Draper Esprit’s Edel Coen: ‘I will hunt for the best start-ups in Ireland and Europe’

29 Nov 2018

Draper Esprit’s Edel Coen. Image: Draper Esprit

Draper Esprit has appointed Irishwoman Edel Coen to lead its focus on high-growth technology businesses across Ireland and Europe.

The time for European tech has arrived and it is no accident that well-known venture capital (VC) player Draper Esprit has chosen Edel Coen to find and invest in the best that European tech has to offer.

Coen previously worked at Irish investment firm BVP, making early-stage investments in technology companies with a focus on sustainability. She led investments in companies such as HealthBeacon, UrbanVolt and Parkpnp. Prior to BVP, she spent five years with Enterprise Ireland’s Silicon Valley office, working with Irish start-ups in the areas of enterprise software, telecoms and travel technology.

‘Sometimes, we see companies in Ireland selling earlier than in other markets, and more growth capital and global ambition would go a long way to solving this pain point’

Draper Esprit is one of the most active VC firms in Europe and it looks to invest in disruptive tech companies at the early and growth stages. Investments include Roomex, Trustpilot, Perkbox, Ledger and Graphcore, to name a few.

A subsidiary of the $9bn Draper Fisher Jurvetson VC syndicate, Draper Esprit conducted a £100m initial public offering (IPO) on the Dublin and London stock exchanges in 2016, led by Irishman Brian Caulfield, a venture partner with the firm. Last year, the VC firm also appointed investor and entrepreneur Nicola McClafferty as its investment director.

Earlier this year, we reported on the creation of a new partnership between Dublin and London-listed Draper Esprit and Berlin-based Earlybird with the equivalent of a €1.3bn-plus super-fund for European emerging tech start-ups.

“Draper Esprit is a pan-European fund that believes entrepreneurs in Europe have the power to shape the future,” Coen told Siliconrepublic.com.

“The strength and diversity of the existing portfolio, its rockstar team, and long-term investment approach appeal to my own passion for entrepreneurship. Their fresh approach to venture capital as a listed firm make them the cream of the crop within the world of European tech investment. I find the prospect of spending the next stage of my career with them extremely exciting. I intend to hunt for the best start-ups in Ireland and Europe, and bring them into the portfolio with the ambition to add value to the Irish start-up ecosystem along the way.”

The European tech landscape

I ask Coen her thoughts on the current tech investment landscape in Europe, and on the countries, cities, regions and technologies that hold the best promise.

“It’s a great time for European companies to raise capital, scale and then successfully IPO. The market has really proven itself recently, with companies such as Spotify and Farfetch listing earlier in the year. Whilst I am biased, I do stand by the opinion that Ireland has produced some fantastic start-ups, with a number of excellent companies on the cusp of great success. Draper Esprit have had a number of great success stories in Ireland – Movidius, Clavis Insight, to name a few. There are, however, both exciting and promising technologies coming out of Germany, the Nordics and the UK, with technologies such as SaaS, AI and blockchain best ready to add real value to a variety of industries.”

Coen said that her time in Silicon Valley has served her well and she is not short of advice for European tech founders who may eventually head there.

“Silicon Valley certainly is a unique place to live and is truly the epicentre of the start-up universe. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to be immersed in it, surrounded by some of the smartest people on the planet, working with excellent Irish start-ups and local ecosystem players.

“If you are considering taking the leap and moving to the US, I’d urge you to dream big. There’s no shortage of ambition. Their visions are realised through a lot of hard work, passion and a large dose of optimism that I think sets Silicon Valley successes apart from the rest of the world.

“And, secondly, be confident. Culturally, Irish people are more humble than our US counterparts and so selling ourselves (our companies and products) with confidence does not always come naturally. In the start-up world, more often than not, it’s not the best technology that wins, rather, the technology that has the best salespeople. So, a key learning for me was understanding the role confidence plays on the journey to success.”

Entrepreneurs need to gather more firepower

In terms of policy decisions that Ireland needs to make in order to strengthen its entrepreneurial base and ensure the country is not over-reliant on multinationals for growth, Coen said we need to be mindful of the things we are doing right.

“I believe that the start-up support network that exists in Ireland at the moment is one of the strongest in the world – this is part of our competitive advantage as a country. Local Enterprise Offices; Enterprise Ireland that globally supports Irish start-ups; ISIF and Government departments as LPs in venture funds and accelerators; the Employment and Investment Incentive Scheme – there’s so much going on in Ireland to support start-ups and SMEs, and I’m proud to be part of that.

“What I’d love to see, however, is companies born in Ireland with more firepower to expand globally – but, for me, that’s the job of firms like Draper Esprit and other VC funds. Sometimes, we see companies in Ireland selling earlier than in other markets, and more growth capital and global ambition would go a long way to solving this pain point.”

In terms of the hallmarks that make Irish entrepreneurs stand out, Coen has made some interesting observations from her time in Ireland and Silicon Valley. “In my experience, Irish entrepreneurs are product-led and technically minded. They are a tenacious group and so enjoyable to work with, collaborative and always interested in learning from each other.

“One thing I have often noticed, however, is their tendency to underestimate the challenges of raising funding – the amount of capital required, the time it takes to close a round and the impact that has on delivering significant growth for the business. It takes a lot of time, and capital, to enter a new market. I’m always keen to connect new founders with those who have done it before.”

With Brexit looming, I ask Coen how she thinks we can better support small businesses and entrepreneurs to weather the storm. What areas does she think the UK is excelling in when it comes to backing its entrepreneurs?

“There are a lot of unknowns when it comes to Brexit, but a key piece of advice that we would give to any company – whether they are based in the UK, Ireland or indeed Paris – is to position themselves as a global company from day one. The companies that can do this are the ones that win big in the end.

“In spite of the uncertainty, I do still believe we can learn from the UK’s tech scene. For example, they have succeeded in creating an efficient EIS programme that works both for investors and entrepreneurs, with over €2bn invested into 2,000-plus companies in 2016 to 2017 alone.

“This has done a lot to encourage investors to take risks by backing early-stage companies, which are the backbone of any thriving economy. But there are also a lot of similarities. The British Business Bank has recently set up a patient capital vehicle to back companies for the long run, while the Irish Strategic Investment Fund [ISIF] has been set up over here with a similar goal.

“Even in the face of uncertainty around Brexit, I’m seeing world-class companies starting in Ireland, and looking to working with those as I dive into this new role.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years