Can Angel Labs bring the spirit of Silicon Valley to investors around the globe?

February 20, 2015

By matching startups with new angel investors in emerging markets and beyond, the group hopes to sow the seeds of innovation globally. Will the next big tech hub be in León, Mexico? Or maybe in Beijing?

Is León, Mexico, poised to become the next Silicon Valley?

The city, best known for manufacturing footwear for global shoe brands, may not appear to be a hotbed of innovation. But it does have something essential for new technology businesses, according to Guillermo Garza: funding.

Garza, the founder of the consulting firm Aurigam and data mining startup Retailsights, points out that León is also home to families who built their wealth in the leather goods industry. Although many of these families spend their money reinvesting in their companies or in real estate, Garza says they are ideal candidates to become angel investors in tech startups.

Back in November, he brought some of these high-net-worth individuals together with a group of 20 startups that ranged from a 3-D printing services firm to an electric bicycle maker. So far, the León individuals have invested $200,000 in four technology startups.

Garza is part of a growing community of active angel investors who share a belief that the next Silicon Valley isn’t necessarily going to spring up in Facebook’s backyard – or in Silicon Alley, Silicon Beach or their US tech-hub brethren.

According to data from research firm CB Insights, the next big tech locus is just as likely to be in Beijing, Stockholm or Seoul, which commanded the largest deal growth from the year ending October 2013 to the year ending October 2014.

Angel Labs, an investor academy with a focus on international markets, hopes to help make that happen. The organization is attempting to build geo-clustered startup hubs in developing countries such as Sri Lanka, Jordan, Peru, Turkey, Indonesia and Qatar, among others, to accelerate entrepreneurship and innovation around the world.

In the last year, Angel Labs has hosted events to identify and educate potential investors in 25 countries. The result? Approximately two-thirds of the attendees have become active members of angel networks, either established or new, and have invested some $2.5m in tech startups last year, the group claims. On top of that, 11 new angel networks have been created.

Angel Labs vets prospective investors through its website: individuals must prove they have at least $200,000 in annual income for the past two years, or show a net worth of at least $1m, to be eligible. (That could change if the US Securities and Exchange Commission raises its accredited investor minimums to $500,000 in annual income – or $2.5m in assets – to discourage financial predators.)

The woman behind Angel Labs is Tugce Ergul, its executive director and a Turkish native with a background in investment banking. Ergul came to the US to be a part of a Silicon Valley venture fund called Startup Labs, which aimed to help portfolio companies launch and grow in emerging markets.

Thirty countries and 40 investments later, Ergul made a surprising discovery: the global investment ecosystem wasn’t working. “It was either lack of education on [the] existing investor side or lack of investors, especially at the growth stage,” she said.

Plenty of misconceptions existed among the startups as well. Many believed all it would take to get venture capital funding was “a little bit of traction in their home country, hop on a flight to San Francisco and get a check”, Ergul says.

In 2013, she and some of her team members launched Angel Labs in an attempt to fix these problems. “We were going to work on solving this problem as investors ourselves,” she says.

At first, it had to do the heavy lifting of finding potential investors. But by early 2014, after it had completed its 10th event, Angel Labs began getting calls from interested investors in other countries, as well as from regional development banks, governments, private banking groups, Fortune 500 companies and global family conglomerates interested in partnering up.

A worker inflates a hot air balloon at the hot air balloon festival in Leon, Mexico. Will new Mexican investors help fund global startups and make them fly? Photograph: Carlos Jasso/AP Despite Angel Labs’ success in boosting early-stage funding, it still faces significant challenges. The biggest is a common one, Ergul says: changing preconceived mindsets.

When Garza began his angel group in Mexico, for example, many people he spoke with expected they would invest big money in exchange for 51% of a startup’s equity. According to Ergul, investments average between $30,000 and $50,000 for 8% of the equity.

There’s also a long way to go between raising millions of dollars in angel investing and becoming the next Silicon Valley, a designation for which cities have been vying for years. As of yet, no place – despite plenty of effort and success – has surpassed the valley as an innovation hub.

The reason many economic experts tout for Silicon Valley’s unparalleled success in growing startups is “agglomeration,” that is, a cluster of people and resources that encourage innovation in ways beyond money. It’s clear that more than money is needed: even companies that have raised $1.3m have failed before their second year, according to CB Insights.

Other cities lack the sheer number of innovators found in the valley, says Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator’s seed capital firm. In addition to providing an abundance of fruitful chance encounters, Graham writes: “I’m not saying it’s impossible to succeed in a city with few other startups, just harder. If you’re sufficiently good at generating your own morale, you can survive without external encouragement.”

But there are ways to maximize success by community in these far-flung cities, Ergul says. Angel Labs working with local partners and hosts, such as local investment boards and big banks, for example.

Ergul hopes to build a truly global investment community, in which attendees in Mexico may want to co-invest with those in Jordan to back a tech company in Australia – or even one back in Silicon Valley.

That’s what happened with San Francisco-based startup Lucent Sky, a software company that helps developers find and fix potential security problems in web applications. An Angel Labs investor participated in an early investment round funding the startup.

Now three years old, Lucent Sky is working with companies in the US and throughout the Asia Pacific region, and has an office in Taipei. At it enters new markets, co-founder Melinda Jacobs says, Lucent Sky has tapped into Angel Labs’ cultural understanding and visibility into other networks and mindsets.

What happens when cultures clash? Ergul remains optimistic. She’s seen citizens in conflict zones, such as Israel and Palestine, come together during Startup Weekends.

As Angel Labs aims to expand to 40 countries this year, it is asking experienced entrepreneurs and investors such as Garza to lead bootcamps and help make key community connections.

It is also hoping to play a role in attracting more female investors, as male investors outweigh their counterparts in many emerging markets. It aims for at least 30% females at its events, and so far, has seen women make up at least 30% of event applicants in most markets, Ergul says. At least half the attendees were women in Qatar, she says. “I did not expect to see that.”

Angel Labs groups, Ergul claims, are a place where investors can stay current on global trends and build relationships. Some who’ve met during programs have gone on to start their own companies together, she says.

“Before this, there wasn’t a home for these people to interact,” Ergul says. “When they make these decisions collectively, that is the most magical thing.”

This story originally appeared on The Guardian.