Investor Spotlight: Katarzyna Kowalczyk

Jody: Hi Katarzyna, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today! Let’s start with you, you’re currently working with Satus Starter VC, managing the investment portfolio, and we’d love to know the journey that you went on that led you into the Polish Tech Start-up scene.

Katarzyna: Hi Jody, thank you for having me. I must admit that when I completed my Master's Studies in Finance, my primary focus was not on venture capital. I had been primarily involved in valuing mature private companies as part of my work for a consulting firm. However, my interest in early-stage companies grew as I became involved in valuing intellectual property and conducting commercial assessments of technologies developed in Polish universities and research institutes. When my principal offered me the opportunity to become an investment manager in a new venture capital fund that he would be managing, I eagerly accepted. The Satus brand has a strong reputation in Poland, having been investing since 2007. Being part of the Satus Starter team for the past 3 and a half years has been incredibly exciting, especially given the dynamic nature of the VC market in Poland and the wider CEE region.

Jody: The region has been definitely affected by the last geopolitical events and global market trends. Could you tell us, from your perspective, what are some important trends and initiatives?

Katarzyna: Sure. According to reports, VC investments in the CEE region have experienced twice as much growth in the past five years compared to other European regions. In Poland, the years 2021-2022 were particularly significant in terms of investment value, with the amount surpassing EUR 800 million. To put this into perspective, the annual VC market size in Poland was around EUR 30 million before 2019. While the current market is influenced by the global and European downturn, there are still numerous compelling early-stage start-ups emerging. These start-ups are not limited to Poland but also come from countries such as Ukraine, Croatia, Hungary, and Lithuania, among others.

Regarding important initiatives, I recently witnessed the Google for Startups Ukraine Support Fund Summit which gathered 60 start-ups from Ukraine, providing them with up to USD 100,000 in non-equity funding, mentorship, and product support. It is remarkable to see the evolving start-up scene in Ukraine, considering the circumstances. We were also keeping a close eye on the Poland Prize Program, an initiative designed to attract and support foreign start-ups looking to expand their operations in Poland.

Jody: That’s quite an eye-opening growth in a short period in the region. For those that are reading this and don’t know, tell us more about Satus Starter, what are the typical profiles of your investments, and what is the plan for the portfolio companies going forward, from an investment standpoint?

Katarzyna: We invest in early-stage start-ups, mostly pre-seed and seed with a general strategy to support companies that address long-term trends such as the ageing of society or climate change. We are particularly excited about solutions that improve work efficiency, which is why we have invested in companies like Alphamoon, or Sagenso. Furthermore, impact investments that address climate and social changes align with our long-term vision, as they are not merely temporary trends. This has led us to invest in companies like Foodsi and Hearme. When it comes to business models, B2B SaaS is our sweet spot. Regarding our plans, six start-ups from our portfolio are currently fundraising, with 4 of them still having some available tickets for new investors. Despite it being summer, it remains a busy time for us.

Profile photo of Katarzyna Kowalczyk, CFA

Jody: Evidently then, the Polish start-up ecosystem is incredibly exciting, we already have some of the bigger more established organisations such as Booksy and Docplanner, but some great start-ups are springing up with some incredible talent within their ranks. What do you think are the three key things that are necessary to ensure that the Polish founder and VC community need to ensure continued success?

Katarzyna: It is important to recognize that the Polish VC market is still in its early stages of development. While we have witnessed some remarkable examples of fast-growing companies securing later-stage financing, the ecosystem requires time, expertise, and capital to mature further. We’ve seen fantastic growth in VC investments in the last decade, and the market is quickly self-educating, but still, time is needed to build upon current successes, return and reinvest the capital. Additionally, the know-how of successful founders and key employees within the start-up community is essential for building new ventures and fostering growth. Lastly, sufficient capital is necessary. Polish VC funds primarily focus on financing the early stages of start-up development.

Fortunately, we are now witnessing the emergence of second or third-generation successful Polish VC funds with AUM approaching, or over EUR 100 million. However, the presence of international funds remains crucial for the region's growth and development.

Jody: Finally, we know Poland has incredible tech talent, it would be great to get your view on any companies from outside the Satus portfolio that are worth keeping our eyes on over the next year or so as they continue their growth journey.

Katarzyna: Indeed, Poland is renowned for its exceptional technical talent pool. Interestingly, when we compare the level of VC investments with the size of this talent pool, it highlights an investment gap. This disparity suggests that the CEE region, including Poland, possesses untapped potential for the creation and growth of technological startups.

There are already many renowned start-ups indicated as rising stars on the Polish VC scene. Just to mention a few: Infermedica whose AI allows preliminary diagnostics of patients, Vue Storefront offering a developer tool for frontend development or Molecule. One whose AI platform may in the long-term accelerate drug discovery. In the early stage area, I’m curious about the progress of Secfense which makes it easier to implement multi-factor authentication methods and Vaqat with Polish founders and a platform that connects corporations with students worldwide for task-based projects. Furthermore, in our discussion about Ukrainian start-ups, I keep my eyes on Awesomic which gives companies access to the global community of design talent and Adwisely which automates digital advertising. These examples represent just a glimpse of the thriving start-up scene in the region, showcasing its depth and potential for further growth and innovation.

Investors Spotlight is our short interview series where we shine a light on experts hoping to illuminate the topic of the day.

Find out more about Atara Partners here.