Entrepreneur First Raises £8.5M To Find Europe’s Best Technical Talent And Invest “Pre-Team, Pre-Idea”

London-based Entrepreneur First (EF) has come a long way since founders Matt Clifford and Alice Bentinck came up with their idea for something entirely different in the startup acceleration space: Instead of backing teams with two or more co-founders who are already working on or have even launched an existing business, EF sources and invests in the best technical talent in Europe — often straight out of university but also working at existing tech companies — before they have a team or a developed idea. Needless to say, EF’s “pre-team, pre-idea” model raised more than a few eyebrows back in 2011.

I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Europe that you can find a group of people that are not only highly technical but are interested in starting a startup and are very ambitious Alice Bentinck
Fast-foward to today, however, and the self-described “talent first” investor has raised an £8.5 million fund, investment that will enable it to scale up its programme, including backing and mentoring 200 or so people per year, up from the 30 EF managed in year one. Investors include Encore Capital, Singapore’s Infocomm Investments, and various angel investors including Robin Klein (ex-Index Ventures) and Alex Chesterman (CEO of Zoopla).

“Our focus is more and more on investing in deep tech startups and highly technical individuals,” EF’s Bentinck told me during a call. “Being able to raise £8.5 million to cover the next 3 years means that we’ll be able to fund more companies with founders from across Europe, and we can support them on anything from advanced deep learning to computer vision to the latest in machine learning. So really this is the first time we can scale significantly”.

To source those highly technical individuals, Bentinck says EF does a lot of outreach, with 4 people in its team dedicated to reaching out to people with the right profile and explaining why they should apply to the programme “rather than joining Google or Facebook or doing a PhD or Postdoc”. It also has a number of partnerships to help find talent, including a recently set up board of science partners made up of professors from Oxford University, Imperial, Cambridge, and UCL, two of whom have also worked for Google-acquired DeepMind and Dyson.

The 6 month long programme itself offers successful applicants a monthly stipend for living costs while they find their co-founders and decide on an idea, followed by £17,000 in pre-seed funding. They also get office space and legal and administrative support, along with mentoring and advice from the EF team and external entrepreneurs from the wider U.K. startup scene.

Bentinck says that at the start of the programme there’s a relatively organic but heavily managed team building process that sees most people who join EF having specific technical areas of interest or ideas they want to pursue, if not a fully formed startup proposal.

They are then helped to work through those ideas and decide what to focus on and who else on the programme they work with. Some of those ideas and teams stick and are fast-tracked to become a startup with product, traction and investment, while others chop and change and take longer to form.

“It sort of reminds me of university,” I say, tinged with a little envy. “Less partying,” replies Bentinck, before conceding that the analogy has some merit. “One of the things people get from joining EF is this cohort and community of technical founders. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Europe that you can find a group of people that are not only highly technical but are interested in starting a startup and are very ambitious,” she says.

There are very, very few people who should and can do EF Alice Bentinck
Meanwhile, four years on from EF’s outlier beginnings, the wider investor community seems to have fully-embraced the idea now too. Backing a number of companies that have been founded out of the programme are Balderton Capital, Index Ventures, Notion Capital, Octopus Investments and Y Combinator, amongst others.

In fact, EF’s 37 alumni companies have raised over $40 million with a total valuation of $150 million, including AdBrain, which has raised $9 million from the likes of Octopus Investments and Notion Capital. Other EF startups incude Pi-Top, Permutive, Tractable, Blaze, Code Kingdoms, and Magic Pony Technology, to name a few.

One other interesting stat: Bentinck says that 50 per cent of EF’s current cohort is from Continental Europe, as the programme makes a bigger push outside of its home country. “There are very, very few people who should and can do EF. If you look at how we’re scaling, we wouldn’t be able to find enough people in the U.K. We need to be drawing talent from Germany, Sweden, Romania, from across the entirety of Europe,” she says.