Introducing Europe’s finest technical talent to create world-class startups

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Follow Innovation has had the pleasure of working with many different accelerators over the last year however, there is something truly different about Entrepreneur First (EF) that we just had to share with you all.

Entrepreneur First is the leading early stage investor in deep tech in Europe. It brings together and invests in some of Europe’s top technical talent, enabling them to build world-class, deep tech startups often focusing on different approaches to Artificial Intelligence such as machine learning and computer vision. They pride themselves on developing individuals who don’t necessarily have a team or an idea but they have the drive, desire and the technical prowess to get there.

Alice Bentinck, Co-Founder, took the time to chat with Follow Innovation and tell us all about the EF journey so far. “EF has changed a lot since we first started 4 years ago. However the thing that has stayed the same is the focus on talented individuals…We’ve gone from being UK focused and graduate focused to European focused and accepting of people at any age and stage”.

A deep tech focus is a niche which gives Alice and Co-Founder Matt Clifford differentiation in the crowd: “we have a focus on deep tech startups largely because if you look at the engineering talent coming out of our universities, we produce some of the most exciting computer scientists in the world but at the moment they aren’t using their skills to build their own startups, and if they focus on using their technical edge then that’s often the sweet spot for where the most valuable startups can be created”.

For the impressive candidates who are lucky enough to make it through the rigorous screening process, they will embark on a 6 month journey. The first 3 months are more laid back with a loose structure. This enables the individuals to experiment with different ideas and teams with the understanding that the ideas and teams maybe need to change: “the key thing is to normalise a team splitting up or starting a new idea. We’d much rather individuals quickly iterate through a number of teams or ideas than stick with something that they know isn’t right”.

After this 3 month period, EF make their investment and a more structured programme follows which pushes the startups to get traction before demo day and to get to the stage where they are a solid investable prospect.

Another key element of the programme is their approach to mentoring. They have a team of in house experienced entrepreneurs-turned-investors who spend time in the offices each week providing advice and guidance, “the quality of advice that they give compared to ‘parachuted in’ mentors who are there for a couple of hours and are never seen again is much higher”.

This approach may have made people question the model due to common misconceptions in the tech world: deep tech individuals don’t have the business skills to succeed or all startups need a business founder alongside a tech founder. However the numbers speak for themselves: 160 founders with tech companies valued at over $150million and more than $40million raised in external funding.

Alice recalls the challenges they faced in the EF early days “no-one took us seriously for 18 months. The feedback was that we should help these people get jobs in startups instead of building their own and we were crazy to do it, but our customers were giving us a very clear indication of what we should be doing and thank goodness we listened to them! The model gives us so many unique advantages in terms of who we can invest in and our access to them”.

So as the team prepare the next intake of Europe’s finest technology talent, who all started on the programme this month, we asked Alice what’s in store for EF over the next few years – “hopefully we will be exploring international opportunities and building EF as a global brand”.

Whilst you’d think that would have been enough to have kept Alice and Matt fully occupied over the last few years, I couldn’t write this article (especially as a women in tech myself) without mentioning Code First: Girls, an organisation co-founded by Matt and Alice 3 years ago due to the dismal number of women applying to EF. The first cohort was just 10% women.

Their vision was to get more women into tech, to upskill young women into being in a position where they can understand tech, the language involved and are able to make meaningful contributions. “The original idea was to encourage women to join EF, but now Code First is an independent organisation and more than 1,500 girls have been through the courses and have learnt to code”.

Organisations such as these are empowering for women in technology and slowly but surely are giving change to a ‘can do’ attitude and moving away from the view that tech is for boys whilst the women will handle the change management and the consumer facing roles. The premise of Code First is to make a change and a contribution in this space because as Alice says: “we can talk about the problem all day but unless we are actually doing something to increase the number of women in tech and the number who have the skills to participate properly in the workforce then nothing is going to change”. I couldn’t agree more.