Members of the European startup community have blasted the decision to award top prize in a prestigious pitch competition to a company with Russian founders which helps tech talent move to the UK.
As a Slush 100 winner, Immigram will receive an investment of €1 million from the top five VCs: Accel, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners, NEA and Northzone. One of the other finalists who presented to investors on stage on Friday was a Ukrainian startup called Zeely.
Critics called the decision a back-shocking one, coming the same week as Russia carried out a massive bombing raid on Ukrainian cities. Many have also questioned whether international VCs should invest in Russian founders during the ongoing war.
Investors are now doing due diligence on Immigram and looking at founders’ backgrounds – as is common practice after a term sheet is released – and if anything untoward comes to light as a result, Sifted understands that the investment will not go forward.
Anastasia Mirolyubova, co-founder and CEO of Immigram, says her startup went through a thorough selection process and rightfully won the competition.
“I’m judged where I come from”
“It was four or five levels of judgment. We went from over 1,000 applications [to a shortlist of] 100, then 20. And then we won, the business won, the idea and the traction and what we actually do. And now I’m being judged where I’m from and where I don’t live,” she told Sifted.
Slush said in a statement: “Slush stands with Ukraine and condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For this reason, we do not collaborate with Russian companies or funds and do not accept applications from startups or investors from Russian-based companies.
Immigram was founded in 2019 by two Russians, Mirolyubova and co-founder Mikhail Sharonov, who both moved to the UK in 2016. It is incorporated in the UK and supports tech talent from over 10 countries including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, India and the United States., Apply for the UK Global Talent Visa. The company says candidates from Eastern Europe make up a minority of its users.
The co-founders both hold Russian passports, but Mirolyubova has been based in the UK for seven years. Sharonov currently lives in Georgia.
Mirolyubova said on LinkedIn on Sunday that in the past two days she had “started receiving death threats and wishes, for legitimately winning a startup contest with the wrong passport color.”
“The last two days have been very, very bumpy and very hard for me. But the majority of the comments I get are from Ukrainians, who are currently in a very bad position, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine” Mirolyubova told Sifted, “I can understand their feelings. But the trend that’s happening is more towards xenophobia and racism.”
She tells Sifted that Immigram “does not support the Russian invasion of Ukraine”. In her LinkedIn post, she also said Immigram waived payments for Ukrainian clients and helped buy a frontline ambulance. She adds that after receiving the investment, Immigram intends to donate $100,000 in operational cash to nonprofits supporting Ukrainian immigrants and refugees.
One of the investors confirmed to Sifted that they are now in a due diligence process with Immigram, which should be completed in a week or two.
According to their understanding, Immigram does not have an entity in Russia, nor employees based there, and did not take money from Russian investors – which was also confirmed to Sifted by Immigram. The VC would not go ahead with the investment if due diligence revealed that all of this was not true.
The outrage began after AIN.Capital, a EEC technology news site, published images from a Russian job site appearing to show that Immigram is hiring for positions in Moscow.
Mirolyubova explains that the company, which has a remote team, hires IT professionals in Russia, but only on the condition that they move to another country, such as Georgia, Armenia or the United Kingdom.
Slush said the judging panel would thoroughly review the winner’s background, but declined to comment further on the selection criteria used in the competition. Mirolyubova says it’s due process and a jury would “never” find anything to undermine their decision.
Sifted sought comment from Northzone, Lightspeed, General Catalyst, Accel and NEA over the weekend, but received no response as of press time.
The decision to award Immigram has been heavily criticized by the tech community in Ukraine, as well as in neighboring Poland, which has hosted millions of Ukrainian refugees since the start of the war and has provided particularly generous support to the Ukrainian tech community. moved.
“[The choice of winner is] sponsorship of terrorism, support [for the] Kremlin regime and the cruel war policy in Ukraine by the Russian Federation,” says Iryna Supruniuk, head of communications at TechUkraine, a Ukrainian technology group. “The situation is rapidly turning into a scandal. It will definitely cause [damage to] the reputation of Slush as well as venture capital funds in the global tech arena. In these circumstances, the organizers should modify the decision of the jury. I guess Ukrainian startup Zeely absolutely deserves to be the winner.
Zeely said in a statement that it would be “inappropriate for them to comment on the jury’s decision,” but added that their startup was standing “in an explicit anti-Russian stance.”
“A terrible and bloody war continues in our country, where our citizens are dying and we do not tolerate neutrality. We must all be united. We are against cooperation with Russia in all its manifestations,” he said.
“Immigram helps people leave Russia, which is ambiguous”
“Before investing in a startup associated with Russia, you need to make sure that you are not supporting the regime and that the people you are supporting have a clear reputation and history. Immigram helps people leave Russia, which is ambiguous,” says Tomasz Swieboda, partner at Inovo, a Polish VC, saying Immigram hired in Russia and received Russian media coverage. “It’s too much for the international venture capital community to support them.”
“The news of their [Immigram’s] employment in Russia naturally raises the question of why we are supporting the Russian tech scene at the moment,” says Mateusz Zawistowski, Managing Director of ffVC, an American VC operating in Poland who launched a targeted fund only in Ukrainian startups.
“Slush is an event that represents European technology – and unfortunately Russia is a direct threat to those values. I am disappointed with the due diligence of these prominent investors, especially given the current escalation of Russian violence in Ukraine, including actions against civilians,” he added. (Many side events at Slush took place in support of Ukraine.)
“I don’t want to judge whether it’s a good deal or a bad deal,” says Borys Musielak, founding partner of SMOK, a Polish VC. “But to recognize a Russian startup, which is currently hiring in Moscow, at such a serious event, to the applause of top VCs…it’s not just a PR shot in the foot, but above all, a very real shot behind the backs of the Ukrainians.
Zosia Wanat is Sifted’s Central and Eastern Europe reporter, based in Warsaw. She tweets from @zosiawanat
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