Five FieldHouse Finds from #Slush23

Ian Wallis and Lulu Carter
Associate Director & Account Director

There’s a multitude of reasons why FieldHouse Associates makes Slush a key part of its events calendar each year. Our clients are there and speaking (Kuda, Robin AI, Seraphim Capital, CIBC). We get to catch up with tech journalists from across Europe in one place. The parties are outstanding – with thanks to MMC Ventures, supported by CIBC, for its night at the Wallis Karaoke Bar; London & Partners and Andrew Tibbetts for impromptu drinks in town; and BackedVC and the inimitable Tom Hopkins for ensuring we had hot tickets for Kaiku Helsinki. And then there’s the content!


We’ll admit, with the many media briefings and catch-ups with friends in Europe’s tech and innovation ecosystem lined up, we didn’t get to half as many sessions as we might have liked. But the ones we did attend offered more than enough inspiration, insight, and timely reminders to keep us thinking on the flight home. Here are a handful of choice snippets… 


ClimateTech investment numbers need debunking

It’s getting a little hard to determine where we are with ClimateTech investment. In October, PwC’s State of Climate Tech report – analysis of more than 32,000 deals – recorded a 40% decrease year-on-year. While not alone in feeling the pinch thanks to “a challenging macroeconomic environment, sinking valuations, and geopolitical turmoil” nevertheless alarmed some. Atomico’s State of European Tech, produced in partnership with Slush, brought reassurance – with ClimateTech (but including the wider area of Carbon and Energy) accounting for 27% of all capital invested in European tech in 2023. The reality, according to Lightrock’s Partner Chris Steinau at the Slush Climate Summit side event, is that while ClimateTech is the fastest growing sector in the last five years, this year’s numbers are only down because crossover investment from hedge funds that unnaturally boosted the totals. What should concern us is that the amount of investment into European ClimateTech over 12 years was the same as that invested into the sector in the US in 2022 alone. Paul Murphy, Partner & Head of Europe at Lightspeed Venture Partners pointed to Tesla once receiving a $0.5bn from the US government as evidence of the difference in approach, suggesting The European Green Deal comes with “lots of strings attached”. The IRA default position is ‘yes’ against a European ‘no – and more evidence is required’, he added. 


‘Shit sandwiches’ are wrong and need to be binned

In an entertaining session, 20VC’s Harry Stebbings questioned Claire Hughes Johnson, former COO – and still Corporate Officer and Advisor – to Stripe, on the merits of delivering a ‘shit sandwich’ to underperforming members of staff. It’s wrong and leaves people confused, she told the opening morning audience, with too many holding onto the positives. She prefers open and honest dialogue, and said her approach is to check in on goals and what it is she’s worried about – but not “you are not meeting your deadlines”. Then she gives people a chance to take ownership of what they should have done faster by asking ‘Why didn’t you follow up?’, ‘What do you think is going on here?’, and ‘What are you going to do differently?’. If she detects ‘victim’ behaviour and blame apportioned to macro conditions it’s time to stop the conversation. Noting that extroverts will want to talk through the issue, whereas introverts will prefer time to reflect, she expects staff to work with her to find ways to change their behaviour. “If you don’t, you’re not going to be on the team,” she added. And it’s 30 days max to turn it around. So ‘shit sandwiches’ are wrong: “It’s a negotiation, not conflict avoidance.” 


F1 Champ Nico Rosberg knows how to handle events circuits too

What keeps former F1 world champion turned ClimateTech investor Nico Rosberg hungry? Taking on challenges, personal growth, and having an impact. Which is why he’s investing in underwater energy storage, the all-electric Lilium Jet, and electric air taxis from Volocopter. He’s also a driving force behind Extreme H, along with Formula 1 and the FIA, which will see the electric off-road racing series switch to hydrogen from 2025. In a couple of entertaining appearances, including a session with Business Insider’s Tasmin Lockwood and Plan A’s Lubomila Jordanova at Lightrock’s sustainability side event, Rosberg succeeded in drawing the crowds. His chat with Visionaries Club Founding Partner Robert Lacher saw him take his brand of humour and humility to the main stage. For young entrepreneurs though, his advice was simple: look for mentors. As an F1 driver he spent two hours, every two days, with a sports psychologist to enhance his mental discipline. At the time it was something he kept out of the limelight as, like his fellow drivers, he feared showing any weakness. 


Benchmark broke its own rules after Airbnb big miss

TechCrunch’s Connie Loizos chaired a session with Benchmark Capital’s GP line-up of Peter Fenton, Victor Lazarte, Miles Grimshaw, and Sarah Tavel. In a wonderfully candid, unchoreographed moment, a slip from Loizos as she reeled off investment triumphs led Fenton to discuss the fact that Airbnb remains a “deep regret” as it wasn’t possible to make an investment that kept within the fund’s ownership rules of taking 25% stakes. He pointed out that in his early days in the VC industry, a $7m to $10m round was a sizeable Series A in the US, but would now sound like a Seed. “It’s no longer a question of what Benchmark can own, but how much can it scale?” For founders raising a Series A today, Sarah Tavel reaffirmed what we all know: the bar is higher now. “There was exuberance in the market and the same fundamentals weren’t there in 2021,” she said. “But we’re back to where building a company is really hard.” Gone are the vanity metrics and topline numbers, she added. Back is the old-fashioned expectation of companies that generate profit and cashflow. This brought to mind another session on DeepTech investment with David Berry of Flagship Pioneering, who said that when he was entering the world of VC he was told by a mentor: ‘It’s about how you say no – I see 1,000 potential investments a year and say no to 997 and yes to three.’ Berry said he spends his time figuring out how to say no to someone, so for founders the focus should be on “eliminating every reason why a VC would say no”.


Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung can keep you out of prison

The highly impressive Theranos whistleblower Erika Cheung delivered some of the most sage insights of the conference in her ‘How to avoid jail’ session with Bloomberg’s Agatha Cantrill. The molecular biologist who was played by Camryn Mi-young Kim in miniseries The Dropout, warned that “in all hype cycles you will see people saying you’ve got to grow fast, get on this train, and not pay attention to the fundamentals of business”, while pointedly suggesting that AI will have its own Theranos, FTX or Wirecard AG scandal before long, which overnight could kill investor appetite. Having co-founded Ethics in Entrepreneurship, a non-profit organisation focused on supporting ethical practices in business and advising founders on how to balance profit and integrity, she highlighted how similar the perpetrated fraud is every time:- Pressure to maintain numbers and an expectation of certain metrics in unreasonable timelines creates an environment where shortcuts are seen to be the only option; Cultures of fear and silence where employees feel they can’t question the approach; The cult of personality and the danger of charismatic leaders leading (often) young, zealous teams to believe the basic rules don’t apply to such innovation. Founders drawn to success like Golum to the ring will need to answer key questions when selling potential or face the fate of Holmes, Bankman-Fried and others, Cheung said. So be sure you have answers to the following: Where is the money? What are you doing with that money? Who are you doing something with – and can you explain the nature of the relationship? What is inside the box – the key product you’re developing? And if you slip, expect one of your most committed employees to be the one who speaks out – just as Cheung did.