Deeptech/News/

Daniel Ek’s investment group announces first bet in defence startup Helsing

Prima Materia leads €102.5m Series A investment in the British-German defence AI company

By Eleanor Warnock

Daniel Ek

Spotify cofounder Daniel Ek’s investment company announced its first investment today, backing British-German defence artificial intelligence company Helsing. 

It is a rare big funding round for a defence-focused tech company, a sector that VCs on both sides of the Atlantic have often shunned because of reputational concerns. Helsing claims its AI has been built to be traceable and transparent, and that the company will focus on serving countries with “the highest democratic standards”. 

“We have built the AI from the outset to make it easy to understand how it is thinking. We call it seeing the world through the lens of an AI,” Gundbert Scherf, Helsing’s president and chief operating officer, told Sifted. “We have also designed it around principles important in Nato and in Europe, around respect for human rights and civil liberties and privacy.”

For example, Helsing will not work on facial recognition. It also has agreements to prevent the sale of the software outside of certain countries. 

Ek’s investment company, Prima Materia, will put up €100m of Helsing’s €102.5m Series A, subject to regulatory approval. Ek will also join the company’s board. The investment values the company at just over €400m, according to the Financial Times. 

Ek is one of an emerging generation of successful European entrepreneurs, including Wise’s Taavet Hinrikus and Monzo’s Tom Blomfield, who are putting their fortunes to work in backing newer European tech companies. He is perhaps the most ambitious of the bunch: the Swedish entrepreneur said last year that he would put €1bn of his personal fortune into European “moonshots” over the next decade. 

“Europe needs more super companies, both for the ecosystem to develop and thrive. But I think more importantly if we’re going to have any chance to tackle the infinitely complex problems that our societies are dealing with at the moment, we need different stakeholders, including companies, governments, academic institutions, non-profits and investors of all kinds to work together,” Ek said. 

Torsten Reil, Helsing CEO, told Sifted that working with Ek had helped the founding team think on an “audacious scale” about their ambitions for the company.

“Daniel has proven that it is possible to build a world-leading company in a new sector at scale in Europe. Not many people have proven that,” he told Sifted. “Daniel desensitises you to large numbers quite quickly because of the size of Spotify. He gives you permission to think big.”

Helsing says that “software — and, in particular, artificial intelligence — will be the key capability to keep liberal democracies from harm”. 

Western armies are increasingly turning to startups to make sure that they can keep pace with technological developments, and there is concern that Europe may already be irreparably behind in areas like AI. 

“The equilibrium is getting out of kilter and Europe is falling behind in areas like AI,” said Reil. “But it is possible to catch up and achieve tech leadership. The good news is we have the talent here.”

Helsing believes it has an edge in creating algorithms able to be trained with relatively small amounts of data. Its software platform processes data from sensors and cameras on vehicles and systems to create real-time views of battlefields. Combining data from several cameras and infrared sensors, for example, would allow a search-and-rescue mission to locate people far more quickly than would be possible with the human eye. Helsing ran practice scenarios on this based on the floods that devastated central Europe this summer.  

“The software can see 12, 15, 18 people at the same time, which would be almost impossible for a human operator to do viewing a video stream and it can also assign a geolocation to each of them in real-time, which would be impossible for a human to do,” said Reil.

The company was founded earlier this year, but has already attracted big-hitter hires. Those include chief technology officer Robert Fink, who joined from Palantir earlier this year. The company will use the investment to expand its team of 70 researchers and engineers. 

Other VCs are eyeing Prima Materia’s next moves. Earlier this year, the team hired a head of research, Brett Bivens, according to LinkedIn, and more recently Pia Michel as head of science translation. She was previously at German VC BlueYard.

Eleanor Warnock is Sifted’s commissioning editor. She tweets from @misssaxbys 

Additional reporting by Maija Palmer, Sifted’s innovation editor. She covers deeptech and corporate innovation, and tweets from @maijapalmer

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