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This ‘startup generator’ channels pooled knowledge to tackle COVID-19: Q&A with Antler’s Jussi Salovaara

Antler has received more than 1,700 applications from startups based all over the world for its COVID-19 solutions program.

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Headquartered in Singapore, “startup generator” Antler was founded in 2017 to bring together people with exceptional ideas to address challenges in the digital economy. It provides seed-stage capital to tech company founders. Antler currently has eight locations—Singapore, Sydney, Amsterdam, London, Oslo, Stockholm, New York, and Nairobi, and it plans to enter Jakarta in the second half of 2020.

Antler has invested in 170 companies worldwide, covering over 30 industries. It has funneled money toward founders of 36 nationalities, including Singaporean SaaS platform Qashier and Indonesia-based HR tech startup Sampingan. The firm raised USD 50 million in January from investors like Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Japanese financial services company Credit Saison. Antler will use the new funds to broaden its geographical footprint.

KrASIA recently spoke with Antler co-founder and managing partner Jussi Salovaara about the organization’s crucial presence for some early-stage startups during the COVID-19 pandemic.

KrASIA (Kr): How did Antler start? What is its vision?

Jussi Salovaara (JS): The founding team came together and started thinking about how we can support entrepreneurs better globally, starting from this region [Southeast Asia]. We started in Singapore because [Zalora co-founder] Magnus Grimeland was based here and he was the nexus that pulled everyone together. The vision from day one was to build a global platform which we felt was missing in the market, and something that will bring tremendous value to entrepreneurs in our ecosystem. We ran our first program here in July 2018. We have four programs and we’ve made 61 investments in Singapore alone. At the same time, we have eight locations globally, with various programs running and many more to come.

Kr: Antler describes itself as a “startup generator.” How is that different from an incubator or accelerator?

JS: We have a different model. Unlike incubators or accelerators, which support existing early-stage companies, we start with outstanding individuals who come to our program to build great companies. We form great teams out of them, and work on the business idea and model with them. After ten weeks, these teams pitch to our investment committee, and we make the decision on which teams we support. To give you an illustration, there are around 100 founders coming in for each program, they would then form 40 teams, and we’ll select and support the best ones—usually 16 to 20 teams per program. We’ve been lucky to get a significant number of applications. Our most recent Singapore program received 3,000 applicants, so the interest from the market has been amazing. Again, we’re not an accelerator. We start from these individuals who are experts in different fields like tech and business. They will form well-rounded teams to start strong businesses.

Kr: How effective is Antler when it comes to producing new startups in Singapore and in other parts of the world?

JS: We are building hundreds of startups per year, and our global network brings tremendous possibilities for them, both in terms of collaborating or providing services to different markets. Synergies really come into play as there are different startups doing similar things in different regions. We also have a global advisor network consisting of 400 experts around the world, so we do the international matching to find experts in a certain field in Europe who can connect with teams in Southeast Asia, and vice versa.

We have different strategies for finding talented individuals. We have 16 generator programs in eight locations every year. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, we are hosting more webinars to get the word out about Antler. We also have what we call “digital headhunting” to identify great individuals with different profiles in different markets. We go after them and try to get them to apply for the program. As the programs grow, we start to have more referrals from existing founders or investors, as well as personal networks. We have north of 50,000 applicants per year globally. People are very excited about what we do.

Antler’s managing partner Jussi Salovaara. Courtesy of Antler.

Kr: How do you think the COVID-19 crisis is impacting the early-stage startup ecosystem, especially here in Southeast Asia? Why are programs like Antler’s even more important during the pandemic?

JS: Venture capital firms in Southeast Asia are still active, as deals are still happening every day. Angel investors are disappearing a bit from the market, but I think the bottom line is that the show must go on, so I’m not too worried about that. The impact on business is certainly varied; some industries like hospitality or retail certainly will suffer big time. But there’s an opportunity there. The good thing with early-stage startups is that the teams, especially if they have fewer than 100 people, are still agile and nimble, and they don’t have high fixed cost baselines, so they are able to pivot and move around better than Series D companies, for example. That is why you see companies laying off people, like Airbnb letting go of 1,900 of their employees. The more assets you have, the more difficult it is to adapt fast.

We are building a centralized pool of knowledge globally, which is a tremendous asset for the teams to tap into. The role of Antler’s program increases in significance in the sense that the teams will receive advice and guidance from experts on how they need to adjust and adapt their businesses to this particular situation. We channel that knowledge and help them avoid mistakes that others have made to avoid pitfalls at a time of exceptional difficulty, like the COVID-19 crisis.

Kr: In early April, Antler said it will invest up to USD 500,000 in startups that tackle issues related to the COVID-19 outbreak. How is this coming along?

JS: We were completely blown away by the response, as we received more than 1,700 applications globally over the span of a few weeks, even though we only accept up to five startups. We’ve already made the first investment decision and we’re currently assessing the other teams.

We’re looking for teams in specific verticals, such as medical equipment, remote health, mitigation like surveillance or data infrastructure, as well as digital and productivity tools like online learning, smart delivery, and so on. We are surprised by the number of innovative companies in this space that are in Southeast Asia.

Read this: Singapore’s Antler to deploy up to USD 500,000 for startups battling COVID-19

Kr: How is Antler supporting startups affected by the crisis? And how has Antler adjusted communications during the pandemic?

JS: In terms of communication with startups and investors within our ecosystem, we have become even more active than before. We’re doing targeted coaching. We help startups with grant applications, as many governments now have grant initiatives for companies affected by the crisis. We have various initiatives like online events with international experts from different regions to explore relevant topics, such as innovating in uncertain times, mental resilience, and more. We have a podcast called Antler VC Cast, where you can hear about insights from leaders in tech communities. Moreover, we push newsletters in every market.

We also have virtual demo days, which are very interesting. We’ll have our Singapore demo day in July. We already had one in New York, so we learned about what works and what doesn’t. By shifting more into the digital world, our activities are more intensive now, which is an unexpectedly good outcome from the crisis. I think this will be a new normal. Innovation doesn’t happen from a nice environment, where you’re sitting in a meadow listening to birds chirping. It often happens in a bad situation like a pandemic. People and businesses will likely adopt this efficient communication style even after the pandemic ends.

Kr: Since Antler has a strong presence in Europe, what is your advice for investors or companies from Europe looking for opportunities in Southeast Asia?

JS: Southeast Asia holds great opportunities to do business, but it has a very complex ecosystem where localization is critical. Many think of Southeast Asia as a single market, which is not true at all. The region is fragmented in terms of culture, language, regulations, the way people consume products, and so forth. Therefore, localization is critical and you need to have local co-founders or leaders here. For example, in Indonesia alone, market or consumer behavior in Jakarta might be different from other parts of the country, so you can imagine how different it will be from country to country. The region is very exciting, but also challenging at the same time.

Kr: What’s next for Antler after the pandemic? Do you have any plans for fundraising or expansions?

JS: I can’t comment on fundraising, but we’ll expand soon. We aim to have somewhere between 30 and 60 locations globally. We have expanded quite rapidly so far, as hyper-scaling is in our DNA. We’ll definitely look to add many more locations to our world map.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.