Startup Europe. Grown up reporting
But which are the UK’s most exciting startups? Which are the ones to watch in 2020?
Here, Sifted’s reporters — in partnership with Dealroom.co — dig into the data, strategy and challenges behind the most important European startups.
We have picked companies based on the money they have raised, how quickly they are hiring and how formative they have been to the startup ecosystems around them. If there is anyone missing from this list, or anything is wrong in the numbers, please let us know by email at [email protected]
Please check out our jobs board to see some of the companies hiring from this list, as well as our lists from other European countries.
Tom Blomfield, the chief executive, is hugely admired by other founders and across the European startup world.
Monzo has done a good job of removing the hassle from managing finances while also crafting an image as “ethical”, with features like an optional gambling block (used by 140,000 people) and customer-centric service —for example allowing users to get their salary a day in advance of being paid.
Despite its fans and unicorn valuation, however, the bank is renowned for its “disrupt-now-and-make-money-later” approach. Monzo’s losses climbed to £47.2m in the fiscal year ending February 2019 (compared to Revolut, for example, which reported a £14.8m loss for 2017).
The widening losses are driven largely by a near-tripling in personnel costs as the company increased headcount from 300 to 713. Blomfield says losses will likely rise further this year thanks to a £20m marketing drive.
But, while sceptics of its business model abound, there are some positive financial signs as well. Monzo says it has stopped burning cash on new customers because people are increasingly starting to use the app-based bank as their main provider (crucial for any neobank).
Monzo’s latest annual report said the proportion of customers depositing salaries reached 30% by the end of February 2019, up from 12% a year earlier. Total customer deposits rose more than sixfold to £461.8m, while customer numbers almost trebled to 1.6m.
The company’s “per-user contribution margin” — basically money made or lost on each customer — reached £2 by the end of February, from -£30 a year earlier. Earlier this week Monzo announced a £113m investment that valued the bank at just over £2bn.
With too many players, the last 12 months has seen a round of consolidation with rival Delivery Hero selling its German business to Netherlands-based Takeaway.com and UK-based Just Eat and Takeaway.com toying with a merger to create a £9bn behemoth (if rival bidder Prosus does not spoil the party).
Either way, all the dealings leaves €1.8bn-valued Deliveroo looking a little, well, small.
In 2019 the company was also forced to pull out of Germany while at the same time Uber Eats is also making a big push for this market.
Still, it’s not all bad news. In May 2019 Deliveroo, which is led by Will Shu, raised $575m (including money from Amazon), taking total investment into the loss-making six-year-old business to $1.5bn.
The company is also looking beyond delivery, betting on dark kitchens — overflow food preparation spaces to rent out to restaurants which need extra kitchen capacity.
Deliveroo has 16 “Editions” (as its kitchen sites are known) in the UK, one site in the Netherlands, two sites in France and two sites in Spain. In total 140 restaurants use these 21 sites.
In a bid to bring on board even more restaurants, Deliveroo has recently formed a “Restaurant Rescue Team” which will offer struggling businesses space at its kitchen sites.
Further reading: Deliveroo pulls out of Germany
Citymapper wants to do so much more than tell you the best way to get from A to B. In 2017, it also started running buses and a shared taxi service, with a plan to reinvent not just buses but also how transport systems are run. Citymapper was all set to become the brain of London’s enormously complex transport system (then the world’s).
But it did not really turn out like that. In summer 2019, Citymapper ended its shared taxi service. Instead, it is now focusing on selling a “subscription to mobility” — also known, in non-tech speak, as tickets. But investors are reportedly growing disillusioned with its inability to find a business model that works (and worried about Uber and Google’s moves in this space). 2020 could be a tough year for Citymapper.
It appears to have tapped into a millennial audience hungry for travel advice written by locals on the ground, while its listicle-heavy format (e.g 11 German Fairytale Villages You Need to Visit At Least Once) works well in the online-era.
The company has seen a see-sawing of strategy over the past year, however, which combined with some poorly-handled lay-offs of staff has won it some bad press (a poor culture a Culture Trip, they said).
The big business question is how the company will fare in trying to diversify its sources of revenues beyond the standard fare of advertising, affiliate deals and partnerships but creating an online travel agent.
Another question is whether it can maintain that level of traffic in a world where one Google or Facebook algorithm change can often make a huge difference to reader numbers.
Founder and chief executive Lex Greensill was a director at Morgan Stanley and Citibank before founding the eponymous firm in 2011. He subsequently received a CBE in 2017 for services to the British economy and is rumoured to spend the majority of his time on a corporate private jet shuttling between New York, London and his native Australia.
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is an advisor to the firm, which is backed by SoftBank’s Vision Fund. In May the company raised a round of $800m from the Vision Fund which valued the company at $3.5bn — firm unicorn territory. In October it raised another $655m in new funding the same fund, bringing its total capital raised since inception to $1.7bn.
Greensill is a brilliant and innovative financier, but some also worry about his high tolerance for risk and use of complicated off-balance-sheet financing structures. There have been several scandals surrounding the company. Most recently a Greensill fund, managed by investment manager GAM, witnessed huge outflows earlier this year following a scandal related to one of its bonds, resulting in the funds’ assets falling from €2.1bn to as low as €391m.
The company got a shot in the arm last year when Chinese company Netease, one of the world’s largest developers, agreed to build games on SpatialOS. The deal doubled Improbable’s valuation to $2bn little more than a year after SoftBank paid $502m for a significant minority stake.
But in 2019 Improbable took a blow when it became embroiled in a public spat with one of its major partners Unity, which makes one of the world’s most popular graphics engines.
There is also concern that the cost of their system is too high for small games developers, leading to worries about the startup’s overall business model. SpatialOS has a free tier for testing and prototyping purposes, so developers are able to build prototypes and familiarise themselves with the platform without paying hosting costs.
According to Companies House filings 2018 losses increased ten-fold and revenues fell to £579,859 from £7.8m in 2017, which is not ideal.
It’s also gearing up to play a far more central role in its customers’ lives once we’re all driving electric vehicles, generating energy at home with our solar panels and using smart meters — and need someone to help us manage that (more complicated) future.
There is competition from other players in this market; in the UK, there’s Ovo Energy (founded in 2009), in Spain, Holaluz (founded in 2010).
But Bulb is growing far faster, and has more customers. The next big (and potentially dangerous) move for the company is international expansion into France, Spain and Texas.
Towards the end of 2019, it will launch with “friends and family” in each of these markets. A full launch is planned in 2020. But can Bulb put a dent in the dominance of the incumbents in those markets as it has in the UK?
Further reading: Bulb Energy: the fastest growing startup in the UK
But what it lacks in fame it really makes up for in profits. It’s one of only a handful of money-making fintech companies in Europe, with profits up 220% to £33.9m in 2018.
Co-founded by Rishi Khosla and Joel Perlman, OakNorth is a platform that leverages big data and machine learning to help banks around the world improve their lending to lower mid-market businesses. Its white-label software-as-a-service solution is being licensed to a dozen banks globally.
The platform proposition was proven via OakNorth Bank which launched in September 2015, offering loans of £0.5m to £50m to fast-growth businesses, targeting a market that has been largely underserved by traditional banks in the aftermath of the financial crisis. So far, it has lent £4bn and says it has only had two defaults and no credit losses.
Earlier this year, it secured an investment of $440m from SoftBank’s Vision Fund in 2019 — the largest investment of any fintech in European history at the time.
OakNorth’s chief financial officer Cristina Alba-Ochoa tells Sifted that in Europe there are a whole lot of “clueless fintech people” building businesses that are likely to become big losers and that their failure is “more likely than people want to believe”.
Companies pay GoCardless to collect direct debits from customers on their behalf. It then takes a fee of up to 1% from those transactions and in return also provides data to help businesses retain their customers for longer.
The company is processing $10bn in payments annually for more than 50,000 organisations in the UK, Europe and Australia (for example enterprise software company Sage, travel site TripAdvisor and fitness company Les Mills).
GoCardless’s cofounder and chief executive Hiroki Takeuchi is hugely respected in the London startup world, not least because of his return to the business following a life-threatening bike accident in 2016, which left him paralysed from the chest down.
The big question for the company is how its move outside the UK into international markets, notably in the US, will go over the coming year.
Led by Nikolay Storonsky, the company has around 6m customers, up from 1.5m a year ago, and is adding around 16,000 accounts a day. It has around 1,200 employees compared to 400 a year ago.
The last fundraise, in April 2018, valued the company at $1.7bn but the company is expected to target a valuation of around $5bn to $10bn for its next funding round, which could be as much as $1.5bn ($500m in new equity and a $1bn convertible loan).
There are even reports that Japanese investment giant SoftBank might invest, although Storonsky refused to comment when asked by Sifted: “We speak with many big investors.”
However, amid this fast growth Revolut has also been stung by a series of negative articles pointing to teething problems at the bank and an allegedly toxic corporate culture. Tech publication Wired described a workplace where turnover and bad behaviour is rife, while The Telegraph newspaper in the UK said that the company turned off a system designed to prevent money laundering for three months in 2018, something that Revolut denies.
Still, public perception of the bank is improving and the growth numbers are nothing short of exceptional. One next big move for the company is formally launching a retail product in the US in the latter part of 2019. But further acceleration would come if the company bags a $1.5bn investment.
The cross-border money transfer company reported an annual post-tax net profit of £10.3m in the fiscal year ending March 2019, up 66% from the previous year. Revenues at the firm rose about 53% to £179m.
The company has a clever model (now replicated by many others) that means it doesn’t actually move money across borders, which would incur fees, instead maintaining separate pots for each currency, which it then disburses funds from.
The company was set up in 2011 by Estonian friends Taavet Hinrikus and Kristo Kaarmann, who saw an opportunity in high bank currency exchange fees. It now works with some banks, for example with France’s Groupe BPCE as well as fintech rivals Monzo and N26, which have integrated TransferWise’s software into their platforms.
Kaarmann, TransferWise’s chief executive, boasts that the company has become one of a “rare breed of unicorns” because it makes money, which is helped by businesses increasingly using their services.
Look out for Brexit-based uncertainty though. TransferWise is a UK financial services provider the company relies on EU passporting rights to operate on the continent, although it is opening an office in Brussels and has applied for a Belgian banking license in order to hedge against a no-deal Brexit.
The company is backed by a number of high-profile investors, including British billionaire Richard Branson, Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz and Valar Ventures, the venture fund cofounded by Peter Thiel.
It has built a platform that is designed to sift through large volumes of medical data, for example clinical trials and academic papers, and make it faster to develop new drugs.
The slight snag is that nobody really knows how well it is going to work and the company has recently seen its valuation slashed in half.
In 2018 the company, which is backed by troubled UK stockpicker Neil Woodford, was valued at $2bn after it raised $115m. But in 2019 it announced an investment from Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek and a valuation of just $1bn.
On the bright side the company won a partnership with British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to discover potential new drugs for chronic kidney disease and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis — giving a corporate stamp of approval to the technology.
Still, internal research at Barclays shows Starling is growing at a similar pace taking into account its belated app-launch. Meanwhile, First Direct, a digital division of HSBC that launched in 1989 has 1.45m users.
Led by Anne Boden, Starling can also claim a robust deposit base, having now hit £1bn in customer assets. That suggests a healthy number of customers are using the bank as a primary account rather than as an ad-hoc spending tool.
In comparison, digital competitor Revolut reported £902m in deposits last year — despite having six times the number of customers. Starling is also reportedly on-track to reach profitability by the end of 2020, a rarity amid the challengers.
Starling also has a thriving banking services division (making its infrastructure available to third parties) and also a marketplace for third-party financial products.
Its “GP at Hand” service in the UK has proved hugely popular, particularly with the young, who see it as a better and more convenient alternative to traipsing to a doctor at inconvenient times of the day. Matt Hancock, the UK health secretary, has praised the company as one of the “biggest names in AI.”
In August 2019, the company closed a $550m round of funding at a more than $2bn valuation, the largest-ever fundraise in Europe or the US for a digital health delivery startup.
But Babylon is also controversial in the UK, its biggest market. This is because its flagship GP at Hand service officially operates its own clinic within England’s state-funded National Health Service. More than 40,000 people have left other clinics to join, in effect sucking money from other parts of the country.
The people who have joined are also generally healthier tech-savvy patients, according to critics, leaving other clinics to pick up the tab for the more expensive half of the population. There have also been questions raised about the quality of its care, something the company has always claimed is top-notch.
Babylon was founded in 2013 by Ali Parsa, a former banker at Goldman Sachs who previously co-founded Circle Healthcare, which was the first private company to run an NHS hospital but fell into financial crisis in 2012.
Led by Mark Mullen, it’s not quite the same scale (yet) as Revolut, Monzo or N26 but raised a further £50m in funding in July 2019 in a round led by Spanish lender BBVA (which also led its last round of £149m in 2018).
Just as Nordic fintech Klarna is backed by Calvin Broadus (better known as Snoop Dogg, or Smoooth Dogg), the American rapper, Atom bank is backed by US musician will.i.am, the lead singer in the Black Eyed Peas.
Will.i.am is a strategic advisor and, apparently, provides “an external perspective on culture, philanthropy and technology”.
The company also does consumer loans and mortgages. In July it said that its total consumer and business lending was up by 76% to £2.4bn year on year, supported by growth in deposits from £1.4bn to £1.8bn. Atom says it gets applications of up to £20m in business loans and £10m in residential mortgages each week.
In 2018 Atom announced that it would partner with fintech startup Thought Machine to migrate all of its banking technology to a platform called Vault. The big question is if the bank can grow to join the ranks of the other fintech unicorns or if it will remain a second-order player.
The fintech companies that provide the payment hardware and software can make a cut on each transaction and generally win pretty sticky customers, so competition is fierce in this lucrative market.
Three of the market leaders are Sweden’s iZettle, which was bought by PayPal last year, Silicon Valley’s Square and SumUp in the UK.
Of the three BBVA-backed SumUp has the lowest valuation ($1bn compared to $26bn for the listed Square and $2.2bn for iZettle at the time of acquisition) but it is still a big UK fintech.
Since it was founded in 2011 SumUp has successfully expanded into 31 markets and has over 1m customers, helped by a merger with Rocket Internet’s Payleven in 2016.
SumUp claims more than $200m of annual revenue and has recently made several acquisitions, including Danish company Debitoor and “multi-channel” e-commerce platform Shoplo.
SumUp now also does invoicing, bookkeeping, third-party integrations of payments and more. The big question is how long it can remain independent and if it can keep fighting with the bigger rivals.
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