"Plug and Play is about to expand to Switzerland"

12.04.2019 13:20

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Saeed Amidi

Saeed Amidi is founder and CEO of the Plug and Play Tech Center, the world's largest startup accelerator and one of the most active VCs in Silicon Valley. Amidi has been an early investor in companies such as PayPal, Dropbox and N26. We asked him about his plans for Switzerland, success in collaboration between corporations and start-ups, and the peculiarities of Silicon Valley.

Mr Amidi, from time to time Europeans think that although the digital presence is dominated by companies from the US, the digital future will be dominated by Chinese companies. Plug and Play has been active in Europe for several years and has a presence in eight European cities. Where do you see Europe’s future opportunities?
Saeed Amidi: This is rather controversial now, but I think China will win the race for autonomous cars and artificial intelligence, simply because Chinese companies have so much data. What impresses me about Europe is the confidence that European companies enjoy worldwide and the ability to grow out of small markets.

You have to explain that. We do not see growth here as our key skill.
We are here in Basel: take just Roche and Novartis. The two groups are among the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies and they have their roots in Switzerland. Impressive.

In Europe, Plug and Play is present in Germany, France, Spain, the UK and the Netherlands. Much is happening in Berlin in particular. Is it possible to quantify the activities there?
We have invested in more than 100 companies in Berlin alone; of these, 80% still exist. The biggest success so far is N26: the smartphone bank was valued at USD 3 billion in the last round of financing.

You were also one of the first investors in PayPal and Dropbox. How do you recognise such unicorns in the very early phase?
From the passion of the founders – I have to see the fire in their eyes. Then there is the technology; if it comes from MIT, for example, this is promising. You have excellent universities here in Switzerland, such as ETH in Zurich.

You have spent a few days in Switzerland. Have you seen anything interesting for Plug and Play?
I came to Switzerland six years ago to find out if Plug and Play should open a branch here. At that time we opted for Berlin instead, but a lot has changed in the meantime. We are already working with several Swiss groups such as UBS, Credit Suisse, Zurich and Swiss Re. Today, these corporations have rmanagers responsible for innovation, and I have observed an appetite for innovation. I am also impressed by the initiative Venture Kick, which supports 75 start-ups with seed money every year and on extremely fair terms.

That means Plug and Play could soon have a presence in Switzerland?
It is perfectly possible. We are currently planning to open approximately 20 new satellite offices around the world. Some locations are already fixed. I am in Switzerland to explore the possibilities and have had conversations with several corporations. We are about to expand to Switzerland.

Almost no one has as much experience as you in bringing together start-ups and corporations. More than 250 major companies around the globe work together with Plug and Play, and it supports more than 1,000 start-ups every year. Many start-ups tell me about the difficulties in working with corporations. What does it take for a collaboration to succeed?
You can not make a corporation dance unless it wants to dance; there needs to be a sense of urgency on the part of the group. The corporation must embrace digital transformation and cultural change. There are good examples of this. Take Mercedes-Benz: we have done more than 100 pilot projects with start-ups with it. Or Allianz: the insurance group has participated in the smartphone bank N26. It was certainly not the prospect of attracting a return on its investment; rather, the idea behind it was to take insurance on to the smartphone.

With their European locations and programmes, you want to bring Silicon Valley to Europe. What characterises Silicon Valley for you?
The openness to immigrants. I am originally from Iran. I think about 80% of the founding teams of successful companies have immigrants on board. In Silicon Valley, it does not matter if someone comes from Iran, India or another region. If you have something to offer, you will find support and, ultimately, success.

Last question: if you look at the list of unicorns in which you have invested early, it is striking that in most cases the founders are still at the top. You do not seem to be a friend of managers coming in from the outside.
I think the passion of a founder is irreplaceable. Of course, often founders can be quite difficult, but working with a difficult founder is still more beneficial than having an outsider come in to the company.

More information about Plug and Play Tech Center on the website.

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