Raising over €90 million for startups

Much like superheroes, every company has an origin story. Maybe it all began in a basement when someone had a great idea for fixing an annoying problem. Or perhaps inspiration struck in a university classroom or an office parking lot at the end of the day. Whatever the case, making the leap from basic idea to full-fledged business isn’t easy, but for lucky startups in Amsterdam, Rockstart is there to help.

A multifaceted startup accelerator and seed investor, Rockstart provides young companies with capital, market access, a thriving community and valuable expertise. The startups it works with are spread across four domains – energy, health, agrifood and emerging tech – and it’s helped them raise over €90 million since launching in 2011.

Learning by doing

Like the companies it helps become successful scale-ups, Rockstart was born from a yearning to do something big, according to co-founder Rune Theill. Originally from Denmark, he created a small startup and was studying entrepreneurship when he experienced a revelation: “This is not the way to learn how to build a company. You don’t learn that studying. You learn that by doing.”

His epiphany sparked a desire to create a startup ecosystem in Copenhagen where people could follow their dreams and get their hands dirty. He participated in Startup Weekend, where he worked with a team to create a new company over a couple days while interacting with other entrepreneurs. Eventually, this led to him meeting Don Ritzen and Oscar Kneppers, who shared his ambitions. After a few weeks, he took the plunge, moved to Amsterdam and helped launched Rockstart.

Rune Theill Rockstart

Rune Theill, one of Rockstart's co-founders

Transforming promising startups during a six-month programme

They say the early bird gets the worm, and this maxim captures the Rockstart approach perfectly. “We are the first investor in these technology startups, and we like to get in right after team formation and ideation, when there’s already a little bit of traction. That's the moment when we have the most value. So, we like getting in early, providing some capital, helping them make their business case even stronger and putting together the first investment rounds.”

All of this takes place during an intensive six-month programme. During this time, young businesses experience intense pressure as their founders move beyond their comfort zones and take the risks required to grow. Participants also take deep dives into different topics, studying things like team dynamics and development, financing and sales  as they strive to achieve various milestones while pitching their ideas to curated audiences. 

And though it’s a lot of work, the programme provides participants with a truly invaluable asset: introductions to the people and companies whose help they need to succeed. “We connect them to market partners, we connect them to mentors, we connect them to investors,” says Theill. “And we have a broader community globally with the more than 230 startups that we have already invested in. And of course, there’s a mentor network of 350 people and a large network of corporate partners and so on.”

Seeing humanity’s challenges as unique opportunities 

And what about those four domains? Like any smart company, Rockstart spends a lot of time thinking about the future, and not just its own – it’s looking for startups that can help solve some of the challenges facing humanity at large.

“We expect companies that we invest in to have relevance in five to ten years,” says Theill. “So, with agri-food, the most obvious thing to look at is population growth. The fact that we're going from 7.2 billion to almost 10 billion people by 2050 requires us to be smarter in the way we produce and consider how much land we're using. There's also pollution and we need to consider how we can do things smarter, too.” 

The Rockstart team in Amsterdam

Many of the Rockstart companies focused on health specialise in caring for ageing populations and helping people enjoy a good quality of life in their golden years. Climate change is also a major factor, as it affects every area of focus, including emerging tech, which Theill describes as “basically any new technology that might be the disruptor for any industry.”

Having four domains within Rockstart might seem complicated, but this approach has clear benefits. “There is an independent team and independent funds connected to each area,” says Theill. “We’re trying to make it relevant for the startups. With energy, for example, you’ll get more out of meeting mentors and experts that actually understand the sector, and of course, investors with an appetite for startups specialising in the energy transition.”

And speaking of energy, Rockstart – along with partners that include De Hoge Dennen Capital and Dutch pension fund ABP and other investors – recently launched a new fund focused on energy. “We will invest in 50 energy startups over the next five years. What is special is that we will continue investing in these companies, from the accelerator phase all the way up to Series B.”

The fund will focus primarily on young companies in the Netherlands, providing them with access to €21 million in financial investments

Working from home on tomorrow’s big ideas

Like many companies around Amsterdam, Rockstart has embraced working from home as part of its strategy for dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. And for Theill, it just makes sense. “We used to have a big co-working space for startups participating in the programme. But we realised the world is really making a massive shift and going online. A lot of it is about the pandemic, but we believe this is the future – people are going to be more open to engaging with others remotely.” 

By moving Rockstart in this direction, Theill believes it can become more international as well. “Considering that we want to empower founders globally, it’s an obvious move to run our programmes as a remote-first company. Of course, we’ll do events as needed to connect people in the most meaningful way, but in reality, we think offline events should also be a unique, memorable experience where you connect with other people.”

The feeling of a city and the cosiness of a village

Unsurprisingly, Rockstart has a close bond with Amsterdam, its home base. The city has proven to be a magnet for many of the people who walk through Rockstart’s doors and they often return to live and work even after trying their luck in different places. “I think once people experience Amsterdam, it's really hard to leave,” he says. “You can bike anywhere in 20 minutes. But it also has an international airport, and everyone speaks English. You have the feeling of a real city along with the cosiness of a small village.”
Amsterdam canal houses
Commuting to work on a bicycle and being able quickly catch a flight to almost anywhere on Earth are great perks. But Amsterdam has something even more important: a truly global outlook. “You can come here as a foreigner and be successful in creating a business and many of our alumni have shown that,” Theill says. 

“We have two Italian guys who came in with basically nothing and are now quite successful in their businesses. I'm a Danish guy who moved to Netherlands to co-found this company and am now running it as the CEO. There's a very international mindset. People in Amsterdam embrace the openness and having people from different cultures being here – we don't lock ourselves within our borders. I think that's why Amsterdam has succeeded for Rockstart. And that's why I think it's the place to be.”

Learn more about Amsterdam’s ICT sector or the city’s startup ecosystem