Members of the European startup community have decided to award the main prize in a prestigious pitching competition to a company with Russian founders that helps tech talent move to the UK.
As a Slush 100 winner, Immigram receives a €1M investment from five top VCs: Accel, General Catalyst, Lightspeed Venture Partners, NEA and Northzone. One of the other finalists who presented themselves to investors on Friday’s stage was a Ukrainian startup called Zeely.
Critics have dubbed the decision, which comes in the same week Russia launched a mass shelling of Ukrainian cities. Many also questioned whether international VCs should invest in Russian founders at all during the ongoing war.
Investors are now conducting due diligence on Immigram and investigating the backgrounds of the founders – as is usual after a startup’s public offering a termsheet – and if anything unusual is uncovered as a result, Sifted understands that the investment will not go through.
Anastasia Mirolyubova, co-founder and CEO of Immigram, says her startup went through an extensive selection process and deservedly won the competition.
“I am judged by where I come from.”
“There were four or five levels of judgment. We consisted of more than 1,000 applications [to a shortlist of] 100 and then 20. And then we won, the business won, the idea and the traction and what we’re actually doing. And now I’m judged by where I come from and where I don’t live,” she tells Sifted.
Slush said in a statement: “Slush is on the side of Ukraine and condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For this reason, we do not partner with Russian companies or funds, and do not accept startup or investor applications from companies based in Russia.”
Immigram was founded in 2019 by two Russians, Mirolyubova and co-founder Mikhail Sharonov both moved to the UK in 2016. It is incorporated in the UK and supports tech talent from more than 10 countries including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, India and the USA, Apply for the UK Global Talent Visa. The company states that applicants from Eastern Europe make up a minority of its users.
The co-founders both have Russian passports, but Mirolyubova has lived in the UK for seven years. Sharonov currently lives in Georgia.
Mirolyubova said on LinkedIn on Sunday that over the past two days she “started receiving death threats and wishes for legitimately winning a startup contest with a wrong color of passport.”
“The last few days have been very, very bumpy and very hard for me. But most of the comments I get are from the Ukrainians who are currently in a very bad position due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Mirolyubova tells Sifted. “I can understand her feelings. But the current trend is more towards xenophobia and racism.”
She tells Sifted that Immigram “does not support the Russian invasion of Ukraine“. In her LinkedIn post, she also said that Immigram waived payments for Ukrainian customers and helped buy an ambulance for the front lines. She adds that upon receiving the investment, Immigram intends to donate $100,000 in operational cash to charities supporting Ukrainian immigrants and refugees.
One of the investors confirmed to Sifted that they are now in a due diligence process with Immigram, which should be completed in a week or two.
It is their understanding that Immigram has no office or employees based in Russia and has not accepted money from Russian investors – which Sifted has also been confirmed by Immigram. The VC would not make the investment if due diligence revealed that any of these were not true.
The outrage began after AIN.Capital, a CEE-based tech news site, published images from a Russian job board apparently showing Immigram hiring for roles in Moscow.
Mirolyubova says the company, which has a remote team, hires IT specialists in Russia, but only on condition that they move to another country, such as Georgia, Armenia or the UK.
Slush said the judges would thoroughly investigate the winner’s background, but declined to comment further on the selection criteria used in the competition. Mirolyubova says that this is the regular process and that a jury would “never” find anything to undermine their decision.
Sifted searched for comments from Northzone, Lightspeed, General Catalyst, Accel and NEA over the weekend but had no response at the time of publication.
The decision to award Immigram drew heavy criticism from the tech community in Ukraine, as well as neighboring Poland, which has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees since the war began and has been particularly generous in helping the displaced Ukrainian tech community.
“[The choice of winner is] Sponsorship of terrorism, support [for the] Kremlin regime and the policy of the cruel war in Ukraine by the Russian Federation,” says Iryna Supruniuk, communications director at TechUkraine, a Ukrainian technology group. “The situation is quickly turning into a scandal. It will definitely cause [damage to] the reputation of slush and VC funds in the global tech arena. In these circumstances, the organizers should change the jury’s decision. I think Ukrainian startup Zeely absolutely deserves to be the winner.”
Zeely said in a statement that it would be “inappropriate for her to comment on the jury’s decision,” but added that her startup “stands in an explicitly anti-Russian position.”
“In our country, a terrible, bloody war is going on, in which our citizens are dying and we do not tolerate neutrality. We must all agree. We are against cooperation with Russia in any of its forms,” it said.
“Immigram helps people emigrate from Russia, which is ambiguous.”
“Before investing in a Russia-linked startup, you need to make sure that you are not supporting the regime and that the people you are supporting have a clear reputation and history. Immigram helps people move away from Russia, which is ambiguous,” says Tomasz Swieboda, partner at Inovo, a Polish VC, claims Immigram hired in Russia and benefited from Russian press coverage. “This is too much for the international VC community to support.”
“The news of you [Immigram’s] Employment in Russia naturally raises the question of why we are supporting the Russian tech scene right now,” says Mateusz Zawistowski, Managing Director at ffVC, a US VC with offices in Poland purposefully set up a fund exclusively at Ukrainian startups.
“Slush is an event that represents European technology – and unfortunately Russia is a direct threat to these values. I am disappointed in the due diligence shown by these high-profile investors, especially given the current escalation of Russian violence in Ukraine, including actions against civilians,” he added. (Numerous side events at slush were held in support of Ukraine.)
“I don’t want to judge whether it’s a good deal or a bad deal,” says Borys Musielak, founding partner of SMOK, a Polish VC. “But to honor a Russian startup that’s just hiring in Moscow with the applause of top VCs at such a serious event… that’s not just a PR shot in the foot, it’s more importantly a very real shot in the back.” Ukrainians.”
Zosia Wanat is Sifted’s reporter for Central and Eastern Europe based in Warsaw. She tweets from @zosiawanat