Startup Life/News/

Who are the founders building billion-dollar businesses in the DACH region?

A report from Antler VC reveals the backgrounds of DACH unicorn founders from the class of 2022

By Miriam Partington in Berlin

Credit: Antler VC

In the last two years, the DACH region has been getting a lot of attention.

The region’s seen a record level of investment, with companies from speedy grocery startup Flink to neobank N26 raising some of the area’s biggest rounds ever. And Gorillas became the fastest company in Germany ever to reach unicorn status.

Between September 2021 and now, the DACH region spawned a record number of unicorns too. 25 companies crossed the $1bn mark in this period, representing almost 40% of unicorns to date, according to early-stage investor Antler. 

But what has made DACH unicorn founders so successful? And what are their characteristics and backgrounds?

Antler analysed the founding teams of these 25 new DACH unicorns — looking at what they have in common and how they differ from earlier unicorn founders. 

Here are some key takeaways. 

The share of founders from tech backgrounds has increased in 2022 

For unicorns formed between 2000 and August 2021, 26% of founders had a background in IT and/or software development. This has increased to 35% in the most recent batch of unicorns founded between September 2021 and May 2022 — let’s call this the “class of 2022”. 

This change means the proportion of founders from a typical business background (ie those who studied a business degree, or who worked in consulting, corporate finance etc) has decreased: from 58% for that previous two-decade period to 42% for the class of 2022. 

The boost in tech founders is reflected in the founding teams of unicorns too. 

Of the 25 newly minted unicorns, eight (32%) of the founding teams come from a combined business-tech background, while four (16%) are from tech backgrounds only.

This is in contrast to unicorns formed before this cohort, where 35% of teams had founders from business-only backgrounds. These teams are now down to 16% in the 2022 class as there are more tech-only and domain-only teams. 

While business-only teams have decreased in 2022, they’ve still created the most unicorns (18) in the DACH region. Teams with a tech background founder and a business background founder have built 17 unicorns.

Class of 2022 founders had startup experience prior to founding a unicorn company

47% of new unicorn founders had startup experience as an employee or founder before building their billion-dollar company. 42% of founders are serial entrepreneurs.

Antler’s data also shows that fewer class of 2022 unicorn founders have previously worked in consulting: 18% compared to 29% for unicorns minted before September 2021. 

Experience as a consultant does, however, still prove useful when founding a company — and perhaps getting the attention of investors with brand name companies on your resumé — with 25% of all unicorn founders coming from a consultant background looking at data for all time.

Only 10% of founders in the class of 2022 and previous minted unicorns had no experience at all before starting a unicorn company, challenging the stereotype of university dropouts founding companies. 

WHU spawns the most unicorn founders

The most popular universities among class of 2022 founders are as follows:

  1. WHU: Otto Beisheim School of Management (Vallendar, Düsseldorf)
  2. TU Munich 
  3. ETH Zürich
  4. Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich
  5. St Gallen (Switzerland) and London School of Economics (tie) 

Interestingly, founders from technical university ETH usually team up with each other when building companies, the report notes, as do founders from TU Munich, also a technical university. 

One of the main reasons for this is that several tech companies were started by founders during their student years and were spun off later on — such as process mining unicorn Celonis and flying taxi company Lilium from TUM, and traveltech GetYourGuide and climate tech giant Climeworks from ETH.

Class of 2022 unicorn founders attend different universities than previous founders

For unicorns formed before September 2021, 60% of unicorn founders went to the same 10 universities in the graph. 47% attended the top five institutions. 

The 2022 class of unicorn founders is attending a more diversified range of educational institutions than previously. This year 45% attended the top 10 universities listed in the graph and only 30% attended the top five universities.

Boston Consulting Group remains the top employer for unicorn founders

BCG is followed by Rocket Internet and McKinsey & Company as the top three employers for founders prior to building a company — a metric that reflects the last two decades of unicorn founders.  

Goldman Sachs became the fourth top previous employer of unicorn founders in 2022, followed by Siemens. 

The percentage of unicorn founder teams with two or more founders who worked at the same company before founding a company together has remained constant at 40%. 

This demonstrates that founders tend to look to their network of former colleagues first when searching for a cofounder.

Sifted Take 

Antler’s data shows that unicorn founders in the DACH region still predominantly come from traditional elite backgrounds — and that the path to entrepreneurship involves attending a top-tier university and/or working at large, successful companies in consulting or investment banking.

Does this show that attitudes towards what makes a good entrepreneur — a prestigious degree and corporate experience — have not changed among the investor community? The data reminds us there’s a way to go before the region’s successful tech founders reflect the society for which they are building. 

Miriam Partington is Sifted’s DACH correspondent. She also covers future of work, coauthors Sifted’s Startup Life newsletter and tweets from @mparts_

Join the conversation

avatar
  Subscribe  
Notify of