Exclusive: Maëlle Gavet, CEO of Techstars, speaks on the accelerator’s renewed interest in Africa
We sat with Techstars CEO Maëlle Gavet and got an exclusive one-on-one interview in which she shared in-depth details on the Accelerator Program. Gavet joined Techstars in January 2021 after successful stints as Chief Operating Officer of Compass, the largest real estate company in the US, and executive vice president of global operations of The Priceline Group, the parent company of several travel fare aggregators such as Bookings.com, Agoda.com, and Kayak.com.
BI Africa: Despite the challenges ranging from high overhead costs to security challenges, unstable economic policies etc., why did you insist on Lagos as the location for your Techstars Accelerator Program, and how do you intend to cope with these challenges?
Maëlle: Globally, Lagos is one of the fastest growing ecosystems worldwide and the number one African startup city as of 2021 (StartupBlink). For Techstars, This is not our first entry into the Lagos tech community. We have recognised Nigeria as a vibrant and innovative ecosystem for a long time now, and our Nigerian entrepreneurs around the world have a proven track record of success.
We have had 33 Startup Weekend events in Nigeria and have Invested in 21 Nigerian companies since 2015. Also, our partnership with ARM Labs, along with our leadership and team on the ground in Lagos, allows us to support the Nigerian entrepreneurial ecosystem and create more opportunities for founders.
BI Africa: What informed your decision to reduce the Accelerator program to Fintech and Proptech startups only, considering how much support Fintech startups already enjoy?
Maëlle: For us, it’s about strategic focus, not a reduction. This also reflects the partner organisation, ARM, and how they can best support the startups participating in this program. ARM offers wealth creation opportunities through a unique blend of traditional asset management and alternative investment services: Investments, Pension, and Real Estate.
BI Africa: What is your expectation for Techstars portfolio companies from the Lagos Accelerator program?
Maëlle: We are looking for the same qualifiers that we look for in all startups that apply to our programs. We want to see startups working on a solution to a problem different from the rest of the market. Do you have a proven product-market fit? Have you built your MVP? Do you have customer traction or revenue? What makes your company and team special?
We are looking for demonstrated traits of work ethic, ingenuity, innovativeness, and the ability to test and pivot as needed, etc., and Nigeria has no shortage of those founders.
BI Africa: What role will ARM Labs play in this partnership?
Maëlle: We’ve found a truly aligned partner in ARM. ARM has a tenured track record in more traditional investments: stock, wealth management, and property investment, and we can bring our global approach to early-stage startup investment. We will lean on ARM to guide us as we expand in a market we’ve been investing in. They will also support us with understanding local politics, on-the-ground insights, and regulatory risks that come with entering a new country/market.
BI Africa: In your opinion, what differentiates the African startup ecosystem from those around the world, and how will the Accelerator program incorporate this for maximum effectiveness?
Maëlle: Although Africa accounts for only 0.2 per cent of the value of global startups, the continent has already been on the leading edge of using technology to leapfrog traditional development paths, bypassing landlines and moving straight to mobile phones, and adopting e-banking and mobile money while traditional banking rates were still low.
Africa is home to an exploding fintech scene and more than half the world’s mobile-money users; Africa is also a pioneering space for commercial innovation and the most entrepreneurial continent.
The more we can support the development of a mature investment ecosystem on the continent, the more we will begin to see that 0.2 per cent from above increase, which excites us.
BI Africa: How does Techstars intend to deal with or avoid the recurring problem of misappropriation of funds or financial fraud by startups?
Maëlle: Our programming and partnership with ARM intend to address this. Part of the reason we partnered with ARM is that they have worked deeply in the financial sector and have a partnership with the government so that these potential pitfalls can be avoided and/or addressed.
For startup founders and teams, the accelerator program serves as an unmatched education opportunity where they can learn how to manage money, handle the finances of a company, and know precisely what is going on in their company when it comes to funding and capital.
BI Africa: The first set of startups from the Lagos Techars Accelerator will finish their program around the period of Nigeria’s general elections in 2023. Do you think this is a good time to invest in startups or run this program, considering how much economic uncertainty is associated with elections in Nigeria?
Maëlle: The startups that Techstars selects for each program have been thoughtfully and rigorously vetted and will have gone through our extensive due diligence process. This process allows for total confidence in investing in these founders, executing this program, and a commitment to supporting them through the program and beyond.
Again, this is where our partnership with ARM is so important and was a very intentional decision. Aligning our proven programming and community building with a partner who has experience working within the Nigerian ecosystem and has collaboration and cooperation with the regional government allows our founders to be supported and set up for success and future investors to have confidence in the startups they are building.
Independently of short-term potential uncertainty, we believe Nigeria is an economic powerhouse. The thorough preparation that Techstars equips their portfolio companies with helps them navigate and weather any storm. Additionally, the vast majority of startups have an international reach and diversifying their user base, and investor exposure makes us extremely confident in running this program.
BI Africa: Any advice or final words for startups and founders in Nigeria and Africa?
Maëlle: Apply to the program! Entrepreneurs are everywhere, but opportunity is not; this accelerator partnership promotes a fast-growing sector in a fast-growing market, and what could be more exciting for an entrepreneur?