A Q&A with Marta Krupinska, Head of Google for Startups UK

Startups and small businesses are often referred to as the lifeblood of local, national and regional economies, and for good reason.

According to TNW’s 2019 Global Startup Ecosystem Report, the global startup economy is worth nearly $3 trillion, some 20 percent more than it was in 2017 and bigger than the GDP of sizeable economies such as the UK, France and Brazil.

But this does not mean that setting up a business has become any easier. On the contrary, around nine in 10 startups result in failure, largely because they run before they can walk and scale up too quickly, a misjudgement that is said to lead to 90 percent of startup collapses.

Despite this, the year 2019 was a record-breaking one for African tech startups, with 311 companies securing $491.6 million worth of investment according to data from Disrupt Africa, with Kenya and Nigeria proving to be particularly active markets.

Marta Krupinska knows better than most the nuances of starting a business from scratch. Now Head of Google Startups UK, the tech giant’s startup accelerator division, the Polish entrepreneur is heavily invested in supporting budding African businessmen and women.

Here, she answers our questions on her own business journey and how Google for Startups is helping to empower local enterprise.

Africa Outlook (AfO): Tell me a bit about your background. What inspired you to become an entrepreneur? 

Marta Krupinska (MK): I was born in Krakow, Poland, and that’s where I started my first startup, a social media platform, back in 2007. I don’t have a better answer to ‘what inspired me’ beyond my best friend suggesting ‘we start a website’.

Digital opportunities were vast and largely untapped, and we were excited to be just a bunch of young people in Central Eastern Europe building a product for the global audience. It felt like the internet was allowing us to cross and defy borders. As it so often does with startups, we couldn’t make or raise enough money and had to fold in 2011, which was a humbling and valuable experience that led me to move to New York City to look for the next step.

I came to London in 2012 and co-founded Azimo, a global money transfer platform, building on my own experiences as a migrant. This business grew to millions of customers all around the world and 170-plus employees in London and Krakow.    

AfO: How did you get involved with Google for Startups?

MK: I’ve experienced first-hand how valuable the support of Google can be when building a startup – at Azimo I’ve been working closely with Google since 2014.

2018 was a particularly intense year for me. I had stepped down from Azimo and co-founded a new fintech startup, FreeUp, and realised once again how difficult it is, especially if one doesn’t follow the stereotypical model of Ivy League educated white beta male. When Google for Startups reached out, I saw it as a tremendous opportunity to use the resources of the tech giant to level the playing field for founders.

AfO: Generally, how important do you think startups are or will be to Africa’s ongoing socioeconomic development? Has their significance increased over recent years? 

MK: With the population of Africa set to double from 1.2 billion to 2.5 billion by 2050, there’s never been a more important time to support untapped markets to find solutions to issues faced. 

We’re seeing a tech boom as their ecosystem continues to grow, bringing with it a wealth of opportunity. In 2018, African tech startups raised approx. $725.6 million in funding, which almost doubled in 2019, with the total being $1.34 billion.

This represents astonishing year-on-year growth in funding raised by tech startups on the continent, with more than 350 different investors putting money in and 91 startups in 2019. Evidently, startups are already positively impacting Africa’s socioeconomic development and I have no doubt they will continue to do so with the right support in the future. 

AfO: Introduce us to the Immersion programme. What are its main objectives? 

MK: Google for Startups UK launched its first ever 12-week Africa Immersion cohort in September 2019, and the aim of the programme was to connect high potential early stage startups from Africa to the London venture capital ecosystem, with the dedicated support of the Google for Startups team. 

10 founders were chosen for the programme and the societal issues being tackled by them are vast. From the inclusion of African DNA in pharmaceutical research (54gene) to extending access to clean cooking fuel (PayGo Energy), and from enabling the creation of digital addresses to support the four billion people across emerging markets who do not have a physical address (OkHi) to powering financial cooperatives so they can immediately meet their members’ needs (Kwara), we had the absolute honour of working with some exceptional entrepreneurs who are tackling big global issues with tech.  

The objective was to help these talented founders grow their startups and propel their missions to drive socioeconomic impact in their operating countries. Throughout the 12 weeks, founders were given access to Google tools, expertise and mentoring to provide support where it’s most needed. This included help to boost sales, advising on marketing strategies, troubleshooting a product issue and even support with fundraising. After one week of full-time support in London, the founders returned to their home countries and continued the programme in tandem with growing their businesses. In November, we hosted a graduation ceremony for them in Lagos, Nigeria, celebrating their amazing achievements.  

AfO: What happens now the founder graduation event is over? 

MK: The founders will continue to work extremely closely with the Google for Startups team. Whilst the 12-week programme allows us to offer the best of Google’s expertise and tools within a concentrated time frame, we continue to support and collaborate with all of our founders once their graduation is complete. 

On January 30 in London we got together at the Google for Startups campus with 30 angel syndicates and VC funds from the UK, Germany, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa, with whom we went in detail through investment opportunities in Africa, with special focus on the 10 companies who went through our UK Immersion programme. 

The response has been fantastic – the talent, conviction and focus of the founders really stand out to investors, and companies like PiggyVest (savings and microinvestments in Nigeria), OkHi (digital addressing platform in Kenya) or Voyc.ai (AI regulatory compliance platform from South Africa) received lots of interest.  

AfO: Are you looking to expand the programme and support more African startups in the future? 

MK: Absolutely. Google has been very active in Africa, running accelerators on the continent since 2018, and this commitment has now been strengthened by the opening of Google Dev Space in Lagos in January 2020. Google leadership, myself and the UK team were so thrilled with the results of our last year’s programme, that we’re already planning to run the same initiative in London in 2021.  

AfO: Are you optimistic about the future role such companies can have in shaping the future of the African continent?  

MK: This is the opportune moment for ambitious and talented founders to make their mark and help shape the future of the continent.

Startups have the power to take an innovative idea and turn this into reality, provided they have the financial backing and support required to nurture their thinking and grow their teams. Their role in tackling some of the biggest issues Africa faces is vital, and I constantly feel inspired by their desire and relentless efforts to do so.

I felt their optimism in Lagos during the graduation ceremony, which was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity. Collectively, we recognise the potential and are committed to investing in Africa’s continued success. 

We created this programme because we believe that London became the Silicon Valley of Europe because of its access to funding, talent and startup experience. At the same time, we recognise that there is an incredible wealth of passion, talent and opportunity in less developed startup ecosystems. We want to help exceptional African founders and their teams connect to the ecosystem in London and tap into the opportunities here while they continue growing their businesses in their home countries and creating local success stories.

 

London Immersion Africa startups

  • 54gene (Nigeria) – African DNA makes up only two percent of genetic research material used in pharmaceutical research. Founded in 2019, 54gene is creating the world’s first and largest pan-African biobank. In June, 54gene raised $4.5 million from Y Combinator and others. 
  • Fieldinsight (Nigeria) – Fieldinsight helps to collect data in a structured manner using mobile and IoT devices. It then aggregates and represents this data through visualisations to help businesses make the best decisions.
  • Kwara  (Kenya) – Kwara powers financial cooperatives with technology so they can meet their members needs instantly.
  • OkHi (Kenya) – Four billion people across emerging markets do not have a physical address costing economies $175 billion a year. Based in Nairobi, OkHi creates digital addresses for people, which they can use for free to access reliable business services. 
  • Paps (Senegal) – Paps is an African logistics startup focused on the last mile delivery and domestic markets, with strong client care orientation, allowing live tracking, intelligent address systems and automatic dispatch.
  • Piggyvest (Nigeria) Piggyvest is an automated savings and investments platform that helps Nigerians save little amounts of money periodically, and then invest those funds for competitive returns.
  • PayGo Energy (Kenya) – PayGo Energy’s connected home gas meter links to a global IoT-based infrastructure for cooking gas delivery within high-density, high-demand urban communities — changing the entire cooking experience for households and unlocking access to clean cooking for a billion people.
  • ThankUCash (Nigeria) – ThankUCash is an analytics and rewards platform built to enable banks and businesses in Africa acquire, reward and retain loyal customers.
  • Thrive Agric (Nigeria) – Thrive Agric provides farmers with access to finance, data-driven advisory and access to a market upon harvest.
  • Voyc (South Africa) – Voyc is on a mission to accelerate the world's transition towards customer-centricity by making it easy for companies to understand their customers.