Think of the proverbial garage startup experience, but with a lot more structure.
Antler, a four-year old venture capital firm and startup generator, targets founders at a very very early stage, replacing the usual free-form garage scenario with mentoring, services and funding. Based in Singapore, with outposts around the world, it’s now expanding its operations in the U.S.
“We see a ton of funding available to businesses generating revenue, but little for founders who are just at the beginning, refining the specific problem they plan to address,” says Tyler Norwood, partner at Antler U.S. “We’re giving people a place to go to begin the journey.”
While the average age of ventures in startup accelerator Y Combinator is 1.7 years, according to Norwood, Antler’s focus is on an even earlier phase of the process, what you might pre-pre seed. To that end, the firm helps provide startups with their infrastructure needs for 6 -to-12 months, to help them get off the ground. That includes everything from finding a co-founder to validating a business model, as well as providing a place to work with like-minded founders.
It also typically provides three or so months of funding, allowing entrepreneurs to focus full-time on their nascent ventures. Specifically, it invests $15,000, based on a pitch describing the problem founders want to solve. After they’ve built a team and made progress, some also receive an investment of $250,000.
Thanks to Covid, however, Antler had to tweak its usual approach in the U.S. The first cohort was based in New York City, starting 14 months ago, right before the pandemic hit. As you’d expect, work went virtual. But also, because the smaller, $15,000 investments target very early-stage ventures, which particularly benefit from in-person work, the focus has been on slightly later-stage startups and larger checks. Norwood says he’s looking forward to meeting in-person again in the third quarter. “Our founders really need access to an in-person community, people to bounce ideas off of,” he says.
In the U.S., in addition to New York City, Antler has operations in Austin and LA, and is in the process of exploring Miami. Some of its 33 U.S. portfolio companies include Caria, a digital health platform that helps women in menopause connect with experts, a community and evidence-based support; My Home Pathway, which has a platform to help consumers unable to get a mortgage improve their risk profile; and Marco, a platform through which small exporters in Latin America can find financing.
Central to Antler’s approach, both in the U.S. and globally, is finding a way to address the rich uncle problem: helping founders who don’t have a network of affluent friends and family they can turn to for initial financing. That, of course, is a significant stumbling block for entrepreneurs of color in the U.S. who lack such networks. A similar dynamic happens in other countries, too, according to Norwood. The firm’s U.S. investments have eight times more BIPOC founders than conventional VC firms, Norwood says.
Also central to the overall approach is a belief in the power of entrepreneurship to address intractable problems. “The more problem-solving ability we have, the more ability we’ll have to fix some of the existential crises we’re facing,” says Norwood.
Globally, Antler has backed around 250 portfolio companies from nearly 80 countries. Almost half of those companies are founded or co-founded by women.