“The Nordics have had great ingredients to create a thriving tech space for a long time” – Interview with Cristina Koehn, Partner and Head of Nordics at Picus Capital

Stockholm has become fertile soil for producing unicorns and the Nordics is a region thriving with startup activity. The region is renowned for innovation, creativity and user-centricity.

Picus Capital, headquartered in Munich is an early-stage technology investment firm with a long-term investment philosophy. Founded in 2015, the firm empowers entrepreneurs and innovators to build internationally successful companies and challenge the status quo. Now, the company has taken to the Nordics, opening a new office in Stockholm and appointing Cristina Koehn, former VP operations at Kry, a Swedish unicorn success story, as Partner and Head of Nordics

Cristina has a wealth of expertise and experience in the entrepreneurial world and is taking this to the Nordics with her new role to manage Picus’ new operations from Stockholm. We had the chance to catch up with her and hear her insights into how and why the tech scene is so promising in the Nordics, the secrets to success, and the importance of bringing more diversity into investments and tech spaces.

Cristina, you have just been appointed  Partner and Head of Nordics at Picus Capital as the firm opens a new Stockholm office – congrats! Can you tell us about your journey into VC? What is your background?

Prior to joining Picus, and opening their office in Stockholm, I helped to scale the Swedish healthcare company Kry as VP Operations. I saw the company grow from 20 to well over 1,000 employees. During that journey, I also led the international expansion out of the Stockholm headquarters and launched Kry in Germany in 2019. 

Before Kry, I was a managing director of a health start-up in Berlin and a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group. I graduated with a master’s degree from WHU – Otto Beisheim School of Management and deepened my health expertise with a doctoral degree in Health Economics. 

After growing Swedish healthcare company Kry, what made you go into the VC space?

At Kry, I had the amazing opportunity to be part of a company’s journey from early traction to becoming an internationally renowned unicorn. This hands-on experience gives me the possibility to share the many lessons I’ve learned with aspiring founders that are starting or considering starting a company now.

What motivated me to join Picus is our approach to work side-by-side with founders as an entrepreneurial sparring partner. I want to get to know aspiring founders in the early days of their founding process and support them on their journey of building category-defining international market leaders.

What challenges have you come across working in tech, startups and now finance? 

First of all, being a woman is one of the multiple dimensions where both the tech and finance industries need to get much more diverse than they are today. 

Personally, I have for a long time ignored that I was studying and working in rather non-diverse environments and that I was often the only woman in the room. Looking back today made me realize that these environments often also lacked other dimensions of diversity. Today, I believe it’s important to address the diversity challenge from multiple angles to not oversee other under-represented groups beyond gender. 

You are based in Sweden, and Picus Capital (originally from Germany) is now centring on the Nordics. The Nordics have seen a lot of growth recently in the startup space – why do you think this is? Why is the startup soil so fertile at the moment?

From my perspective the Nordics have had great ingredients to create a thriving tech space for a long time: First, Nordic design is notorious and it has translated from furniture to great user-centric design. I believe this laid the ground for a number of successful B2C businesses. Second, Nordic consumers have shown to be early adopters of trends and tech innovations and therefore helped companies learn and iterate rapidly. Third, Nordic founders have a comparatively small home market. Therefore, they think internationally from day one: They use their home turf as a testing ground, but set the company up in a way so that it can grow internationally early on.

These are not recent phenomena but factors that helped create a first generation of tech founders and early tech employees years back. What we’re seeing now is the result of this vibrant ecosystem producing plenty of role models and thus establishing a career in tech and founding a company as viable career options.

What do you see happening in the next 5 years in this region? Any sectors in particular catching your attention?

As mentioned above, I believe there’s a new generation of founders coming out of the more recent Nordic unicorns, who have seen their companies scale from the inside. I’m observing this, for example, in the fintech space, where companies like iZettle, tink and pleo are becoming more mature and early employees are moving on to found their own companies.

So, there is a snowball effect going on where each successful scale-up ‘produces’ multiple potential founders with the right toolkit to make their venture a success. This dynamic produces a great learning environment and fertile soil for the future of the Nordics tech ecosystem.

Are the Nordics ahead in terms of sustainability and diversity? 

My impression is that both topics are top of the agenda across Europe today. However, it’s true and well-known that the Nordics have been better at creating a more favorable working environment for women and families for years. Thus I agree that these countries are ahead, both in terms of regulation but with regard to working culture which I find is particularly family-friendly here.

How can we encourage more diverse representation?

There is a large body of research underlining the manifold benefits of operating in a diverse environment. Any kind or dimension of diversity fosters creativity and arguably also business outcome.  

However, how to achieve this goal still raises intense debate. I believe there are two key ingredients: you need role models and a network. Role models that provide inspiration and create aspiration across all groups and an accessible network for concrete actionable advice and access to opportunities. 

One way we drive the network-side at Picus is the way we work with founding teams: As entrepreneurial sparring partners at an early stage we give our founders access to networks that were traditionally hard to access, e.g. further investors, founders of other companies and a broad network of experts.

In order to inspire women to become entrepreneurs, we support female entrepreneurship initiatives and university collaborations to bring entrepreneurship to the top of the minds of otherwise hidden founder talent. 

What advice would you have to any founders/ entrepreneurs looking for funding? What special spark are you looking for?

At Picus, we are looking for founders who want to shape and positively influence the world of tomorrow with technology-based services and products, and who are not afraid of tackling big markets. We want to speak to founders with a strong entrepreneurial drive, who have the ambition to achieve sustainable success in an industry and want to become an international market leader in the next five to 10+ years.

What are your top tips to scale successfully?

Once you have product-market fit, scaling essentially becomes the process of continuously removing bottlenecks in your company. To do this successfully, you need to, firstly, identify the most pressing bottleneck and solve it and, secondly, you need the grit to keep doing this over and over again.