travel industry – ‘Free Forever’. Taking a cut of the transaction fee ensures there are no out-of-pocket costs to customers for using the platform.

CCP Acquired by Pearl Abyss for $425m

Korean Pearl Abyss, maker of Black Desert Online, just announced it had acquired Icelandic CCP, maker of Eve Online. CCP will continue to operate as an independent studio with operations in Reykjavik, Shanghai, and London. The sale price is $425m.

Pearl Abyss CEO Robin Jung stated, “We are thrilled to have CCP Games join our team as Black Desert Online continues to branch out globally. CCP is a seasoned publisher with over 15 years of digital distribution experience and know-how.”

Rumours around the inevitable sale of CCP have regularly surfaced, with the most recent and public rumour being when someone leaked to (or placed) Bloomberg news that the company was eyeing a sale.

“I have been seriously impressed with what Pearl Abyss has achieved ever since I first visited their website for Black Desert Onlineand subsequently became an avid player of the game,” said CCP Games CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson.

“Pearl Abyss is a fast-growing company with lots to offer in terms of technology, capability and vision. I believe our two companies have a lot to learn from each other. We are very excited to join forces with them and achieve great new heights for our companies, our games and – above all – our players.”

This acquisition is, in nominal value at least, the biggest acquisition in Iceland’s tech history. The next one in line would be Amgen’s $415m purchase of Decode in 2012.

1939 Games raises $2m led by Tencent

1939 Games, maker of World War II digitally collectible card game Kards, just announced a $2m fundraise. The investment was led by Tencent, with participation from Finnish Sisu Game Ventures and Crowberry Capital. Viðskiptablaðið reports.

“It’s a great acknowledgement of what we’ve done so far to have as experienced investors as these participate in the round,” said Ívar Kristjánsson, co-founder of 1939 Games. “The financing should allow us to release the game, and we’re growing the team to support that.”

Their debut game, Kards, is currently in Alpha testing mode, and according to the company, more than 20 thousand have applied to become testers.

1939 Games previously raised an undisclosed seed round from various investors, and has received grants from the Technology Development Fund.

Already Surpassing 2017: The Iceland H1 2018 Funding Analysis

Published a little late, this report looks at funding activity for startups and tech companies in Iceland in the first half of 2018, Jan 1 through June 30.

The year started with a bang with three notable investments announced in the first ten days of 2018. We’ve tracked one monster round ($75m+): a $150m round in Arctic Green Energy which we omit in some charts as an outlier, to get better information from the data (it’s noted where we skip it).

More cash flowing

We’ve already surpassed 2017 in total amount invested (not counting monster rounds, we had the $240m WuXi round last yearand in fact, reached that milestone in April. The first half of the year saw $48.9m invested in 11 companies (or $198.9m invested in 12), which will grow even more with investments from later in the year – 2018 is poised to be a great year in Icelandic venture investments, possibly overtaking 2016.

Note: Chart does not include rounds bigger than $75m

Even including big rounds, the outlook for the year is healthy.

Overall, we recorded 12 investments in the first half: five in the first quarter and seven in the second, on par with the last couple of years.

Skewed toward later rounds

Last year the investments skewed heavily towards smaller, early stage investments (<$2.5m). This time around, most investments are bigger, and most of the companies raising have raised before, suggesting a good increase in follow-on rounds.

In fact, of the investments we tracked, only two, Kúla3D and Kara Connect, didn’t have a previous round in our database.

Money is flowing in

Last year, most of the investments were from local investors. The first half of 2018, more than half of the funding rounds were funded partially or completely by foreign investors, and 83% of the capital came from outside of Iceland (not including the Arctic Green Energy investment).

Pharma and Gaming receive the majority of funding

It’s usually not worth it to break out specific industries, as the investments are usually too few for any interesting information to emerge. This time around, however, it’s good to point out two industries: pharmaceuticals and gaming.

  • Pharmaceuticals: Three investments totalling $27.1m, all into companies that have previously received investment.
  • Gaming: Two investments totalling $10m, both companies previously received investments.
  • Together, those industries received $37.1m, or 75% of the funding (not including the AGE round)

Connecting that to the bigger picture, where Iceland has big multinational success stories in both pharma and gaming, suggests that although neither is big enough to warrant its own breakout in Icelandic economic measurements, maybe we have industry seedlings in those two.

Exits

The only recorded exit was Bókun’s sale to TripAdvisor. The amount for the sale hasn’t been disclosed (I’ve dug through SEC filings, with no luck (yet)). Bókun is apparently doubling down on operations in Iceland, and recently sent out ads to hire 30 people in the city.

End note: Local VC is changing

In the first half of the year, the local VC funds (Frumtak I & II, Eyrir Sprotar, Brunnur Ventures, Crowberry Capital, and the government run NSA Ventures) only participated in three rounds, in both cases as lead investors. Brunnur did a follow on, and Frumtak and Eyrir Sprotar were completely silent (as expected, neither are really doing fresh investments at the moment).

NSA Ventures came back from a several year hiatus with a bang, taking part in a $3.8m round in Florealis, with fresh capital from the Greenqloud sale.

Similarly, Crowberry Capital has started to make regular investments, leaving three generally active funds (Brunnur, Crowberry, NSA Ventures).

Tempo to sell 30% to HPE Growth Capital at $62.5 million valuation

The Origo Board of Directors yesterday signed an agreement with HPE Growth Partners on an exclusive negotiation with the objective selling 30% of Tempo (subsidiary of Origo) to the investment fund. The valuation will be $62.5m

This marks the end of a long sale cycle for Tempo, which we wrote about back in 2016. Whether or not the sale comes with additional capital to support the growth of Tempo remains to be seen.

More details in the press release.

Takumi raises $4m Series B to expand US office

Influencer marketing platform Takumi just announced a $4m (£3m) Series B round from UK and US angels and investment funds. The company raised a $4m Series A round in May 2017. The company was founded in 2015 by Guðmundur Eggertsson, Jökull Sólberg og Mats Stigzelius. It has over 40 employees with offices in Reykjavik, Berlin, London and New York.

“We will use the funding to grow our development team in Reykjavik and fuel continued growth in the US market,” commented CEO and co-founder Jökull Sólberg.

As a UK headquartered company, Takumi has benefited from the UK enterprise investment scheme when raising funds. Under the scheme, individual investors are incentivised to invest in new and innovative – and therefore riskier – companies. “Having our head office and parent company in London has been very beneficial for us due to this program,” Jökull told Northstack. “The UK has a good blueprint for how to create a good startup ecosystem.”

The company started by focusing on the UK and German markets, and launched a NYC satellite office in 2017, a late entrant there. “Our tech and commercial presence in Europe is mature. We intend to use the new funds to expedite our US plans.”

The three year old company has worked with more than 800 brands and 15.000 influencers. “Takumi is already the leader in influencer marketing in Germany and the UK, the biggest advertising markets in Europe.”

Takumi connects brands and influencers on Instagram, a market that according to eMarketer doubled in 2017.

“Influencer marketing gets held to a higher standard as budgets grow” explains Jökull. “Consumers are wary of influencers working with the wrong brands, and brands are becoming aware of influencers with fake audiences. But we’ve seen that when it’s done right, and influencers have authentic audiences to sell in to brands it’s the most underpriced major marketing channel today and can have a major impact.”

Takumi is also announcing a new partnership with HypeAuditor, an influencer data vendor that is being integrated into influencer vetting and campaign reporting to bolster audience insights and further ensure that audiences are organic and not filled with bot accounts, a practice that is common in Instagram influencer marketing.

In the second quarter of this year, Takumi started working with Heinz and Gillette, and was nominated for the Digiday awards Best use of Social for their collaboration with Kellogg’s.

“Our focus on a superior influencer experience, and distributed sales teams close to the customer, has proven successful,” Jökull said. “The brands want excellent service and the influencers want a great app and trust to do their work. That is what Takumi stands for, and we believe will be the basis for our continued success in the US market.”

VR startup Aldin raises $1m led by Crowberry Capital, Announces New VR Product

Aldin, the virtual reality company behind Waltz of the Wizard, just announced a $1m funding round led by Crowberry Capital with participation from Investa. In addition to the funding, the company announced a new VR experience aimed at consumers.

“Believable reality experiences are unlike anything that’s been possible in the past, offering the accessibility of movies and interactivity beyond conventional games,” says Hrafn Th. Thorisson, CEO and co-founder of Aldin. “Since nothing can play on our emotions like reality, believable virtual realities are set to become the most emotionally engaging format in entertainment history.”

Aldin’s previously made several VR apps, including Waltz of the Wizard, a VR experience where people experience having magical powers. To date, it is one of the highest rated VR titles on Steam with over 250,000 users. Their next title, whose name hasn’t been announced yet, will let users step into a fantastical world and become acquainted with a character in ways that, according to their press release, could only happen in VR, powered by XR AI systems that help form personal connections with characters beyond what’s possible with screenbound entertainment.

“We are delighted to be investing in Aldin. The company has proprietary technology to further the development of VR and AR.” said Helga Valfells, Managing Partner of Crowberry Capital who will take a seat on the board of directors. “The Aldin team has an intuitive understanding of VR as a medium as well the right mix of creative talent and technology skills to deliver exciting content in alternative realities.”

Over the years, Aldin has built proprietary tooling and mixed reality (XR) technologies they use to power their own production. Among those are Ghostline, an analytics solution that enables quantitative and qualitative analysis of the user experience. and Telepath, a locomotion system designed to offer engaging movement in VR.

“We’ve been at the forefront of VR since 2013, focusing on content and technologies that bring immersion and presence to the level that justifies VR and gives people a reason to want it.” commented Gunnar Steinn Valgardsson, CTO & co-founder of Aldin, “We’re now at the next frontier and we are going to deliver experiences that place users in worlds that are only possible in VR.”

Indie game studio Tasty Rook releases Out of the Loop, a “silly party game for the whole family”

The indie game studio Tasty Rook, which previously created and published Triple Agent, released its second game last week: Out of the Loop. The game is available for Android and iOS.

“We’ve both played board games our whole lives,” said Sig Gunnarsson, co-founder of Tasty Rook, “and we started Tasty Rook to bring some of those fun and intimate experiences into a more compact and mobile format.”

The duo, which founded Tasty Rook last year and has since received a grant from the Technology Development Fund, focuses on re-imagining classic party board games for mobile devices.

“We want to foster community and playing between friends face to face,” Torfi Ásgeirsson, co-founder commented. “So many mobile games today are single player only, and we see an opportunity to utilise the technology to enrich real life encounters.”

In Out of the Loop, everyone, except for one player, gets to know the same secret word at the beginning of a round. The goal of the game is to answer lighthearted questions about the secret word without giving it away, while trying to figure out who doesn’t know the secret word. The game is played on one mobile device that is passed between players.

The game is free to play but players can purchase additional content in the app.

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.

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Nortstack – Reporting and analysis of the Icelandic startup scene