Slush and VC Pitch judges overturn $1 million award to Russian founders after industry outcry • TechCrunch

Imigram — the talent immigration platform founded by two Russian passport holders that won the startup pitch at last week’s big Slush conference in Helsinki — is now out of the running, after a barrage of controversy overshadowed its decision in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

This morning, Imigram issued a statement saying it was “opting out” of the competition, but moments later the Slush organization tweeted Removal Award from Immigram.

TechCrunch has learned that the VCs that came together to back the competition’s ‘prize’ (Accel, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners, NEA and Northzone) have advised Slush to do their own due diligence. To Imigram, post the contest. More later.

For his part, he said he had a slush. Imigram has been deleted. “Winning in the light of new information”; He asked the investors to withdraw their investments; And apologized to the participants “for this control”. He added, “Before entering the competition, we had to thoroughly evaluate all the works of the participants.”

Over the weekend, he released the following statement: “Slush stands by Ukraine and condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For this reason, we do not partner with Russian companies or funds, nor do we accept startup or investor applications from companies located in Russia.”

Imigram was launched in 2019 by two Russian founders (with one living in the UK since 2016), but as a UK entity from London. The principle offering is a platform-based approach to exploring the “Global Talent Visa” which is increasingly being rolled out in 10 countries post-Covid for high-tech talent.

In particular, it advertises for talented people in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, India and the USA to get the UK International Talent Visa in the first instance. The company says Eastern European applicants are some of its users.

However, perhaps due to its founder’s DNA, it was one of the first countries where Imigram first began operations to help Russians obtain visas.

In the year In 2019, Imigram may have been a relatively uncontroversial start-up and likely attracted little attention.

But in April of this year – a month after Ukraine was brutally invaded by Russia – it raised $500,000 in a funding round led by Xploration Capital, but also from Mikita Mikado, a Belarusian founder and CEO of Pandadoc who moved to the US.

A casual observer might have commented at the time, that the rise of emigres may have been related to the desire of many Russians who disagreed with the war, or wanted to avoid its consequences. It is impossible to say both ways because every individual is different.

But it doesn’t count for Mikado to make anti-Putin statements and flee Belarus because of the Lukashenko-backed Kremlin-allied government.

Other investors include Common Travel Ventures, angel investors and Hatchery, a start-up incubator run by University College London.

It was in this context that Imigram came to the Slush platform last week after going through Slush’s rigorous vetting process that involved four different stages and was implemented by more than 1,000 startups.

But when it emerged shortly after that that she and co-founder Mikhail Sharonov (located in Georgia) were still both Russian passport holders (despite living outside Russia for many years), social media – especially on LinkedIn – lit up about the decision on this pitch competition decision.

Among them was a wide-ranging post by Jaroslav Krempowicz of Movens Capital in Warsaw criticizing the decision to award the prize to Imigram over the weekend.

“While some founding fathers fought and died on the front lines for their families and loved ones and the freedom of their country, others wanted to help Russians escape the consequences of their actions and actions…” he posted.

Several other analysts, including TechUkraine, have compiled even more critical posts of the decision.

To add fuel to the fire, Imigram faced competition from Ukrainian startup Zeli, a platform focused on emerging markets that allows consumers to easily access websites from their phones.

Most observers called Slush’s decision to include Imigram at least “tone deaf” in the same week that Russia was shelling Ukrainian cities. Additionally, participating VCs have been criticized for not being very careful during the pitch competition or for not being able to ‘read the room’ regarding the backgrounds of the startups involved.

The fallout from the event is high.

“Ukrainians cannot understand all the horrors they are going through right now,” Miroliubova said in a LinkedIn post on Sunday. But I really emphasize and stand with Ukraine. We do not support the invasion and occupation and never have.

But now she says she’s started getting death threats and wishes after winning a start-up competition with the wrong color of her passport.

“My co-founder Mikhail Sharonov’s family is from Odessa, Ukraine, my father is from Tatarstan. But we are both red in color. [Russian] Passport. Immigram’s mission is to help talent (from small towns in India to villages in Nigeria) with any passport to live and work in rich countries free from racism, hatred and bigotry. .

Imigram was previously (in April) offering services to talented Ukrainian IT specialists to move to the UK via the Global Talent Route, but said it stopped paying Ukrainian clients after the war broke out. An ambulance for the Ukrainian front.

After winning the competition, Imigram said it would donate $100,000 to Ukrainian NGOs supporting the war effort.

However, the company had to face questions about its strategy. Although Immigram does not have a legal entity in Russia or establish any employees, AIN.Capital, a CEE tech news site, published images from a Russian workplace showing Immigram hiring for roles in Moscow.

Miroliubova countered that the company simply uses these Russian job vacancies to advertise roles outside of Russia, such as Georgia, Armenia or the UK, and then also offers a talent visa platform.

That said, TechCrunch has found an investor in Imigram that maintains close ties with Russia.

Sergey Dashkov, head of Joint Journey Ventures, a Cyprus-based early stage investor in Imigram, recently listed his location on LinkedIn as “Moscow,” but that was changed after TechCrunch contacted him for comment.

Speaking to TechCrunch, he said: “I maintain multiple addresses in multiple countries. I am now in Limassol, Cyprus. I live between Russia, United Arab Emirates, Singapore, Cyprus. They live mainly in the Internet [sic.]He said.

On May 31 of this year, Russian-American journalist Daria Solovyeva appeared in an article titled “How This Moscow-Based VC Investor Raises Uncertainty in Wartime.”

The article describes how Dashkov has invested in 112 companies since 2016 and “does not distinguish between Russian, Belorussian or Ukrainian founders.”[I] They still have “many” Ukrainian companies.

“Times are not good, but they make strong people” and “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he said clearly about the conflict in Ukraine.

Although Joint Ventures said in early March that it had suspended new investments, Dashkov is reportedly still keeping an eye on “the best deals that pop up on the radar.”

He added: “In five to six years we will see Russian companies that are unicorns, despite the current problems and obstacles.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, Imigram founder Anastasia Miroliubova said that Imigram had taken a joint venture investment several months before the war: “They took this investment. [from Joint Journey Ventures] Before the raid, in December 2021, the fund will invest in several large European and American companies. Until today we didn’t know if Sergei lived or spent any time in Russia.

Zaili, a Ukrainian start-up troubled by the slush controversy, declined to comment on the jury’s decision but said it was “clearly anti-Russian.” A terrible bloody war continues in our country where our citizens are dying and we will not tolerate our neutrality. We must all be united. We oppose cooperation with Russia in any of its manifestations,” he said in a statement.

Commenting, Boris Musalak, founding partner of SMOK, the famous Polish VCC, said on LinkedIn that the incident was a “PR fuckup…” by awarding the Russian group Imigram a major European start-up award to Russians because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. … while Russia is simultaneously pounding the country. You should have known better Slush, Accel, Northzone, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners, New Enterprise Associates (NEA). I would appreciate an explanation from the GPs in the picture as to why they think this is a good idea.

But by recognizing a Russian startup currently recruiting in Moscow, at such a serious event, with the applause of senior VCs… It’s not just a PR shot in the foot, but above all, a very real kick in the back. Ukrainians,” he added.

While there has been no official comment yet from Northzone, Lightspeed, General Catalyst, Accel and NEA, TechCrunch spoke to sources close to the decision-making process among the VC judges.

A source close to the judging panel told TechCrunch that the judges decided against the investment because the founders had nothing to do with Russian passports, but because the clients outside of the countries they served were too numerous. Russia.

“The business is indirectly getting more traffic because of the war, not because Imigram made a mistake, but because most of the applicants on their devices are now Russian,” he told TechCrush, and this was not clear to the judges before.

After Slush and the investors learned this, Slush made the final decision: “This is a direct result of trying to make an investment decision.” There is a reason companies do due diligence after signing an agreement. Investments are typically not made public for weeks/months after all due diligence is completed.

The VC jury doesn’t blame Slush or Imigram for the situation, but says it “felt it wasn’t worth investing” in light of the data from its client base.

He added that this is “a real edge case – a lot of people trying to do the right thing, including the founders. . . it’s really sad.” He said the whole situation was more “distorted and contrived” than the comments on social media.

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