One way to look at the period in time after the Pandemic is to divide it into two parts, BC and AC. BC as in Before Corona. And then there is the After. While the labels may seem simple, the experience for AC startups is anything but. Thousands of startups around the world have seen their plans get impacted by the inability to at times truly “work together” and “show up” as the world was used to doing. From funding to operations it is no understatement to say that the Pandemic has been a massive challenge for many in the ecosystem. The “show” however has gone on. And the incubator and accelerator ecosystem seems like an unlikely bell-weather for what lies in store, at least in the short run.
One accelerator that is rolling with the punches is the Barclays Accelerator. The accelerator powered by Techstars, once upon a time run by the now prolific angel and venture capitalist Chris Adelsbach of Outrun Ventures, is now being run by Kartik Varma, founder of PropTiger in India and no stranger to the world of startups. The programme according to Barclays now has 170 alumni, over 17 completed programmes, and is one of the largest single bank-backed startup portfolios in the Fintech space weighing in at around $1.3Bn of AUM. I recall vividly, the very first programme and East London inaugural event which was kicked off with much fanfare by the then CEO of Barclays, Anthony Jenkins, and had notable attendees such as aire.io. The Bank clearly values the partnership with Techstars, managed by Mariquit Corcoran the bank’s Chief Innovation Officer, and has continued to invest in Fintechs through the programme, though its home has shifted base to Rise, a co-working space run by Barclays in East London.
For those unfamiliar with the accelerator format the 13-week programme used to allow a select group of startups with promising futures to come together under a roof and camp out while proving that they could “do more, faster”. Only one small change this year, thanks to the pandemic the programme has gone virtual. Amongst the star cast of participants at the programme, this year is Co-founder of the Uk based Fintech, Nuggets. Seema Khinda Johnson and her husband Alastair Johnson started Nuggets when they experienced a data breach first hand, the two have set out to solve for the issue of so much personal data being handed over to third parties to access or use systems. Nuggets is focused on helping consumers secure their personal data in the payments space. They aim to reduce the sharing of information such as scans of identity documents, utility bills and other personally identifiable data that is typical of most KYC and AML processes.
When asked why Seema wanted to join the Barclays Accelerator in particular (there is, at the time of writing, significant competition in the accelerator space in London with other Founders Factory, Entrepreneur First, Startup Bootcamp, and a number of others each with unique models), she mentioned to ERLY STAGE:
“…it was too good to pass up! I couldn’t ignore the female founder focus. There’s very little practical advice and support specifically for female founders. The Barclays Accelerator gives you access to a community of other female founders to build a network. It puts you in touch with mentors for guidance and advice, and senior industry leaders and investors all giving their time and direction. There are workshops on how to scale a business. These are all incredible opportunities, and I wanted to make the most of them.”
Ultimately the cofounders want to give control of what data is shared with who and minimise chances of that data falling into the hands of those that may seek to exploit it for identity fraud. With online services and payments booming, the scale of opportunity is enormous for the blockchain-enabled fintech. If Seema and Alistair do achieve their goals more consumers will be in control of their data and know exactly what it’s being used for and when. Alistair, the technical half of the team was previously at Skype, holds a patent for their unique approach to data privacy. A single centralised repository where control of the data is in the hands of the consumer, clearly sounds ideal and champions customer privacy all the while introducing a new paradigm for identity data sharing. The novelty of the consumer blockchain platform is providing users a single biometric tool for login, payment, and identity verification, without sharing or storing private data. Not even Nuggets and its team get to see the personal identity information.
When it comes to getting the most out of the virtual accelerator, clearly there are pluses and minuses. Seema describes the experience as “invaluable”. The Nuggets team went into the programme recognising that virtual would mean a different experience:
“Obviously some things work a bit differently in the digital world – like networking. But there’s nothing that can’t be replicated in some form online.
One advantage is time. As a founder, time is at a premium. Scheduling face-to-face meetings, travelling to and from events can be tough and take up large parts of the day. But with virtual sessions we could pack a lot in and still keep up with managing Nuggets day to day
Another advantage of the virtual experience was that the programme wasn’t confined to one city or region. You had people from all over the world. So I got to meet and build relationships with founders from different continents and many different verticals. It was amazing how quickly we all built close bonds – we’re already actively supporting each other.”
The virtual programmes allowing for a greater diversity of founders from multiple locations to join without significant disruption to their lives may also inadvertently mean that those with younger families may also be able to participate. Traditionally it had meant sacrifice and time away as teams flew out from across the world to attend these elite programmes to secure funding and garner support via the vast networks that these accelerators boast. One thing that is clear is that these networks play a crucial role as support networks for the many that brave the winds of entrepreneurship. Seema recognises this too despite never having met any of her cohort in person:
“But that hasn’t stopped us connecting, and developing relationships online. It’s been incredibly refreshing and surprising the way we’ve been able to build a super-supportive network and stay connected as we progress beyond the actual cohort.”
Accelerators powered by Techstars have a giant footprint on the startup world having spread to a number of countries, outside of their core market the United States. The accelerator has already birthed a number of IPOs including the likes of Sendgrid, Classpass, Remitly, Digital Ocean and others (note that these companies have all been through programmes other than the Barclays accelerator and in cities other than London).
Seema’s mention of the focus on women led networks is likely to get a turbo charge now that David Brown, the CEO and co-founder of Techstars has stepped down to make way for a new CEO. The organisation is now spearheaded by the formidable Maëlle Gavet, who joined formally on January 21st, 2021. Gavet comes to the table at a time when Techstars is now managing an impressive global portfolio of around $185 Billion AUM. She was previously the CEO of Russia’s largest e-commerce player OZON.ru (now a NASDAQ listed entity OZON), she has also held leadership roles at Priceline Group and most recently she was Chief Operating Officer at real estate platform Compass, valued at over $6B.