How it started – a historical brief
When looking to gauge the Romanian investment, funding, and start-up environment, you’ll find that the country has only experienced real, genuine growth in the past two years. After the fall of communism over three decades ago, the country experienced a lukewarm economic development process at best.
Around 1995, the first semblance of a professional rebirthed industry materialized in IT. By 1999 and early 2000s, we saw the rise of a few ISP providers, such as RCS-RDS or Romtelecom, which became long-standing household names.
Why is this important for the topic of our article? Well, that’s because Romania’s modern-day investment environment centers chiefly around IT & software development, which starts making a lot of sense if you happen to know the aforementioned historical tidbit.
Fast forward a few years, and we’re in 2014 and 2015. This period is when we see the first venture capital (VC) organizations take form. Investment phases began being a thing, but the processes of pre-seeding, seeding, or series A seeding were not adequately developed, so investment was very much a wild, wild west area. The sheer volume of investments wasn’t the largest, with approximately 15 investments/year for seeding and around five investments/year for series A or B seeding.
Additionally, since nobody really knew or trusted the system yet, many Romanian start-ups began going abroad for investors. For example, between 2013 and 2015, 6 start-ups from Cluj and Bucharest raised investment funds from Bulgaria.
Moreover, since we’re on the topic of start-up numbers, if we were to further analyze the environment back then, we’d find that the number of start-ups being created was between 300 and 500, with only 100 or maybe 200 of them being considered investment-worthy.
How it’s going – current developments
Slowly but surely, starting with 2017, we began seeing more and more players come into the investment environment, with 2019 and 2020 witnessing an incredible surge, despite the extremely unfortunate Covid-19 outburst.
The major investment hubs align with Romania’s major cities, with the biggest one being Bucharest, followed by Cluj-Napoca, Timișoara, and Iași.
In terms of figures, on the one hand, the number of start-ups receiving investment doubled in 2019 (30 start-ups) and more than tripled in 2020 (54 start-ups).
On the other hand, the number of funding sources has seen unprecedented growth. There are over 14 business angel networks – encompassing over 3,000 business angels and 23 venture capital funds. In addition to this, crowdfunding and bank loans have become staples for start-ups wanting to get their business off the ground.
Now that we’ve caught up to modern times, let us see how the funding landscape looks in Romania by going over the investment phases, what they mean, and some of the average sums floating around.
Pre-seeding is the funding phase that occurs before any big investors come into the picture. Traditionally, this phase usually sees a company investing either its founders’ savings or any loans they might have contracted, in addition to any finances received from family, friends, acquaintances, or supporters wanting to help one’s cause.
However, in modern times, we also see several other entities chipping in to help promising start-ups take flight. These entities are either the above-mentioned business angels (e.g., Business Angels Romania, VentureConnect, TechAngels, AngelConnect, Growceanu, RocaX) or business accelerators (e.g., Techcelerator, Spherik, Seed for Tech, Risky Business, Orange Fab, Startarium, Innovation Labs), whose goal is in the name – to accelerate your business.
In Romania, we had 21 pre-seed transactions in 2019 and 2020, with an investment volume of €2.57 – 3.30 million euros and an average investment per transaction of between €122k – 157k euros. A large portion of these sums came from angels, accelerators, or support programs offered by similar organizations, like 0-Day Capital, whose business model seeks partnership within a start-up right from its infancy, offering financial and managerial assistance.
Seeding is the first phase where we begin equity funding, meaning a startup attracts its first big investors, who elect to finance its services/products in exchange for equity. This is also the phase where we begin seeing funding from VC organizations like Gapminder, Gecad, Early Game, 3TS Capital Partners, or Earlybird Venture Capital.
In Romania, 2019 saw approximately 16 seeding transactions, while 2020 experienced a boom, registering 37 transactions. The investment volume for this phase was between €11.37 – 21.87 million euros, with an average investment per transaction of between €591k and 1.1 million.
Other potential funding sources for the seeding phase are equity crowdfunding and private equity funds. The former enables large groups of investors to fund startups in exchange for equity. The latter are investment management companies that provide financial backing and make investments in the private equity of startups or operating companies through various loosely affiliated investment strategies.
It should be noted that private equity groups providing funds for startups is more of an exception than a rule since such groups do not typically invest in startups; however, it can happen!
For example, the Roca group has developed RocaX, a business angel subsidiary that helps out startups.
Equiliant Capital, another group, created by the Dedeman founders, seeks to invest in any industry of any kind, making no exclusions for startups; however, it does exclude the tech industry. While this is a bit odd, it still bodes well for startups in other fields that have what it takes to convince such an organization to invest in them.
When it comes to equity crowdfunding, SeedBlink is Romania’s most prominent source, financing over 26 campaigns worth €8 million euros, out of which more than half came from individual investors.
Series A financing
This phase of the funding process represents the first truly major investments. This is where a start-up has a clean-cut operational framework, has managed to posit itself comfortably on the market, and is making waves among consumers on a large scale, generating a growing stream of revenue and income.
The goals of investors looking to finance start-ups that reach this threshold are the identification and assessment of progress made by a company using its seed capital and the efficiency of its management team. Additionally, investors will also inspect how an organization manages its currently-available resources to generate profits in the future.
Basically, this is the part of the financing process where a VC company goes, ”Yeah, you could probably go global and blast competitors out of the water. We’re on board with that!”.
In Romania, not many start-ups have reached this phase. In 2017, UiPath – a robotic process automation (RPA) company, became the first Romanian start-up to get series A funding. In 2019, FintechOS – an open-source financial technology firm, also achieved the same status. In 2020, TypingDNA – an AI-based solution for risk-based authentication and fraud prevention, was the third Romanian start-up to reach series A, raising €6.2 million euros.
In 2021, UiPath managed to reach series F funding, raising $750 million dollars.
Investment doesn’t usually stop at series A. Typically, especially in larger environments, such as the US, many start-ups enter series B, C, D, and so on. How well a company handles its newly-found influx of income determines whether it will manage to go to the next step or stagnate.
Now, stagnating isn’t a bad thing in this case. Many start-ups want to reach a stage where they can comfortably service a specific number of customers. While this may come as a surprise, not every company wants to go global. Many want to stay local or regional while maintaining good ROI numbers.
- Blugento is an e-commerce platform that has managed to raise €1 million euros from the Polish IT group R22 in exchange for a 31% equity stake. It aims to expand into central Europe, after having grown its revenue ten times in 3 years and is valued at around €4 million euros.
- Questo is a Bucharest-based start-up that created a mobile city exploration game, which features over 40 European cities. Questo is currently valued at $1.5 million dollars and plans to expand its game to include some of the largest cities in Europe, including London, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Barcelona.
- Jobful is a gamification-based recruitment platform that has completed its first angel investment round, receiving €100k euros. Jobful represents an intelligent middleman between young professionals and companies who want an efficient recruitment process that provides them with an initial test sheet of a candidate’s skill setup and interests. This initial investment will be used to launch a mobile app for the platform and further develop its capabilities.
- Beez, a cashback service company, received a €1.2 million euros investment from RocaX and Gapminder to facilitate growth and expansion beyond their current cashback service.
- Flip, a second-hand verified smartphone marketplace, received €250k euros investment from Gapminder, V7 Capital, and a group of private investors. This is the second round of investments that Flip raises. The first one raised €120k.
- Telios, a telemedicine start-up, received $200k dollars investment from Transylvania Angels Network, Growceanu, and TechAngels.
Raising funds for your start-up has become more accessible and more difficult at the same time. On the one hand, companies now have access to an ocean of funds available to them compared to previous years. Money is no longer a stopping point.
On the other hand, you only get access to the funds you want if you have a well-laid-out plan for your ideas.
The Romanian investment environment has much of the same characteristics as any other investment environment. You follow the same steps, and you generally have access to the same funding sources, whether we’re talking business angels, accelerators, support groups, or VCs.
The actual difficult part is finding those people who possess both the funds and the knowledge to help you grow sustainably, enabling you to reach seeding easily and potentially even series A funding.