Slush pitch competition winner sparks outrage

Members of the European startup community blasted the decision to award the top prize in the prestigious pitching competition to Russian companies and founders which helps tech talent move to the UK.

As a Slush 100 Winner, Immigram will receive a €1m investment from five top VCs: Accel, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners, NEA and Northzone. One of the other finalists pitching to investors on stage on Friday is a Ukrainian startup called Zeely.

Critics called the decision tone-deaf, coming in the same week that Russia carried out mass attacks on Ukrainian cities. Many have also questioned why international VCs should invest in Russian founders while the war is going on.

Investors are now doing their due diligence on Immigram and looking into the background of the founders – as is common practice after any startup is issued. term sheet – and if there is anything untoward was revealed as a result, sifted to understand the investment will not advance.

Anastasia Mirolyubova, founder and CEO of Immigram, said that the startup went through an extensive selection process and actually won the competition.

I’m being judged by the team I’m from”

“It’s four or five levels of court. We go through over 1,000 applications [to a shortlist of] 100, then 20. Then we win, business wins, ideas and traction and what we actually do. And now I’m judged by my origins and where I don’t live,” he told Sifted.

Slush said in a statement: “Slush stands with Ukraine and condemns Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For this reason, we do not partner with Russian companies or funds or accept startup or investor applications from companies based in Russia.

Anastasia Mirolyubova, CEO of Immigram, on stage at Slush 2022
Anastasia Mirolyubova, CEO of Immigram

The winner

Immigram was founded in 2019 by two Russians, Mirolyubova and cofounder Mikhail Sharonov, who both moved to England in 2016. It is incorporated in the UK, and helps tech talent from more than 10 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, India and the US., apply for UK global talent visa. The company says that applicants from eastern Europe make up a minority of its users.

The cofounders both hold Russian passports, but Mirolyubova has been based in England for seven years. Sharonov now lives in Georgia.

Mirolyubova said on LinkedIn on Sunday that during the last two days he’d “began to get death threats and wishes, to rightfully win the competition starting with the wrong color of the passport”.

“The last few days have been very, very bumpy and very difficult for me. But most of the comments I get are from Ukrainians, who are now in a very bad position, because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Mirolyubova told Sifted. “I can understand the feelings they. But the tendency that is happening is more towards xenophobia and racism.

He told Sifted that Immigram “does not support the Russian invasion of Ukraine“. In his LinkedIn post, he also said that Immigram has waived payments for Ukrainian clients and helped buy ambulances for the front lines.

The investors

One of the investors confirmed to Sifted that they are currently in the due diligence process with Immigram, which should be completed in a week or two.

Their understanding that Immigram does not have an entity in Russia, or any employees based there, and does not take any money from Russian investors – which was also confirmed sifted by Immigram. The VC will not continue to invest if due diligence reveals that one of them is not correct.

The outrage started after AIN.Capital, a CEE technology news site, picture published from a Russian job site seems to indicate Immigram is hiring for a role in Moscow.

Mirolyubova said that the company, which has a remote team, hires IT specialists in Russia but only on the condition that they move to another country, such as Georgia, Armenia or England.

Slush said that the jury will thoroughly review the winner’s background, but declined to comment further on the selection criteria used in the competition. Mirolyubova said that this is a normal process and that the jury will “never” find anything that could undermine their decision.

Sifted reached out to Northzone, Lightspeed, General Catalyst, Accel and NEA for comment over the weekend but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

criticism

The decision to grant Immigram has been heavily criticized by the tech community in Ukraine, as well as in neighboring Poland, which has welcomed millions of Ukrainian refugees since the war began and has provided special assistance to the displaced Ukrainian tech community.

“[The choice of winner is] sponsorship of terrorism, support [for the] The Kremlin regime and the brutal war policy in Ukraine by the Russian Federation,” said Iryna Supruniuk, head of communications at TechUkraine, a Ukrainian technology group. “The situation quickly became a scandal. It will definitely cause [damage to] Slush’s reputation is also a VC fund in the global tech arena. In this situation the committee must change the jury’s decision. I think that the Ukrainian startup Zeely really deserves to be the winner.

Zeely said in a statement that it was “inappropriate for them to comment on the jury’s decision” but added that the startup stood “in an explicit anti-Russian position”.

“A terrible, bloody war continues in our country, where our citizens die and we do not tolerate neutrality. We must all be unanimous. We oppose cooperation with Russia in any of its manifestations,” he said.

Immigram helps people leave Russia, which is ambiguous”

“Before investing in a start-up related to Russia, you must make sure that you do not support the regime and that the person you support has a clear reputation and history. Immigram helps people leave Russia, which is ambiguous,” said Tomasz Swieboda, partner in Inova, a Polish VC, admitted that Immigram has been hiring in Russia and has been benefiting from Russian press coverage. “This is too much for the international VC community to support them”.

“Their news [Immigram’s] work in Russia naturally raises the question of whether we support the Russian tech scene today,” said Mateusz Zawistowski, director at ffVC, a US VC with operations in Poland that start target fund solely in Ukrainian startups.

“Slush is a show that stands for European technology – and unfortunately, Russia is a direct threat to these values. I feel disappointed in the diligence done by these high-profile investors, especially in light of the current increase in Russian violence in Ukraine, including actions against civilians ,” he added. (Many side shows at Slush held in support of Ukraine.)

“I don’t want to judge whether it’s a good or bad business,” says Borys Musielak, founding partner at SMOK, a Polish VC. “But recognize the Russian startup, which is currently hiring in Moscow, at such a serious event, with the applause of top VCs… Ukrainians.”

Zosia Wanat is Sifted’s central and eastern Europe reporter, based in Warsaw. She tweets from @zosiawanat

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