Leonora is an associate at Molten Ventures with a background in AI and cognitive neuroscience from the UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences.
Joining AI cyber security unicorn, Darktrace, to expand on her investment experience, Leonora helped scale up the business, bringing it to IPO. Returning to the venture space, Leonora specialises in deep tech at Molten.
Lara Pawade sat down with Leonora to talk about the opportunities for STEM in VC, her operator experience, diversity and her advice for those new to VC. For those not in the know, STEM stands for Scientific, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Please tell me about your career journey to date.
My background is well and truly in the STEM bracket, scientific specifically, at the globally renowned UCL Faculty of Brain Sciences, where the team at ‘Deepmind’ – the AI subsidiary of Google – originated.
After experience within the investment space, I wanted to get exposure in scaling a high-growth deep tech company, so I joined Darktrace – the cyber AI unicorn out of Cambridge and Silicon Valley – for several years. We took Darktrace through multiple iterations, building our commercial teams across the world, firstly across the Nordic regions, then across the Middle East. We built Darktrace to pre-IPO, and now it’s a listed company on the FTSE 250, so this experience equipped me to understand what it takes to exponentially scale a deep tech company.
I decided to go back to venture because it’s an area I found fascinating and it allows you to make a substantial change and material difference in the world. I joined Molten Ventures, which is a FTSE 250 listed VCl Pan-European fund. I am primarily focusing on our deep tech strategy. We typically invest Series A – Series D with a cheque size of $5 million to $50 million, with around a $2 billion market cap and companies like Revolut, UI path and Graphcore are in the portfolio.
I’m specifically focused on investing at the cutting edge of innovation. On top of that, I’m passionate about promoting more diversity and representation in the venture space as it’s an area that we all really need to work on.
Do you think your operator experience at Darktrace helps in your VC career?
Yes, definitely. When we’re sitting with founders and on the board of companies, it’s important to understand what can go right, but also what can go wrong. Having that experience of knowing what that journey looks like is definitely a plus and really helpful.
Hands-on experience provides us with the ability to give more than just capital to the founders, which aligns well with our motto at Molten: ‘make more possible’. By providing energy and expertise, we’re giving a multi-faceted angle to founders to succeed in whatever they’re building.
How does your motto translate into your investments?
We’re generally looking to back founders with global ambition that are looking to change the status quo in any area. The focus on making more possible is really important because we’re providing that ability for them to grow and become the best version they can be.
What’s really interesting about our fund is that it’s publicly listed so we’re also democratising venture capital. Typically, venture is a closed ecosystem where only private market investors get a look in. By becoming a listed company, we’re really allowing public market investors to reap the gains of the venture capital expansion, which is one of our key focuses within the fund.
What does it mean to be publicly listed?
It means that we are a balance sheet investor, so we’re able to back founders throughout their fundraising journey.
Typically, in a private VC, they would have a particular fund cycle by which they need to return the fund by, which limits the ability to invest over time. Because we’re publicly listed, we can support founders from series A right through to pre-IPO.
A good example of this was Trustpilot, where we backed the team at very early stages and we continued to support the company for several years, right through to IPO. This model is really useful, specifically for deep tech companies and founders coming from the STEM space, where typically the cycles are significantly longer, including commercialisation and profitability. This is because we don’t need to return the money, we can just continue deploying that patient capital.
What is Molten’s overall relationship with STEM innovation?
I would say our DNA as a deep tech investor with really heavy IP and university spin-offs. We are also limited partner (LP) in multiple university seed funds and we work pretty closely with Tech Nation and Google for Startups to promote the space.
There are some really great examples in the portfolio such as Oskari from Aiven. These founders have deep technical expertise and have then gone on to commercialise successful companies that we’ve supported. We’re able to support on multiple levels: through capital, continued support, and our seed fund program.
Our team is very multidisciplinary and many of us have these technical backgrounds.
So you work as a limited partner too?
Exactly, we have direct investments and then we’re LP in about 60 to 70 of the top seed funds across Europe, which is a unique way to operate. It means we have over 1,000 portfolio companies within the seed funds and can support seed funds that are focused on specific areas, such as a great fund called Black Seed VC, which is focused on supporting Black VCs and entrepreneurs.
Black Seed VC is actually one of our partners too!
It’s a great way to optimise our exposure and support their domain specific knowledge. Future Positive is another really good example, which is focused on the deep tech space.
Do you think that the UK could be doing more to commercialise and catalyse STEM innovation?
100%, I think there’s a lot more to be done! There are some really great funds supporting university spinoffs, which is a strong strategy.
There are also so many amazing initiatives that we’re working on now, but there are so many more we can do. For example, there is the ‘People like Me’ campaign with whom I work closely, promoting people who have incredible technical backgrounds but need support in commercialising. Providing that mentorship and help with capital is important but we have a big step change needed in the UK.
So there are several things in the pipeline at the moment whether that’s through the seed funds, capital or mentorship.
What do you think are the major benefits of STEM-VC collaboration?
There are so many crossover skills where we’ve seen some of the best venture capitalists and some of the best founders from these backgrounds. However, often, it’s limited in terms of availability and the support to commercialise these really incredible ideas, whether it’s through not having access to capital or not having access to the support. With all these amazing innovations that we’re seeing, just providing that support infrastructure to help these companies grow will be so beneficial to everyone as we’re all trying to move forward in several areas of innovation.
What’s your advice to anyone who wants to diversify their portfolio or deal flow?
Some of the best ways are through seed funds because they have so much expertise in their field.
For example, we are LPs in multiple seed funds and the companies that come out of those seed funds are then supported by us through series A, B, C, and D. Also, through doing multiple mentorships, even if the companies are in a much earlier stage, there are lots of really amazing EDI and females-in-VC initiatives.
What are the major EDI issues in venture today and what are a few things that we can do to tackle them?
You just need to look at the stats to see that there is a significant issue. Unfortunately, if you look at the majority of fund portfolios, the representation of EDI founders is incredibly low. There are some really great initiatives, as mentioned – the ‘People like Me’ STEM program – and proactively creating opportunities for sponsorship, mentorship and advancement of careers.
It’s key to give people from underestimated backgrounds the confidence to succeed in whatever they achieve. It’s something we’re actively involved in at Molten, trying to facilitate a more fair future.
What is your advice for someone who wants to work in VC?
What’s great about venture capital and the venture ecosystem is that there are so many different entry routes which allow for different opinions and different backgrounds.
It’s helpful to have an area that you’re passionate about. For me, that’s deep tech, neuro-tech and synthetic biology.
Start speaking to people in the space. People are getting more open and happy to chat. We’re trying to move away from that typical ‘old boys club’ so to speak, and have more opinions around the table because, ultimately, it creates better outcomes for everyone involved. So, be open and let’s see how we can help build the younger generation up.
See more on STEM to VC here.