Doubling down on Europe: after 'Distro Dojo' in London, 500 Startups launches a 'pre-accelerator' in Oslo

One of the world's most renowned seed investors and startup accelerators, 500 Startups, is about to kickstart a pre-accelerator in Oslo, Norway, with the first programme debuting in January 2016.
Doubling down on Europe: after 'Distro Dojo' in London, 500 Startups launches a 'pre-accelerator' in Oslo

With Spotify raising the biggest round in Europe so far this year, and Sweden only sitting behind the UK, Germany and Israel in Q2 for amounts of funding raised, it's clear that the Nordics can now compete with the rest of Europe when it comes to raising the big later rounds.

However, something startups in the Nordics have continually struggled with is attracting very-early stage money. As of today, one of the world's most renowned VC seed fund and startup accelerators, 500 Startups, is taking it upon themselves to attempt to solve that problem by launching a pre-accelerator in Oslo, Norway (similar to the one they launched with General Assembly earlier this year).

Update: What is a ‘pre-accelerator’ anyway?

Disclosure: 500 Startups are an investor in and a partner of The Nordic Web.

In the first of what is set to be several programmes that they are looking to run in the Nordic region, this will be a one-month intensive programme, with the first set to take place in January 2016. The programme's aim is to help early stage companies raise a first seed round or ready themselves to join a full accelerator programme such as Y Combinator's ... or 500 Startups' own programme.

To participate in the programme, you give up 2% equity in your company in return for $10,000 ($7,000 after the $3,000 programme fee). You'll then get to benefit from talks, office hours, events and hands-on mentorship across a wide-ranging set of topics - all designed to help companies get to the next stage in their development.

500 Startups have explicitly stated that they are looking for the following type of companies for the programme:

  • Looking to join an accelerator or raise funding in the next 6-9 months
  • Have an MVP (minimum viable product) and be live in market 
  • The core team is in place, ideally with 2 cofounders full time focused on the project 
  • Excited about growing their business outside the Nordics and creating a global presence

I caught up with Sean Percival, Programme director and quizzed him on 500's plans for the pre-accelerator in Oslo, as well as the fund's future plans for Europe.


Why Oslo over other Nordic cities? In fact, why the Nordics at all for this type of programme? 

I’m starting with Oslo for the pre-accelerator as I feel it’s best positioned to leverage this type of programme first. Although in the end our goals are focused on the entire region. So we’re certainly not forgetting about the other major hubs in the Nordics and plan to tailor our efforts to best suit each unique location.

Most are probably wondering: why not start in Stockholm? But that ecosystem is a bit unique in the sense that the companies are more mature. So a program like our Distro Dojo marketing bootcamp is a better match. In this programme they can better prepare for Series A/B fundraising rounds as we help drive growth and deeper internationalisation.

Overall I think most would agree there’s a lack of programmes like this and mentorship in the region. So our goal is to improve that situation while helping to bring the methodologies and best practices of Silicon Valley here to the Nordics.

Do you feel Norway has enough companies that this would be relevant for? Do you expect to see applications from all Nordic countries? And will you be applying any preference to Norwegian companies?

Our pre-accelerator program is purposely kept small and intimate. The program is very hands-on so I want to ensure each company gets a lot of dedicated support. In all, about 10 companies will be in each programme so it doesn’t have the same scale as our main one in the US that houses 30-40 companies at a time.

I would like to note that, while this program is based in Oslo, we intend to have companies from all over the Nordics participate. There is certainly a fair amount of competitiveness between the Nordics countries and local pride, which I understand. However my goal is for this program to be inclusive of all Nordic countries with additional plans to launch programmes in the other markets over time.

So, there will be more?

My plan is to offer this pre-accelerator programme in several Nordics markets. This type of offering is best for emerging startup ecosystems lacking the traditional accelerators that you find in Silicon Valley. So we would like to deploy this programme a few times over the next year leading up larger initiatives like a full-blown accelerator programme and workshops.

And this is why it's a pre-accelerator rather than a full programme?

The main reason for this is 500 has always felt our main programme in Silicon Valley is the ultimate destination for founders. It’s only there you can really tap into our large network and dramatically speed up the development of your business.

So these pre-accelerator programmes serve as a feeders into our main programme by helping companies better prepare to make that leap to the valley. It also helps drive the metrics needed to enter the highly competitive entry point that US based programmes represent today.

Who will be involved in the programme along with yourself?

This initial programme will be run by myself and Stina Liland Nysæther who you will likely know from her work with Startup Norway and Startup Weekend. We’ll both serve as program directors leading the curriculum and operations of the program. 500 Startups also recently hired Carl Fritjofsson, a co-founder of Wrapp and Venture Partner with Creandum in Sweden. Carl is going to be helping with recruiting and providing his wealth of experience from the Nordic ecosystem.

What's the current competition like in terms of this stage of investment and the companies you are hoping to attract?

To be candid there is not much competition for early-stage companies here in the Nordics. That is due in part to a lack of to early-stage capital. I feel we have an unfair advantage here given our experience investing in over 1,000 early stage companies from all over the world.

For this programme we’re looking to attract companies with live products (so not something at the idea stage) and some initial product market fit. Another strong attribute would be companies who are looking to join an accelerator like 500 Startups or Y Combinator in the next 6-9 months.  Or those wishing to raise their first seed round in the near future. Additionally we are looking for both consumer and B2B companies who are generating revenue already or have a clear path to generating revenue.

What are the real motives behind running this programme?

I’ve spent the last few months really trying to understand the needs and opportunities in the Nordics. And while I have longer term plans for my involvement I wanted to get started providing value to the community as soon as possible. The pre-accelerator is a great vehicle for that having low capital requirements but at the same time a high impact. It’s going to take some time for things really get moving in this region but just like our brave founders it’s important to start with those first steps and build up to something great.

What are your thoughts in terms of valuations in the Nordics and Europe in general compared to the US?

Generally I feel valuations (especially at the early stage) are inflated today and likely not sustainable in Silicon Valley. So it’s refreshing to work in other ecosystems where prices are more sane and I can focus on providing support versus just writing checks. However, since many Nordic and european ecosystems are not large enough to build really big businesses on their own, internationalisation is becoming more and more important. So I anticipate valuations will rise as that takes place but they’ll have a better foundation for the valuation supported by strong revenue and/or user growth.

Where else will 500 be looking at in Europe over the next couple of years other than the Nordics?

We recently opened an office in London and have our eyes on both Berlin and the Baltics next. Europe does represent a challenge as the markets are a lot more fragmented but we’re always talking to leaders of these communities and are ready to jump in when the time is right.

Do you feel we will see other US accelerators and investors look more and more at Europe? And if so, is being one of the first movers a deliberate part of 500's strategy?

We have been first movers in other markets like India and Brazil and that has proven to be successful so far. While attitudes are changing there’s still a lot of apprehension from US investors to enter international markets. Since 500 Startups is a global fund we’re not afraid to take a few risks in markets we feel are going to scale up in the future. It’s a big big world out there so those that get stuck in their backyard are likely going to miss out. In the meantime we’re happy to enjoy the upside and help these ecosystems strive.

With this pre-accelerator following the recent launch of the London based 'Distro Dojo' programme, 500 are clearly doubling down on Europe, and with more planned programmes in the pipeline both in the Nordics and in other European locations, this Silicon Valley-based investor could be set to become one of the most prolific players in the early-stage investment scene in Europe.

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