Over the past several years, impact investing — which intends to generate a positive, social or environmental impact alongside financial return — has become more commonplace in Europe’s startup ecosystem.
Numerous initiatives and measures have been put in place by companies, investors, governments and institutions across Europe to create impactful returns on investments, such as the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), an agenda that pushes for a healthier planet (socially and environmentally) in the next decade.
What’s more, consumers care about the impact their spending has more than ever. A consumer survey from The Nielsen Company found that 68% of consumers were willing to pay more for a sustainable product, up from 50% two years earlier.
In light of this, we’ve crafted a list of the most-noteworthy investors, fund managers and impact support groups operating now in the European startup ecosystem. Each invests, funds or supports purpose-driven companies that aspire to have a positive social and/or environmental impact along with good economic returns.
Bethnal Green Ventures (BGV)
Latest fund size: BGV manages a group of funds from different kinds of investors (including SEIS, EIS and institutions) investing approximately £2m into startups at pre-seed and seed stage each year.
Recent investments: Healthcare messaging app Hospify, foodtech startup LettUs Grow and diabetes wellness app Second Nature.
Number of female founders in portfolio: 43 (52% of its active ventures)
Number of BAME founders in portfolio: Approximately 29 (35%)
London-based BGV has been a leading tech for good VC since 2012. Its focus is on ambitious founders who use technology to tackle the world’s social and environmental issues, from combating climate change to reducing inequalities — and it’s pretty vocal on the matter.
BGV is hot on helping companies become impact-driven from an early stage, adopting a range of impact methodologies such as the Impact Management Project, a global consensus on how to measure and manage social and environmental impact, and the SDGs to foster impact-friendly thinking.
BGV invests via a three-month accelerator programme which it runs twice a year, where participants receive £30,000 in exchange for 7% equity. The programme includes workshops and 1:1s, pushing companies to understand the SDGs they need to know to tackle any unintended, harmful consequences their products and services could have. It also provides follow-on investments for its portfolio companies at pre-seed and seed-stages, making nine follow-on investments in 2019.
“It’s important for companies to show how the transformational impact they are trying to achieve fits with wider frameworks, such as the UN sustainable development goals. What companies can do is to familiarise themselves with the SDG indicators and targets,” says Dama Sathianathan, partner at BGV.
Latest fund size: €25m (aiming for €30m by September 2020)
Recent investments: Connecterra, a dairy herd monitoring system, Rootwave, a sustainable weed control developer and Naïo, a robotics company specialised in farming.
Number of female founders in portfolio: 1 with a female founder, 1 with a female CEO.
Number of BAME founders in portfolio: 1
Running for 25 years, the community of over 150 impact investors at Pymwymic (meaning Put Your Money Where Your Meaning Is Community) are a collective of like-minded individuals with the mission to prove to the world that investment should go into people and the planet as well as generating capital returns.
You’ll find members of this ‘co-operative’ scattered around Europe, the US, South America, Singapore and its home base in Amsterdam. While it remains sector agnostic, it has recently focused on agtech and sustainable food systems.
At one point, Pymwymic was a matchmaking platform between private investors in Europe and impact startups that wanted to be backed by the right investors. “It wasn’t the most efficient process in decision making,” says Isabel Mora Le Moyne, Pymwymic’s investor relations and communications lead, which explains the transition into direct investments.
Often, we find solutions that aren’t making enough of a system change.
When assessing impact, it looks at things like the depth of the impact, making sure the impact mission is firmly (and legally) embedded and sets key performance indicators (KPIs), such as the preservation of natural resources.
Mora Le Moyne explains that Pymwymic sets out to find daring and bold companies who will make “structural changes,” but they can be hard to come by. “Often, we find solutions that aren’t making enough of a system change. Of course, this is more challenging to do, however, this is where great impact lies,” she adds.
Ananda Impact Ventures
Latest fund size: €50m
Recent investments: Medical services provider Doktor24, digital therapy platform Caspar and bionic limbs developer Open Bionics.
Number of female founders in portfolio: 10 (40%)
Number of BAME founders in portfolio: 0 (Ananda is about to invest in its first BAME-founded startup.)
Founded after the 2008/09 financial crash, Ananda Impact Ventures arrived at a time when conscious thinking about sustainability became more mainstream in the ecosystem. With its main HQ in Munich, it also operates in the UK from its London office and eyes companies in the late seed/Series A stage for its investments.
A lot of its investments are focused on digital health — a topic that is seeing increased attention as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Other topics of interest include education, inclusion and sustainable consumption.
Recently, it partnered with VC firms Breega and Connect Ventures to run remote VC office hours, to provide free and confidential advice to startups looking for help on coping with challenges arising from the Covid-19 crisis.
It’s interested in seeing more impact-friendly fintechs emerge, which could tap into more vulnerable groups — like the elderly, or those with poor mental health — by helping them make life-changing decisions. “This could be helping people understand the role of pensions better, or investing in education so people can upskill and progress in the workforce,” says Zoe Peden, an investment manager at Ananda.
Latest fund size: Raising £100m
Recent investments: Pace, a platform helping hoteliers set prices for rooms and Raylo, an iPhone leasing service.
Number of female founders in portfolio: 50% of its technology investments, 30% of its creative investments
Number of BAME founders in portfolio: 100%
This London-based VC is on a mission to improve the funding opportunities in Europe that underrepresented entrepreneurs such as black and female leaders often miss out on. According to Eric Collins, chief executive and cofounder of Impact X, less than 1% of venture capital goes to people of colour in Europe, while only 4% goes to women.
In the weeks following the start of the Black Lives Matter protests, Collins has been highlighting how hard it can be for black businesses to access capital via media outlets such as the FT, Bloomberg, The Guardian and Sky News — and wrote an insightful piece for Sifted on how black businesses can be helped during the coronavirus crisis and beyond.
The firm tells Sifted that they would like to see more companies implement diversity strategies into their business models “to ensure equitable distribution of underrepresented people throughout the decision-making hierarchy of companies.”
Take a look at this list of diversity initiatives that supports diverse and underrepresented founders in Europe’s ecosystem.
Pale Blue Dot
Latest fund size: €53m
Recent investments: Sustainable agriculture startup Phytoform and forest intelligence provider 20tree.ai
Number of female founders in portfolio: 1 (33%)
Number of BAME founders in portfolio: 1 (33%)
Meet the newest impact investor in town. It was founded in Malmö in June 2020 and identifies as a “climate only” VC. While it’s thematically locked to climate change, it remains sector agnostic, having invested in agriculture, machine learning and more, with a focus on scalable software. Considering it’s a freshly made VC, it appears to be on track to create a diverse and inclusive portfolio with female and BAME-led companies.
It assesses its startups like most VCs, by analysing startups’ founding teams, the relevant markets and opportunities — but making sure that these correspond with positive climate change. “I’m interested in talking to founders who are thinking ahead around these problems on how we can better prepare to face our new reality,” says Heidi Lindvall, one of the firm’s three founding partners.
Lindvall adds that it’s not enough for companies to solely pay attention to business metrics like revenue or customer acquisition; they also need to track their social and climate impact, for example measuring KPIs like carbon footprint. She adds that many impact startups struggle to know exactly what impact to measure, as there is no standardised way of doing so. A good way to begin measuring impact is to choose the right KPIs and work from there, she says. "For companies focused on climate change for example, I would recommend looking at Project Drawdowns solutions to decide what you can measure or report."
She also advises that companies unsure how to approach should start with the sustainable development goals. “The SDGs are a great resource for businesses to not only identify problems their businesses can help address, but also possible ways to break the problems down to targets and measurable indicators.”
Latest fund size: €91m (with the aim to close at €100m later this year)
Recent investments: Sustainable logistics company Einride, digital companion for chronic diseases Elsa Science and AI satellite system which helps with zero waste farming Vultus.
Number of female founders in portfolio: 7 (33%)
Number of BAME founders in portfolio: 4 (19%)
Another Swedish impact investor, Norrsken VC was the brainchild of Klarna cofounder Niklas Adalberth, who left the fintech in 2016 to start a foundation that would both invest in startups and create a coworking space for companies to scale tech innovation for the greater good.
The firm has been hailed as Europe's biggest social impact fund for early-stage tech startups, and offers an alternative perspective to the unicorn concept, being that it aspires to back companies that will have a positive impact on 1bn people's lives, as opposed to the unicorns we know (companies valued at $1bn).
We would like to see even more companies that are tackling topics of social equality and financial inclusion through innovative business models.
When looking for startups to invest in, Norrsken takes a stricter line on its investment criteria. To be chosen, startups need to have "clearly measurable impact", for example, KPIs on climate change, that can be tracked over time. It has made impact investments in a plethora of areas, such as climate, edtech, healthtech, agritech and more — but general partner Agate Freimane says that "we would like to see even more companies that are tackling topics of social equality and financial inclusion through innovative business models."
Freimane adds that the commitment of founding teams and managers is often a driving force in sustainable companies. There would be even more firms heading in that direction, she says, "if there were more best practice examples out there that can inspire and guide any company towards more sustainable business operations."
Big Society Capital (BSC)
Latest fund invested in: Connect Ventures ($80m June 2020).
Recent LP investments: Connect Ventures, Eka Ventures and BGV (a follow-on investment).
Number of female venture fund managers in portfolio: 100% of 2020 investments have a female partner, while approximately 50% of its portfolio has a female partner.
Number of BAME venture fund managers in portfolio: 1 founding partner (12.5%)
While Big Society Capital (BSC) does not directly invest in startups, its money is invested into investors that are impact led, like BGV. This UK-based ‘fund of funds’ of sorts was founded in 2012 by Sir Ronald Cohen, founder of the VC firm Apax and backed by leading UK high-street banking giants from Lloyds to HSBC.
Its mission is to improve the lives of people in the UK through a ‘venture way of making change’.
It draws from data when assessing the impact that companies it works with to see how much positive change there is. While it is sector agnostic, it has seen its strategies become most effective in the areas of healthcare, education and financial inclusion. BSC sees potential in areas from mental ill health to tackling childhood obesity.
Impact can reinforce financial performance by enabling startups to better attract and retain customers, talent, and investors.
Katie Fulford-Smith, BSC’s engagement manager, says startups need to think hard about what social and/or environmental impact their product or service will have right from the start. “Companies can do more to embed impact intentionality in their product design. We find the Impact Management Project’s five dimensions of impact helpful in articulating impact intent,” says Fulford-Smith.
For VCs and the wider ecosystem, she adds that there needs to be better recognition of the potential in purpose-led startups, saying that “impact can reinforce financial performance by enabling startups to better attract and retain customers, talent, and investors.”
“To deliver on this potential, purpose-led startups need high-quality investors signalling that impact matters – and engaging with the impact they have or could have.”
Funds under management: 1.7bn NOK (€158.4m)
Recent investments: Hydrogen production company ZEG Power and VC firm Alliance Venture
Number of female founders in portfolio: 1 from portfolio (20%), 1 from funds (33%)
Number of BAME founders in portfolio: 0
Nysnø not only has a portfolio of companies that it’s invested in, it is also a limited partner in investment firms such as the Canadian investor ArcTern Ventures, which recently set up shop in Oslo. Similar to Pale Blue Dot, the three-year-old Norwegian VC is on the lookout for impactful climate technology across sectors, investing in renewable energy, the circular economy, digital technologies and beyond.
We are keen to see business models that can capitalise on circularity at scale.
Lene Elizabeth Hodge, Nysnø’s sustainability and communications officer, outlines the firm’s interest in seeing impact and capital working hand in hand in order to foster successful businesses while creating positive change. “We are keen to see companies capture increased customer awareness in sustainability, in terms of electric mobility, new food habits and energy demand. We are also keen to see business models that can capitalise on circularity at scale,” she says.
While Nysnø sees SDGs as a crucial element in creating impactful business models, Hodge points out that founders and investors alike struggle to figure out how to apply them in their business model. Hodge advises that a good start would be to “identify what is important to the company and close to the business model, and not being afraid to start small and build SDG-toolkits over time.”
Nesta Impact Investments
Fund size: £17.6m
Portfolio includes: Behaviour analytics platform Featurspace and exercise and activity company Oomph Wellness.
Focus: Education, health, government innovation.
A sustainable investment arm part of the innovation foundation Nesta, its initial investments range from seed to Series A rounds between £500,000 and £1m.
Mustard Seed MAZE
Fund size: €40m
Portfolio includes: Delivery-first kitchen builders Kitch and micro-insurance firm Omocom.
Focus: Climate change, inequality.
A joint venture by the London-based VC Mustard Seed and Lisbon-based VC MAZE, it invests in European early-stage impact ventures between pre-seed and Series B.
Latest fund size: €10m (with a target of €30m)
Portfolio includes: Baby food company Smileat and carsharing service Bluemove.
Focus: Health and wellness, environmental sustainability, education and social innovation.
Reportedly Spain’s first institutional impact investing fund, it focuses its investments on small to medium-enterprises, investing in between €500,000-€3m.
Fund size: Undisclosed
Portfolio includes: Peer-to-peer home assistance platform Helpper and the online divorce resolution tool Justice42.
Focus: Sector agnostic
The Belgian investor focuses on early-growth non-seed stage companies with sustainable business models. It supports portfolio companies with financing, advice and coaching.
Since 2011, the Switzerland-based firm helps impact startups scale across Europe from Series A to B, through workshops and training to help startups better their impact strategies, while helping startups search for the right impact investors. It’s currently raising a fund.