Entrepreneur First tech backers channelling MI5 to find London's next big thingsComments Off on Entrepreneur First tech backers channelling MI5 to find London's next big things
“There’s a storm coming,” says Alice Bentinck, co-founder of Entrepreneur First. She’s been discussing how her tech venture-capital fund is shaking up the digital investment scene and could soon put the wind up Silicon Valley’s stalwarts.
As it happens, her comments are rather less abstract. A glance into the skies above EF’s astroturfed roof garden reveals a flash of lightning, and a downpour shellacks us as we dash inside. Safely installed within EF’s office — which stretches over two floors in Bermondsey’s ultra-hip Biscuit Factory — Bentinck is able to conclude her point: “The European tech venture-capital scene is relatively nascent but is well-placed to help tech start-ups.
“That’s why we focus on backing artificial intelligence companies — from machine learning, augmented and virtual reality firms to advanced robotics and nano satellites. It’s pretty chunky, unsexy stuff but it’s where we believe the most valuable companies can be created.”
EF differs from a typical investor in how it selects who to back.
In something akin to Bletchley Park’s recruitment process, Europe’s superbrains are headhunted from top universities at graduate or PhD level, or shortly after an internship at one of tech’s biggest names. “It’s like the MI5 tap on the shoulder,” Bentinck says. With co-founder Matt Clifford, she has interviewed more than 1000 bright young things, looking for talent that understands the “deep tech themes coming out of academia”, and can build a start-up.
She’s also hunting for one very specific quality: “honeybadgerness”. “It’s the African plains’ smallest and most determined mammal. They kill lions by running through their legs and ripping off their balls so the lions bleed to death. Very charming. This symbolises determination, scrappiness, not being afraid to take on big challenges.”
Some bring ideas with them but most are partnered with like-minded souls to come up with businesses. There are rambling weekends and board games to bond each intake. EF draws from its £8.5 million fund (gleaned from investors including the founders of Lovefilm and Zoopla) to back the individuals’ ideas, taking 8% of their equity and profiting when the business is eventually sold on.
Walk among the wannabe entrepreneurs, and most are as you’d expect: youngish blokes in loose T-shirts and jeans, huddled over laptops and deep in conversation, or munching on cereal as they slump on beanbags.
But Bentinck admits: “We unashamedly work with megalomaniacs with strange habits — some find it easiest to think when they’re sitting on the roof; some are so deeply engaged explaining their latest idea that they follow you into the toilet.”
From this South London enclave, over 100 start-ups worth more than $400 million (£299 million) have been born. In heavy industry, it helped birth Cloud NC, which has used artificial intelligence to automate the process of chiselling off metal. Chatbot Cleo has made waves by helping consumers organise their personal finances via its app.
Magic Pony shot out of the EF stable last month — snapped up by Twitter for a rumoured $150 million. In a boost to London tech, the San Francisco giant was attracted to the video-processing company, which was set up by ex-Imperial student Zehan Wang and Raspberry Pi’s first engineer Rob Bishop — who were put together by the programme.
Deals like this that have helped attract investors to EF’s latest round of funding — it’s gunning for £40 million — and bring on board a host of entrepreneurs as mentors.
These include Metaswitch co-founder Chris Mairs, former Groupon and Taboola man Nadav Rosenberg and Moonfruit co-founders Wendy Tan White and Joe White. This coterie focuses on ensuring that ideas are effectively evolved into investable businesses, and only receive remuneration when their charges sell up.
The tech world is light years away from 29-year-old Bentinck’s rural upbringing in the New Forest, but her early career in the City spider web that is consulting behemoth McKinsey introduced her to both the value of networking and to Clifford, 30. As part of EF, she has run Code First: Girls, a free undergrad course for female students. Her efforts saw her land an MBE last month.
As for the future, Bentinck’s mission remains clear: “We want to become the best place in the world for ambitious technologists, and we want to change the way that early-stage companies are built and invested in.”