Play the dating game at Slush


Eyes lock across a crowded room, sparks fly and a love affair begins – though not of the romantic variety. At Slush, Europe’s leading start-up event, the wooing and schmoozing is all about finding the perfect business soulmate. Every November Slush draws nearly 2,000 startups and 800 venture capitalists from over 100 countries to Helsinki for three electric days of furious matchmaking. 

With only minutes to make an impression, fresh young talents need to pack their pitches with special sparkle – and, if Cupid plays along, a three-minute meeting can mark the beginning of a beautiful business relationship.

Showing up at Slush is clearly a must for hungry startups, but what’s in it for top-tier investors? Why do hordes of them flock to Helsinki during the most abysmal month of the year?  

Magic in the air

“Slush is the one event I will not miss, period. It’s the most productive week of my year, I kid you not,” says Jason Ball, Managing Director at Qualcomm Ventures Europe.

Working for the world’s largest wireless chipset company, Ball’s wish list for potential partners is specific: “We’re looking for the next wave of wireless beyond the handset, which covers everything from autonomous vehicles and drones to AR and VR.” 

For Ball, hooking up with Finnish software company Grand Cru has been the most valuable connection to come out of Slush. “I was floored by Supernauts and wrote a big cheque into the company. Their first game had three million downloads, and now they’re about to release two new titles,” he reveals.

But before business vows are exchanged, how is the relationship taken to the next level?

“If someone I know recommends a startup, I’ll offer an instant pitch meeting. I give 15-30 minutes of face time, and if that goes well, I’ll see them again within a month. The important thing is that it’s not a random meeting, but an introduction through someone you trust, which makes a big difference when you’re talking to investors,” says Ball.

His first visit to Slush was back when the event was still held at the Cable Factory, with only about 500 people in attendance. Last year Ball addressed a crowd of thousands on the Main Stage. 

Elite material 

Another self-proclaimed Slush fan is David Gardner from London Venture Partners, who has attended more times than he “can count”.

“Most events are frankly a waste of time. I keep coming back because Slush delivers business deals! Somehow Slush manages to find interesting talent that matches our investment profile. I also love the positive energy and fun nature of the event,” says Gardner.

Slush offers strictly elite material and a guarantee of “concentrated quality”, says Gardner. “The startups we meet are above average in their ambition and focus. They do a good job preparing.”

Not leaving Cupid’s work to serendipity, the Slush website enables investors to pre-select their top candidates. “We then divide our team so that we can meet more companies in parallel. At the end of the day we discuss the top-quality opportunities and schedule follow-up Skype calls and in-person meetings to take the necessary time to get to know each other,” says Gardner.

Last year’s highlight for London Venture Partners was connecting with Futureplay, a Finnish company working on idle games that embrace advertising as a positive user experience.

“We actually met them two Slushes in a row and it took a year to see their development as a team. Now we’re excited to be investors!  They’re doing great and have millions of users playing Farm Away and Build Away,” reveals Gardner.

Although Gardner invests only in the games ecosystem, he values Slush for also providing an overview of other hi-tech businesses. “I loved seeing the smart vision robots sorting and recycling, and dozens of other enthusiastic entrepreneurs pushing the world forward,” he adds.

The most fantastic part of Slush is the networking, sums up Gardner. “I’ve met with world leaders as well as start-up entrepreneurs that may very well be world leaders one day. The friendly, ‘can do’ attitude helps create a spirit of optimism that really delivers results,” he enthuses.

Looking to get serious 

Slush 2015 was a kick-starter for a new Helsinki-based venture capital company called Straightforward Capital.

“We can thank Slush for inventing Straightforward Capital. Funnily enough, it was the entrepreneurs who came up with a name for us: We heard them saying that we seemed very ‘straightforward’. We hope to pay this back by investing in several more companies at Slush 2016,” says CEO Andrej Srsen.

One of the most exciting matches made at Slush 2015 was between Straightforward Capital and California-based Sharper Shape, the global market leader of automated drone-based asset inspections. 

“In April 2016 we closed a 1.5 million euro investment in Sharper Shape. Their systems make life easier for power grid operators, helping save hundreds of millions of euros. They had an impressive team of people in place, a solid patent portfolio, and a growing business started in Finland. We believed our capital would help them expand globally and break through on the US market,” says Srsen.

When it comes to courting, Straightforward Capital likes to lay all the cards on the table. “We’re old school when it comes to business planning. We believe that putting the strategy, plans, schedules and a financial plan on paper helps both parties prepare for what might come,” he notes.

Text by Silja Kudel
Illustration by Anni-Julia Tuomisto

This article was originally published in Finnair's Blue Wings magazine (November 2016). 

Published October 25, 2016

Category: Collaboration, Local features