Q&A with Nicolas Autret, investment director, Samsung Catalyst Fund

David “Dede” Goldschmidt, vice-president and managing director for Samsung Catalyst Fund (SCF), a corporate venture capital (CVC) vehicle for electronics manufacturer Samsung, said: “Nicolas Autret plays a major role in expanding the portfolio of the SCF in Europe. Based in Paris, Nicolas established deep relationships with VCs, CVCs and entrepreneurs alike, across the continent and in the UK.

“As a member of the board of multiple portfolio companies, he demonstrates a proactive approach to working very closely with management teams and helping them on both financial and operational aspects. This stood out during the volatile covid-19 days, where syndicate support was critical for early-stage companies.”

1. First, just give us a quick overview of who you work for, what you do, and how long you have been doing it for?

I am an investment director with the SCF, Samsung’s multistage, global and evergreen fund. I am based in Paris, but our teams are located in Menlo Park, New York, Berlin, Tel Aviv and Seoul. Our multi-stage investment strategy spans domains from data, AI (artificial intelligence) and deeptech to infrastructure, cloud, security and much more, with an aim to accelerate innovation, scale and create purposeful technology.

I personally joined SCF in early 2018 to open our Paris office and expand coverage of the European market. Formerly, I served as General Partner of venture firm 360 Capital, where I led investments in early-stage startups throughout Europe, including Sophia Genetics, Innoviz Technology, Prophesee and GrAI Matter Labs. My experiences also include investment roles for Sofinnova Partners and operating roles with the Corporate Development & Strategy group of Orange North America, as well as business development positions at LeGuide Group and Twenga Solutions.

2. What attracted you to CVC?

Prior to SCF, I held various investment roles with other VC firms, as well as operating roles in startups. These positions taught me the art of VC investment from a process and investment structuring perspectives, as well as more operational skills, such as team management, budget planning, business development, etc.

Joining SCF was a new chapter in my career and an opportunity to be part of a team whose mission is to define the future of Samsung: identify new technologies, services or business models that have the potential to fuel the future growth of Samsung. That is a very exciting endeavour when one considers the scale of Samsung.

Several ingredients attracted me to SCF in particular:

  • The evergreen structure of the fund, which removes the pressure of knocking at the door to limited partners (LPs) every four to five years to raise a new vintage, and which in return allows our team to focus on value creation in the long run;
  • The opportunity to leverage SCF’s tight relationships with Samsung business units (BUs) to bring much more value to the table beyond equity, what we call “1+1=3”;
  • The background of the team. We are all former investors or operators with a great track record of investing in or building companies.

3. What have been your greatest successes at your unit?

When I joined in 2018, SCF already had a solid portfolio in Europe, with companies such as Graphcore, AIMotive and Mapillary (acquired by Facebook). Nevertheless, the past five years have shown that investment opportunities in Europe no longer come from one of the three legacy ecosystems (Paris, London, Berlin), but rather from a large number of tech clusters spread across the continent.

Sourcing these many opportunities require a different way of operating, and we decided to build strategic alliances with leading VCs throughout the continent, in the form of LP investments, three of which I personally closed since I joined SCF. This allows us to have an intimate relationship with the best VC teams on the ground, and give us prime access to the refinancing of their portfolio companies, or co-investment opportunities through regular deal flow sharing.

This LP-based sourcing strategy has already materialized into two new investments in Europe, WeFox and SolarisBank.

As a VC/CVC, developing a network of relationships with startups, co-investors and other corporates is essential to our daily mission. Since I joined SCF, one of my tasks has been to elevate our brand visibility in the ecosystem and to develop our network throughout the continent. Given our tech focus, I arranged for SCF to co-host some of the AI meetups that are regularly organized in Europe, gathering developers, startups and investors. We have also been co-hosting networking events with other VCs, such as the evening we co-hosted with Lakestar, Korelya Capital and Heartcore at SLUSH 2019, one of the most attended networking events at the largest tech conference in Europe.

4. What have been your biggest challenges?

As a team, we have overcome several challenges:

  • The inherent communication challenges of a global operation. With offices in Menlo Park (headquarters), New York, Paris, Berlin and Tel Aviv, SCF has a very unique setup in the sense that we source locally but invest globally. We work as ONE global team, despite being miles apart. In Paris, I am the only asset on the ground, and while modern communication tools facilitate the daily exchanges with our global team, being alone can be challenging at times.
  • Cultural differences with the parent company: Our investment group is Western-centric, while our parent company has a strong Korean culture and heritage. Bridging the gap has sometimes been a challenge, in terms of business priorities, communication style and process.
  • Creating an agile investment process: SCF makes investment in companies that have a strategic fit with Samsung. Therefore we sometimes have less freedom to operate compared to independent VCs. At times, our investment decisions require vetting from BUs, whose interest is not necessarily aligned with SCF’s, or whose timing is not as urgent as ours.

5. What is your main professional ambition for the future?

My first VC experience goes back to 2003. working for a seed-stage fund in the US. This felt like love at first sight: the job combined my interest in technology, finance and business. Since then, I have been pursuing the dream of becoming a Partner in a VC firm, to help entrepreneurs build companies that can have a global impact in our world. I took a few turns in my career (quitting my job in New York to pursue an MBA, or switching from the VC world to the startup world for a few years) to diversify my skill set, always with the ambition to bring more value to the table when backing entrepreneurs.

In the years ahead, I want to contribute to the development of the Samsung Catalyst Fund franchise globally, investing in the best entrepreneurs with whom we share the same vision and ambition, and helping them become global category leader while creating opportunities for collaboration with Samsung BUs.

6. What do you think all CVCs could do better to make it a stronger industry?

When investing in startups, creating a strong syndicate of investors is one key ingredient for future success. It is critical to speak the same language as our co-investors, oftentimes independent VCs, and to understand their perspective. This means that CVCs need to assemble teams with the right mix of:

  1. Investment professionals who have a deep operational expertise of VC investment (including sourcing, conducting thorough due diligence, negotiating investment terms, advising and mentoring entrepreneurs), and;
  2. Staff from the corporate side or BUs who have an intimate knowledge of the parent company, and who can facilitate tight collaboration between portfolio companies and BUs – the “1 + 1 = 3” equation that makes our value proposition so unique compared to independent VCs.

Additionally, CVCs need to set expectations right with entrepreneurs, who often welcome CVCs with the belief this will open the door to BU collaboration. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, and for different reasons:

  1. CVC can be acting independently of BUs, and because of lack of connections with or appreciation from BU leaders, no collaboration takes place.
  2. Regularly, CVCs source an interesting startup with differentiated technology, but it can be one that does not fit into the BU roadmap or is not vetted by the BU. In that situation, it becomes very challenging to establish a formal collaboration between a startup and the BU. It is therefore critical to set expectations about what can be done (best effort, i.e. introduction to BU leaders; but no guarantee for success), and to establish the right team to facilitate these interactions between portfolio and BUs.

7. What are some of your corporate parent’s technology needs and corporate strategy amid the pandemic, as well as your CVC unit’s pain points?

Even as covid-19 has hurt businesses across our economy, it has revealed incredible opportunities for sound investments and the chance to meet critical societal needs. Almost overnight, we have had a mass adoption of new technologies – like video conferencing and telehealth – that might have taken years to become mainstream otherwise.

Though we have seen some organizations tap into this change, the infrastructure we want and need is still in its infancy. Samsung sees this moment as a chance to lead. Rather than slowing down, we are investing in foundational areas that matter, such as artificial intelligence, cloud infrastructure and applications, telehealth and digital banking.

8. And, finally, for colour, what did you do prior to CVC or in your spare time?

I hold an MS in electrical engineering from Supélec, an MS in electrical and computer engineering from Georgia Tech and an MBA from INSEAD. I am a proud father of two, and in my spare time, enjoy playing the drums, tennis, golf, as well as skiing, travelling (more than 25 countries visited, and counting) and cooking.