Two years ago, the African tech ecosystem saw newfound attention from global players that translated to the continent’s best year of receiving venture capital. From varying sources, it is estimated up to $2 billion went into African tech startups in 2019.
With high-profile visits from the most famous Jacks (Ma and Dorsey), a long-awaited first IPO by e-commerce giant Jumia and massive $100 million rounds, it was a sign of things to come for African tech.
But two months into 2020, the pandemic did an excellent job of lowering expectations as investment activities from local and international investors slowed down.
Entering 2021, the bullishness of African tech stakeholders returned — and why not? As businesses reopened globally and the pandemic drove people to adopt new habits in e-commerce, work, spending money, online delivery, and learning, venture capital into various industries was poised to increase immensely, and Africa would not be exempt.
Predictions were made on how much the continent’s startups would raise in December. AfricArena, a tech ecosystem accelerator, pegged deals to close between $2.25 billion and $2.8 billion. Stephen Deng, the co-founder and partner of DFS Lab, a firm that invests in digital commerce startups, serially compared the 2016 Southeast Asia funding landscape to where Africa might be in 2021, at $3 billion.
These predictions weren’t entirely off the mark. In the end, information from the likes of Maxime Bayen and Briter Bridges made 2019 numbers look like child’s play. 2021 was when African tech took center stage as companies raised over $4 billion (more than they got in 2019 and 2020 combined).
From minting five unicorns to witnessing more million-dollar raises by female CEOs, we spotlight some of the events that shaped this pivotal moment in African tech.
What’s a record year of funding without some unicorns?
Attaining unicorn status — a privately held company with a valuation of $1 billion — is undoubtedly one of the vainest achievements for any startup, yet it remains the most coveted.
In Africa, the first two unicorns were Jumia (in 2016) and fintech giant Interswitch (in 2019). As Jumia went public on the NYSE in 2019, it ceased to be a unicorn and became a typical billion-dollar publicly held company.
It’s a similar case with Egyptian payments company Fawry. It went public on the Egyptian stock market (the first indigenous tech company to do so on African soil) in 2019. However, unlike Jumia, Fawry only reached a billion-dollar valuation a year after going public. So, it isn’t and technically wasn’t a unicorn.
Interswitch was the continent’s sole unicorn until five more were minted this year. Four are fintechs: Flutterwave, OPay, Wave and Chipper Cash, while one is tech talent marketplace Andela.
Flutterwave got its horn in March at $1 billion; OPay in August at $2 billion; Wave and Andela the following month, at $1.7 billion and $1.5 billion, respectively; Andela in September raised at a $1.5 billion valuation; Chipper Cash in November at $2 billion. Meanwhile, Interswitch, the sole unicorn between 2019 and 2021, is worth $1 billion.
A couple of reasons are behind this sudden surge in unicorn numbers on the continent. More experienced founders exist and specific markets, particularly in the Big Four (Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Kenya), show a mix of matured but still open-for-disruption traits.
Also, sectors such as fintech keep opening up in ways never seen before and there’s a rush of foreign money from first-time investors in early and later stages, simultaneously.
International investors participated from pre-seed to Series E stages
While global investors have previously invested in African startups, their activity seemed more prominent in 2021, probably because of their participation across the board.
For instance, investors such as Berlin-based VC firm Target Global and renowned investment firm and hedge fund Tiger Global cut checks across early and growth stages.
Target invested in both Series A rounds of Kuda and Mono (including the Series B round of the former). The European VC also led the pre-seed rounds of Kippa and Edukoya. On the other hand, Tiger led Union54’s seed round, Mono’s Series A and later rounds in FairMoney and Flutterwave.
Other deals where growth firms participated in early and growth stages included Sequoia in Telda’s pre-seed; Wave’s Series A, via stealthy wealth management fund Sequoia Heritage; and OPay’s Series C, via its subsidiary fund Sequoia Capital China.
There was also action from other investors, such as Dragoneer, FTX, Fidelity, SVB Capital and Sam Altman, who got involved in single large deals for the first time. It was routine for other firms like Tencent as it invested in the growth rounds of uLesson, Ozow and TymeBank– and SoftBank, who, via its Vision Fund 2, led two of the continent’s many nine-figure rounds in 2021: unicorns Andela and OPay.
African startups raised more $100M+ rounds this year than ever before
OPay had one of the three nine-figure deals in 2019 after raising a $120 million Series B round. Others included Andela’s $100 million and Interswitch’s $200 million deals. So imagine the surprise the following year when no nine-figure deal took place (just as the continent didn’t produce any unicorn).
The draught didn’t last long, as Africa not only had its highest unicorn year but also recorded the most nine-figure rounds (11 from 10 startups) in a single year.
Let’s start with the unicorns: Flutterwave’s Series C was $170 million; OPay raised a $400 million Series C; Wave and Andela each picked up $200 million. Then Chipper Cash did the double: a $100 million Series C and a $150 million extension for its unicorn round months later.
The only non-fintech deals were Andela and TradeDepot (although the latter has an embedded finance play). Also, all but two deals were solely equity-based: TradeDepot and MFS Africa raised a mix of equity and debt.
A handful of local acquisitions and a monumental exit
Digital payments gateway MFS Africa is one of Africa’s few corporate investors and acquirers. Over the past five years, the company has made strategic bets across overlooked startup regions in Africa, investing in Julaya, Maviance and Numida. And in terms of acquisitions, Beyonic and, most recently, Baxi.
Last year, the trend of seeing local companies buy each other played out and continued into 2021. Some interesting acquisitions include TLcom-backed Kenyan consumer experience platform Ajua buying WayaWaya; Nigerian bus booking and Techstars-backed Treepz expanding into Ghana and Ugabus after getting Stabus and Ugabus; and Flutterwave making a foray into the creator economy space with the Disha acquisition.
Others include Jiji’s acquisition of Cars45, Egypt’s B2B e-commerce platform MaxAB purchasing YC-backed Waystocap, thus expanding into Morocco, and Cheki selling its businesses in Kenya and Uganda to Nigeria’s Autochek.
Like the MFS Africa-Baxi deal — which both parties claimed to be the second-largest fintech acquisition in Africa after Stripe-Paystack — the other acquisitions listed were undisclosed.
Why African startups don’t disclose their acquisition figure is a topic for another day. Personally, reporting such deals may not be appealing going forward (if they remain undisclosed) unless they involve international expansion plays. Case in point: Nigerian healthtech Helium Health acquiring UAE’s Meddy (the first of its kind between sub-Saharan Africa and the GCC) and Australian BNPL player Zip buying up South Africa’s PayFlex.
And international expansion via acquisition gets more exciting when a figure is attached; for instance, data center Equinix announced that it would acquire Nigeria’s MainOne, for $320 million. The news was the highlight for this year’s acquisition deals, not only for its size but also because MainOne is a female-led company, with Funke Opeke as its CEO.
More female-led startups raised million-dollar rounds
Funke Opeke is one of the very few founders to have come this far: running an African tech company to the point of exit. She’s also probably the only female founder on the continent to have raised nine figures cumulatively for her business.
Opeke’s experience is an outlier. In Africa and globally, funding doesn’t come easy for female-led companies. A report by Briter Bridges from the middle of this year looked at 1,100+ companies to have received VC money between 2013 and May 2021 (pegged at $20 million or less).
Per the report, only 3% of the $1.7 billion raised within this period went to all-female founding teams compared to 76% for all-male teams.
So, it’s great news when female-led startups raise a million dollars or more in Africa. And it indirectly contributes to how well the region performs, as we can attest to this year which recorded more than ten deals, signalling an improvement in VCs (both gender-focused and gender-agnostic) sourcing for female-led teams to invest in.
Local investors — and founders — stepped up their game
Alitheia IDF is an investor in Reelfruit and Jetstream. The women-focused firm, led by principal partners Tokunboh Ishmael and Polo Leteka, is a $100 million private equity fund for gender-diverse businesses in Africa.
It’s also one of the local funds that raised huge sums of money this year to write checks for African startups across different stages. Others include Ventures Platform, LoftyInc Capital, Voltron Capital and 4DX Ventures, all sub-Saharan-based VC firms with a pan-African strategy.
Local and Africa-focused investors also took up entire seed to Series A rounds of some companies in sub-Saharan Africa (Appzone, Payhippo, to name a few), which rarely happened in previous years. Future Africa, Kepple Africa, Launch Africa, and others continued with their pace from 2020 and wrote many new and follow-on checks this year.
We even noticed how active founders like Flutterwave CEO Olugbenga’ GB’ Agboola, Paystack founders Shola Akinlade and Ezra Olubi, and Chipper Cash founders Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled took part in some early-stage rounds too.
Nigeria became the unicorn capital; Egypt, a powerhouse
In November 2019, three fintech companies, Interswitch, OPay and PalmPay, raised a cumulative $360 million from American and Chinese investors. That announced Nigeria as Africa’s unofficial capital for fintech investment and digital finance startups.
Fintech opportunity in Nigeria is the largest on the continent. With over 40% of Nigerian adults having bank accounts and digital payments hitting more than $250 billion in 2019, it’s no surprise that the startups facilitating transactions for the unbanked (OPay) and providing gateways (Interswitch and Flutterwave) are now worth more than $1 billion.
The three companies, including Andela, started operations in Nigeria’s commercial city, Lagos, earning Nigeria the status of Africa’s unicorn capital in 2021.
For a long time, Nigeria has been one of the three countries that receive the bulk of local and international venture capital, including Kenya and South Africa. The three countries present Africa’s most connected populace and growing economy; the perfect environment to attract foreign capital before others.
But then Egypt stepped into the picture in 2017, and with time, the North African country became part of the “Big Four” as the country began attracting venture capital eyeballs. And after quietly spending the last couple of years at the rear, Egypt picked up impressively in 2020 and this year surpassed Kenya to become the region’s third most active investment region.
As this report aptly put: “Seemingly from nowhere, Egypt is suddenly on the radar as a key African startup funding destination, highlighting the prospects for continental growth of the nascent sector.”
Egypt also has bragging rights in producing the first SPAC deal on the continent. In July, Cairo and Dubai-based ridesharing company Swvl announced that it was going public via a merger with Queen’s Gambit Growth Capital. It’s a deal that will value Swvl, one of the country’s success stories, at almost $1.5 billion once completed.
With a large population and impressive GDP per capita, the North African country raised almost $600 million this year. While it’s less than what Nigeria and South Africa raised at over $1.4 billion and $830 million, respectively, some observers predict that Egypt will surpass South Africa by next year if it keeps up with its pace.
There are a few reasons behind this thinking. In Nigeria, South Africa and Kenya, fintech is the sector that receives the most funding. The major sector is e-commerce and retail in Egypt, but the country is a hot spot for fintech, too, evident in holding the highest pre-seed rounds in both categories (Rabbit’s $11 million and Telda’s $5 million rounds).
When I wrote this piece earlier this year, the largest pre-seed round at the time was Autochek’s $3.4 million. Rabbit’s eight-figure pre-seed is thrice that amount. Sources recently told TechCrunch that another Egyptian startup will close a pre-seed round that high next year.
Mindblowing pre-seed investments like these are one of the many indicators of how fast venture capital has picked up in Africa. The continent’s startups raised over $4 billion this year and minted five unicorns. No one knows what to expect in 2022, but there’s a nuanced sanguinity that we would see “more of everything” including some IPOs (I might be reaching here) so brace yourselves.
CaptivateIQ raises $100M at a $1.25B valuation to help companies design customized sales commission plans
Less than 10 months after raising a $46 million Series B, CaptivateIQ announced today that it has raised $100 million in a Series C round at a $1.25 billion valuation.
The San Francisco-based startup, which has developed a no-code SaaS platform to help companies design customized sales commission plans, says it “more than tripled” its revenue compared to the year prior, although it declined to provide hard revenue figures.
A trio of firms co-led CaptivateIQ’s latest investment, including ICONIQ Growth and existing backers Sequoia and Accel. Sapphire Ventures also joined as a new investor in the financing, which brings the company’s total funding raised to date to $164.6 million.
CaptivateIQ’s customer base includes “hundreds of organizations across industries and continents,” including more than a quarter of the Forbes’ Cloud 100 and Affirm, Amplitude, ClassPass and Podium.
CaptivateIQ was founded in the winter of 2017 and came from Y Combinator’s Winter 2018 batch. In a nutshell, CaptivateIQ is part of a new wave of Incentive Compensation Management (ICM) solutions that have sprung up in recent years to help companies automate and improve the “complex” task of designing, processing and reporting commissions, according to Mark Schopmeyer, co-founder and co-CEO.
“Sales compensation represents the single largest go-to-market investment for most B2B companies, making commissions a mission-critical process for businesses,” he said. “However, managing commissions is difficult, and companies have been forced to choose between two suboptimal choices for the process — manual, opaque and error-prone spreadsheets or rigid and costly legacy solutions.”
Those legacy solutions, Schopmeyer contends, can only handle specific types of commission plans and require users to learn “arcane” programming languages.
“They are also often cost prohibitive with implementation fees in the six-figure range,” he said.
In his view, CaptivateIQ alleviates these pain points by taking the flexibility of spreadsheets and combining it with the scalability and performance of software technology to configure commissions plans with minimal support.
“Calculating commissions is really complicated and mission-critical — think of it like a very complicated form of payroll — each company has a unique commission plan that involves a lot more calculations and data than your typical salary payroll math,” co-CEO Conway Teng told me at the time of the company’s last raise. “Also, in recent years, companies have access to more data than ever, giving them room to incentivize employees on more performance metrics.”
For now, the company is in growth mode and focused on investing in the product, R&D and “building a great team,” Schopmeyer said.
Speaking of which, CaptivateIQ has more than 200 employees, up from about 90 at the time of its Series B in April of 2021.
For his part, ICONIQ Growth General Partner Doug Pepper believes the market opportunity in sales commissions is “enormous.”
“Unlike spreadsheets and legacy solutions, CaptivateIQ is extremely powerful and flexible, capable of adapting to diverse compensation plans and sales organizations as these organizations scale,” he wrote via email. “At the same time, the product strategically preserves familiar features of spreadsheets that makes using the platform highly intuitive to users.”
No-code is having a moment. Last week, Walnut, a company that creates sales and marketing demo experiences, announced a $35 million Series B financing. And Softr, a Berlin-based startup that lets customers build apps atop Airtable databases, recently raised $13.5 million in a Series A round.
Atrium grabs fresh capital to help sales teams meet their quota
With sales teams now operating remotely, it is even harder to monitor how well they are performing. Atrium wants to make sure sales managers, sales development managers and customer success leads have the data-driven insights to be able to do that.
The sales management technology company closed on $20 million in Series A funding to continue developing its tools that automatically monitor a company’s most important key performance indicators, get insights into performance to evaluate what is working and what isn’t and how to proactively coach the team to improve productivity and revenue.
The latest round of funding comes nearly a year after Atrium raised $13.5 million in seed funding. The Series A was led by Craft Ventures and included existing investors Bonfire Ventures, BullPen Ventures, Charles River Ventures and First Round Capital. The company has now raised a total of $33 million in funding.
Jason Heidema, co-founder and CEO of Atrium, said the new investment was a little earlier than the company initially planned, but after meeting Mike Marg, principal at Craft Ventures, Heidema felt that Marg was an expert on go-to-market and understood how to help Atrium build a new category of sales management.
Smaller companies don’t have the kinds of resources larger organizations have for sales management, Heidema said. At the same time, people are having to do much of the performance analysis manually when software could be used to solve that.
Heidema believes that sales management is having a “Money Ball moment” in that with the move to remote work, there is a need for metrics to be the eyes and ears for sales organizations to run well and improve the quality of the sales.
“The focus is on how we take sales managers and out-of-the box monitoring of every metric that matters to the organization and alert them what is working, what is not working and what to do about it,” he added. “We are working on product development to get more data-driven insights, and from a go-to-market perspective, we are continuing to expand our footprint into more sizes of companies and geographies.”
When we last spoke with Atrium in 2021, the company was working with over 100 customers, and today, the company has doubled its customer base and also tripled its revenue during the same time. Its net revenue retention is at 150%, which Heidema explained tells the company that it has figured out the formula and can now build a team to manage the growth.
As mentioned, the new funding will go toward product development and market expansion while also adding to the company’s current 50-person workforce. He expects to double the size of the company in the next 12 months.
Meanwhile, Marg said he is bullish on sales technology in general, which has experienced some “crazy tailwinds” as more companies understand that business-to-business sales is the pathway to “an amazing business model.”
A big thesis for Craft Ventures is the SaaS business model, and there is a lot of go-to-market technology out there accessible for sales teams. However, he believes that sales teams can only go so far with having something like Atrium.
In talking with customers about what their salespeople were doing with productivity, he found their biggest specific need was predicting their performance.
“That is what Atrium does,” he added. “There are a hundred different ways to slice the data, but Atrium comes up with insights you would normally miss or see trend data and call it out so you can address it with your team. Sales managers were always constantly putting out fires, but there are more now.”
“We are going to create the best environment for startups in Europe”
Spain’s government is gearing up to pass the country’s first ever startup law.
A draft law agreed by ministers was presented to the parliament last month. The process of debating and agreeing the details of this startup ecosystem support framework is expected to take between six and nine months. So — if all goes to plan — Spain will finally get a startup law before the end of this year.
The package of support looks substantial — covering key areas like tax breaks for investors, talent incentives like stock options and a new digital nomad visa to attract international tech workers, among other measures aimed at cutting red tape and shrinking the time and cost of starting up in Spain.
The startup law (aka ley de startups) is just one piece of a wider, ten-year strategy the country’s coalition government has been working on since 2020 — setting out an ambitious plan to transform and futureproof the economic fortunes of the Southern European nation by making it a Mediterranean paradise for entrepreneurs, plenty of whom flock to cities like Barcelona and Madrid already (if more for the climate and food than the burocracia).
Spain’s government talks in terms of a true levelling up agenda — emphasising that state support for entrepreneurs to scale disruptive ideas into mainstream platforms must go hand-in-hand with broader progressive policies aimed at ensuring digital scaling doesn’t just dial up societal inequality— whether around regional, socioeconomic or gender divides. Although that component of the España Nación Emprendedora strategy is, inevitably, going to be a slower burn, hence the decade-long lens.
In the near term, the startup law will be one of the first major deliverables of the strategy. And this key piece of the digital transformation puzzle is fully focused on entrepreneurs and investors.
TechCrunch caught up with the high commissioner for Spain Entrepreneurial Nation, Francisco Polo, for an update on what’s been agreed in the draft text of the startup law — and to get his views on some of the early feedback from the ecosystem.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
TechCrunch: Now the draft startup law is with the Parliament, are you confident this support package contains everything the ecosystem needs to thrive and grow?
Polo: We consider that the draft for the startup ecosystem law that was approved on December 10 actually represents a revolution — for the attraction of investment and the attraction of talent. And for us, for the High Commission, this is a confirmation that Spain is becoming one of the best countries in Europe for startups. So we are very excited to see this law being passed in Parliament, and to have it in full force in order to keep fulfilling the different measures that we have included in the Spain Entrepreneurial Nation strategy that we talked about a few months ago.
TechCrunch: So there’s nothing else you were hoping to include — obviously there could also be some amendments that come through the parliamentary process. But, at this point, you’re pretty happy with the package?
Polo: Yeah, because looking at the full picture, it’s actually the first time in our history that we’re going to have a specific legal framework for startups. It happens to be that this new legal framework for startups is going to become one of the most ambitious in Europe.
I mean, of course, there is always room for improvement — but we consider that the law as it is right now is extremely ambitious. And it’s going to really become a great tool for the attraction of investment and talent.
TechCrunch: Are you expecting many amendments to come through the parliamentary process? Is there anything that’s likely to cause much debate? Or is there really a strong consensus over these proposals?
Polo: One of the main things that makes this law pretty solid is that it comes from a dialogue that we held with the different sectors of innovative entrepreneurship. So it’s a very solid law and everything that went in it really reflects the long conversations that we held with innovative entrepreneurship in Spain. So we are not expecting big amendments to the law — because we also have a majority to pass the law. It should pass in very, very close terms as it has passed as a draft to the parliament.
TechCrunch: Do you an idea of how quickly that might happen — in terms of getting the law onto the statute books?
Polo: So the parliament is going to be leading on this and they have the full direction on how long it’s going to take. But according to what we are hearing from Parliament, it’s going to take between six and nine months. So it’s going to be between June and September of the current year.
What I understand is that the law is going to be under the general regime. So at the moment that it goes public on Boletín Oficial d’estado it will be in full force.
TechCrunch: So 2022 looks like it will be a very important year for startups in Spain…
Polo: Absolutely. For us, the most important thing about the startup law — there are different measures that I will be glad to talk about — but if you see the full picture, the different elements that we include in the law, stock options, visas, the non resident tax system, carried interest and the other measures, some of them they are even better than different regimes that we have in our environment in Europe. Others equal the countries that we have around us. But the whole law becomes a revolution, actually, not only for Spain but for entrepreneurs across the world because we are creating a new international hub for startups.
TechCrunch: In order to be able to access the support package a local startup must be an innovative business that’s up to five years old (or seven in biotech); making up to €5 million in revenue; and have at least 60% of its employees in Spain. Why did you draw the lines there? There has been some criticism that the definition of a startup is too narrow…
Polo: One of the drivers of our work at the High Commission is working with data and the data that we are using is that is the knowledge that the average startup lasts between three to five years — before it goes under or before it is acquired by another company.
This is sample data that we use — that we extracted from business data analysis. But also we have a more specific number in Spain. In Spain, the average lifespan of a startup is 2.7 years. So five years should be enough timespan in order to really adjust to what the startup is and to leave room for a startup to start and to grow enough in order to go to the next step. So we really believe that according to data, it’s a good timespan.
TechCrunch: But some startup groups and entrepreneurs have said the definition is too restrictive — including criticising the exclusion of serial entrepreneurs after, I think, three exits, which they argue means it’s punishing the most experienced/determined or even the best entrepreneurs. What do you say to that kind of push back?
Polo: That’s something that we could get to a common ground on, because the actual point of the law is to particularly allow serial entrepreneurs to create different startups. So this is something that we understand could be a point that [the text of the law better reflects] when it’s passed in parliament, because the point is to allow student entrepreneurs to start as many startups as they as they can.
Because the point of the law — and the point of the strategy — is to have the strongest startup ecosystem so it has good repercussions on the greater economy of Spain. So that’s the point and if that’s something that needs to be corrected, we are aligned with that ambition.
TechCrunch: There have also been some concerns around the certification process — and whether having only one body, Enisa, doing that will create a bottleneck. Is that something you’re at all worried about?
Polo: We prefer instead of worrying to actually work on the on the subject — and of course, on paper, when you see something like this, as I say on paper, I think that it’s a legitimate preoccupation to be worried about if Enisa is going to be able [to cope with the workload].
What we are doing and what Enisa is doing is getting ready in order to be able to respond to the demand of qualifying the different companies that are going to apply to them to be able to use the benefits of the new Spain startup ecosystem law. And this is something that is not brand new in the world — meaning that countries like Israel or Italy have very similar systems. And they work perfectly. So we are just doing the work and I know firsthand that Enisa is taking this very seriously so that it doesn’t become a bottleneck for startups.
TechCrunch: The Economic and Social Council of Spain (CES) has also made a number of criticisms of the startup law — including arguing it’s too narrowly focused on startups as limited companies, excluding other options like co-ops and limited liability labor companies. That’s an interesting point, considering the wider goal you have for the Entrepreneurial Nation Strategy to benefit the whole of Spain, not just narrowly uplift a digital elite. Do you think the CES critique has any important points?
Polo: On this we want to go back to the point of this law. We are creating the first startup law in the history of Spain and that’s the point — we want to create a law that is specific for startups.
It has been historically called for by the startup sector in Spain. So that’s why we have put the focus here. If we are creating a startup ecosystem law we are focusing on helping startups to have a better environment to succeed. So that’s the focus.
We should not mix up the goal of the startup law with the broad vision of the strategy. The strategy, of course, has a broader vision than the law. Because this strategy wants to work with the startup ecosystem, with the different driving sectors of the Spanish economy — and we also have specific measures in order to close the different social divides that we have in Spain.
So that’s why the startup law is focused on startups, because we needed a specific framework for them in order to have better tools to attract the investment they need, and better tools in order to also attract and retain and develop the talent that they need in order to turn Spain — and take the first steps into turning Spain — into a startup nation.
TechCrunch: On the investor side, the response has been positive but there too there are calls for the government to go even further — even though 2021 was a record year for VC investment in Spain. Do you think the parliament will resist pressure to be more generous to investors?
Polo: We really believe that there are great measures for investors in this law. I could start, for example, with carried interest. One of the main things that we are achieving — well, I should say that there are three main things for investors, I think that’s important first — the first is carried interest.
As you know, carried interest was not legally defined in Spanish law. So this generated a lot of uncertainty for investment funds to come to Spain. So, with this law, this is going to totally change. We’re going to have a full definition of carried interest. So the first achievement with this law is that we’re going to have legal certainty.
When you have this legal certainty and a tax treatment that is reasonable, you want to have more VC funds than others coming to Spain and accelerate the investments that we need in Spain in order to close the gap with other European countries. So that’s one of the main points.
And actually, in the regime for carried interest, we are generalizing the regime that they have in Vizcaya to the whole country. So we’re going to have a really attractive regime for carried interest. So this is the first of three things.
The second is something that has been also been called for for a very long time: That is the identification for international investors. So here what we did was remove red tape.
Before this law, what was needed to become an investor in Spain if you were an international investor was to obtain an NIE: Número de Identidad de Extranjero. This was something that was actually complicated to obtain. So we changed the criteria — and with the startup law the only thing that is going to be needed is the NIF (Número de Identificación Fiscal). Which is much simpler. It’s a leaner procedure in order to get it.
Third — and this is particularly important — we will have a new framework for the deductions on investment. There is an improvement. So the deduction percentage that you can have when you invest in a startup goes from the current 30% to 50%. And the maximum base for this deduction goes from €60,000 to €100,000.
These numbers are not by chance. We wanted on this topic to equal — or to be on par — with what we believe is one of the best regimes for business angels in in Europe that is the SEIS, the seed enterprise investment system in the UK. What they have is a deduction of 50% for £100,000. So we are equaling the system that they have in the UK. So this is going to be a huge revolution for business angels and investors.
And we are also allowing this deduction for the founders of the company. So it’s also going to be great for the entrepreneurs who invest in their own companies.
We really believe it’s a great package that is going to help Spain to stand out among international competitors and send a very clear message for VC funds and for business angels in Europe and in the world to invest in Spain and in Spanish startups.
TechCrunch: How quickly — on the investment side — do you expect the law to have an impact? Perhaps it’s already having an effect as investors are aware it’s coming so might be changing investment behavior ahead of time…
Polo: Well, as you know, law and legal framework, it’s only a part of the whole list of features that allow business investment or business angel investment or other funds to invest in Spanish startups. So we have been working on different items that we need to be working on in order to show that it’s really worth it to invest in Spanish companies. So this is going to accelerate the path that we’re recording — as you were mentioning, last year, we again surpassed the records of the previous year in terms of investment in Spanish startups. And this is the goal of the whole strategy — to accelerate this path, in order to close the gap with other European countries. So Spain in 10 years becomes the main country in the mainland Europe, in terms of investment in startups.
TechCrunch: So you you want to overtake France’s level of startup investment within a decade, for example?
Polo: Our goal? Yeah, we are extremely ambitious on the investment goal. And yes, we want to close the gap with France and Germany in the next ten years.
TechCrunch: In the near term what are you projecting — in terms of the acceleration of the volume of investment into Spain — over the next, say, five years? Do you have figures on that?
Polo: We don’t have figures on that because there are so many factors that affect investment that we cannot make that kind of prospection. But what we are actually doing is cutting the red tape, creating a better legal framework for startup investments in Spain, and generating the investments that need to be done in the ecosystem in order to accelerate that.
Another tool that we have in order to accelerate investment in the Spanish startup ecosystem is the Next Tech Fund, which is going to help Spanish startups become scale-ups which is the real challenge that we have in our country in terms of investment.
So this fund is going to be putting together more than €4BN [half public, half private funds] in order to help Spanish companies go for the rounds that are above €10M. So, as you can see, we understand that the acceleration of investments in Spanish startups and scale-ups is something that has to do with different elements — and we are tackling each and every one of them at the precise time.
What we see is that there’s going to be an acceleration, and we are doing everything that needs to be done in order to see that acceleration. And when it happens we will see the specific numbers.
TechCrunch: How else are you making use of EU coronavirus recovery funding to support growth of the startup ecosystem?
Polo: The Next Tech Fund is only one of the measures that we are putting together with the EU funds.
Under the Spain Entrepreneurial Nation strategy [which has a budget of €4.2BN until 2023] we have a huge amount of money that is going to be directed to different measures. So you have in there Renafe, which is going to be the network between incubators and accelerators. We want to launch also ONE: That is Oficina Nacional Emprendimiento — the one-stop-shop for startups, for investors, for scale-ups and we want to establish as the main point of entrance for anything that relates to this ecosystem.
So there are several measures that are going to be absorbing those EU funds in order to make Spain the startup nation with the highest social impact.
TechCrunch: Once the startup law is passed, how different will life be for entrepreneurs and startups in Spain that qualify for support?
Polo: This is going to be a radical change. In Spain, we know that we have four main challenges for the startup ecosystem. First is investment. Second is talent. Third is scaling up. And fourth is having a full demonstration that Spain is actually an entrepreneurial state.
So on the first two the law is going to have a huge impact. The law is going to become a revolution when it comes to the attraction of investment — thanks to the different tools that I have already mentioned. But it’s also going to be a revolution when it comes to talent. And there, there are three measures that we didn’t talk about yet — which are going to have a huge impact. They are stock options; visas and residence permits; and third, the non-resident tax system.
When it comes to when it comes to stock options, in here, we are really revolutionising a new compensation tool in order to attract and retain talent. The specifics of the new stock option in Spain are that first, we are going from an exemption of €12,000 to an exemption of €50,000. This exemption of €50,000 can be applied during 10 years, making a total amount of €500,000. And what is even more important — and what is going to be make the Spanish stock options quite practical — is that they are going to be considered earned income. The owners of the stock options are only going to pay taxes when they obtained liquidity or after those 10 years.
In addition to all that there’s another fundamental change in the law that is going be great for startups — and it is that the conditions in order to provide stock options to the different workers of the company can be different for different cohorts of workers, which was not a possibility before the startup law.
So in order to sum up when it comes to stock options, we really believe that we have put Spain ahead of countries like the UK, France, Germany, Italy or Portugal.
The country that we usually take as a reference for stock options when working on this is the UK. And, as you know, the exemption in the UK, is of £30,000 and only for three years. The exemption in Spain now is going to be €500,000, and it’s going to be able to be applied for 10 years, which is a huge improvement compared to the one of the most competitive countries that we have around us. And that’s only for stock options.
I also mentioned visas. That’s the second thing that’s going to be a great improvement in order to attract and retain talent. First, in there, we are creating a new visa category that is digital nomads. So we get on par with countries like France, Portugal, Estonia, Croatia, and the Netherlands. So we’re going to allow international workers to work in Spain — to make it easier for them to work from Spain for their companies.
And when it comes also to visas and residence permits, we are also creating a revolution because we are extending the permits. So for entrepreneurs, for example, the current permit in order to stay in Spain is for one year — with the startup law it’s going to be extended to three years. And they will also be able to obtain permanent residence after five years.
For investors it’s also extended. Currently, the period of residence for an investor in Spain is one year — and with the startup law we are also extending this to three years. So there’s also going to be a revolution when it comes to visas and residents permits.
Third, I was mentioning the non resident tax system — so for the people who want to actually stay in Spain, they are going to benefit from a special tax system for the period of the change of residence, and for the following five tax periods.
The first change that we’re seeing here is that now it’s going to be applied to all the different stakeholders of the startup ecosystem. So it’s going to be applied to entrepreneurs, to investors, and to skilled professionals. Secondly, we are also improving this system because — at present — you need to be out of Spain for 10 years in order to be able to opt in for this regime. Now we are cutting these 10 years to five years. So this means that a bigger amount of people will be able to access this special tax system. So this is also going to be a revolution.
On this, non resident tax systems, for us, the reference is our neighbor Portugal which did very well — it has reduced tax payment for internationals. And we are, similarly, improving disproportionately the treatment of this tax system in order to attract [talent to Spain].
TechCrunch: I think this component of the startup law has been likened to the existing tax regime for wealthy foreigners — nicknamed the Beckham law, after the footballer, David Beckham — hasn’t it?
Polo: Yeah, it has a lot to do with it — we have special regimes for non-residents. Because we are turning Spain into this entrepreneurial nation that wants to attract high quality talent, we are offering taxing systems that are going to be very attractive for engineers, for designers, and for people who are related to this generation of a new economy that produces higher rates of productivity for the country.
TechCrunch: The startup law also provides for trial licenses for startups in regulated industries — which can apply to test products for, I think, up to a year. Are these essentially regulatory sandboxes? How will they work?
Polo: This is something that is quite new [in Spain]. We have recently started with financial sandboxes. The Ministry of Economy is still working to understand and evaluate how these first sandboxes are helping the financial sector to let startups introduce and market their own products. And what we are doing here [with the startup law] is making very clear that this new tool — the sandbox — will be available for every startup in every different leading sector of the economy. And we are also allowing the different ministries to generate their own sandboxes and particularly incentivizing them to create it. So the specifics of how every sandbox works will be designed by every ministry.
TechCrunch: Now the draft startup law is in the hands of Parliament, I’m curious, what are your priorities as the High Commissioner — you’re presumably very focused on the wider entrepreneurial strategy? How’s that going?
Polo: I really appreciate this question because I think it is very important. We really believe that it’s very important to be able to take a step back and look at the full picture. So first, when we have achieved in the most recent years: In 2020, we created for the first time a high commissioner within the presidency that is leading the efforts to turn Spain into the startup nation with the highest social impact. So, first, we have achieved a great deal when it comes to institutionalizing the efforts to make a better environment for startups in Spain.
Second, in February last year, in 2021, the president presented the Spain Entrepreneurial Nation strategy. So we are showing that we have a full ten year plan, that is made up of 50 measures that are going to define how we’re going to build this startup nation. So it’s not only a big name, it’s it’s a full plan. And we are also — third — backing those 50 measures with the EU funds.
So there’s no better guarantee that the different measures included in that strategy are going to be implemented and that they have the resources they need in order to become a reality in the coming months and years.
And fourth, now we have this new startup ecosystem law, which is going to show that we walk the talk, we say that we are going to create the best environment for startups in Europe — and we are taking steps, one after the other, in order to to achieve that.
The startup law is not the first step that we took, as I just said — and it’s not going to be the last. It is one of the 50 measures that we have in the Spain Entrepreneurial Nation strategy. So there is much more to come in the next few years and much more good news for entrepreneurs in Europe and in the world if they want to come to Spain to start their endeavours.
For the next month, we’re going to be following very closely what the parliament is doing, talking to everyone in parliament and also keeping the conversations with the different actors and leaders of the Spanish ecosystem. And we are very confident that the law is going to be to be passed — without major changes — this year. So it’s going to really become a revolution for startups, investors and talent in Spain.
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