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Propelling scientists to startup founders: In conversation with Dr. Ana Koller, First Momentum Ventures

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The potential of technology is boundless and in a world driven by innovation, the journey of tech companies in Europe is nothing short of inspiring. Join us as we engage in a candid conversation with Ana Koller, Head of Research at First Momentum Ventures, an organization with a mission to empower and support nascent tech companies on their path to success. And if you are a scientist with an idea for a start-up, but don’t know how to get started, we assure that you will be ‘clueless no more’, continue reading and find the support you have been waiting to get!

Could you please provide a brief background on the profile of Clueless No More (or First Momentum Ventures)?

First Momentum Ventures is an early-stage, pre-seed venture capital (VC) firm dedicated to supporting nascent tech companies across Europe. We primarily invest in B2B software, industrial and shop floor optimisation technology, and startups characterized by novel technical angles—often referred to as ‘deep tech.’ As investors with a technical background, we understand what founders are building on a deeper level and really fall in love with their tech. We challenge them to realize their ambitions but also support them during good and bad times.

Given our soft spot for the very early-stage startups, we’re curious about academic spin-offs. And that’s where Clueless No More comes into play. We noticed a lot of scientist founders scratching their heads, wondering, “How do I even start?” or “Where do I go from here?” It’s a big jump from research to entrepreneurship, after all. In diving deeper, we then saw a pattern. There’s this tricky space in the academic spin-off scene where scientists, the tech transfer offices, and investors like us, seem to be on different planets. And that leads to confusion, frustration and a lot of missed opportunities.

That’s why Clueless No More was born. We thought, “What if we could connect these dots, get everyone on the same page, and really fuel innovation?” Our goal is pretty simple at heart: create a network where scientists-founders can find the guidance, knowledge, and spark they need to make it big. To realize this vision, we host events, panel discussions, provide direct feedback as sparring partners from the first minute, facilitate inspiring partnerships, and offer numerous networking opportunities.

Please introduce yourself, your role and your inspiration for this work

I currently serve as the Head of Research at First Momentum Ventures, a role not commonly seen in many VC firms. As such, the role has three main parts: I am part of the investment team, I do due diligence in topics beyond the current investment funnel to help set new investment theses, and I lead our connections with the academic world, mainly through Clueless No More. I see this role as a reflection of my background which has deep roots in academia, specifically in engineering physics. I put a solid 15 years into plasma physics and nuclear fusion science and engineering. Half of this time was spent at the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics near Munich. I earned my PhDs from LMU Munich and Ghent University. There, I developed diagnostic systems for fusion reactors and explored heating methods to achieve the optimal temperature for fusion.

Then, like many other fusioneers, I was itching to see this game-changer reach commercialisation. This drive led me to join Commonwealth Fusion Systems (CFS), an MIT spin-off in Devens, Massachusetts. Here, I took on an operational role, leading the spectroscopic and imaging systems for their pilot project, SPARC. I managed designs and procurement of 16 diagnostic systems that are basically monitoring the heartbeats of those reactors in real time. It was a dream role. The pace and organization were a wild switch from the academic world, which was an invaluable experience.

But I felt like I needed more impact and to explore the tech world outside of the fusion silo. I also wanted to leverage my expertise, analytical abilities, and entrepreneurial yet engineering mindset.

This reflection led me to First Momentum Ventures. Their motto, “engineers at heart, investors by choice”, deeply resonated with me. Now as part of their team, I see it’s more than just a catchy line — it’s truly who we are, given the backgrounds most of us bring to the table.

What excites you about research-based startups?

That they are breaking free from the so-called ‘Ivory Tower’. The research-based startup ecosystem is exactly the area where we start to notice the actual difference between ‘invention’ and ‘innovation’. While inventions represent novel ideas, innovation encapsulates the integration of these ideas into our daily fabric. These two need to be connected continuously, and that pipeline between them must never stagnate. A striking example of what happens when it does stagnate is the USSR. They were prolific inventors, securing numerous Nobel prizes. Every engineering textbook is filled with equations bearing the names of soviet scientists. But when the curtain fell, it was evident that their industries hadn’t kept pace. They’d been inventing but not innovating, which held back their economy. I fear that effect is becoming visible today as well in a lot of countries that allocate significant budgets to R&D and have in recent decades become more risk-averse and slow in weaving the inventions they help fund into our daily lives, industries, and processes. We have to keep that pipeline going.

So what thrills me about research-based startups is exactly seeing research leap off the pages of academic papers, make its way out of the labs, and truly change the world. It’s about ensuring that our discoveries and inventions don’t just stay confined to the Ivory Tower but find their rightful place in our lives, fulfilling the very essence of what science aims to do.

What are the characteristics or qualifications you look for in aspiring founders?

When evaluating inspiring founders, we tend to use a layered approach:
At the very heart, we are drawn to founders radiating ambition. They should possess this captivating drive for their mission. Given the nature of science-driven ventures, as they often take a considerable amount of time to mature and see the light of day, endurance is absolutely a critical value. And the source that feeds it is the drive for the mission. It needs quite a bit of stamina to navigate the sea of skeptics and those who might not comprehend the full scope of what’s being built but would still voice their opinions. And running parallel to ambition and endurance is integrity. It’s more than just a word to us. To genuinely work alongside a founder, we need to see this trait shining through in all their actions.

Diving a layer deeper, there’s this concept of alignment with what they are building. When we look at a founder, we consider how their background meshes with their startup. We will not quiz them on every minute detail of what they’re developing, but as VCs, we need to be confident that the person standing before us is the right one to bring this idea to life. Take a neuroscientist presenting a fusion power plant concept, for example. Intriguing? Absolutely. But it would instantly raise more flags than if it were pitched by someone directly from the world of nuclear or plasma physics.

Also, there’s an observation I’ve made that scientist-founders often have this enchanting romance with their technology. It’s a sight to behold, truly. However – I think it’s essential to understand that a groundbreaking technology and a successful company aren’t by default synonymous. It’s in these moments that we like to see a flicker of a commercial mindset. Not necessarily an MBA degree waving in the air, but a developed sense of market dynamics, a flair for understanding commercial growth, an instinct for recognising the talent they’ll need on board to fill the blind spots if they just can’t do it themselves. Because, at the end of the day, without someone commercially-minded on board, even the most revolutionary of ideas risk gathering dust in a lab, rather than transforming the world outside.

Are there scientific fields/domains/technologies or geographical locations that you have particular interest in funding?

When it comes to scientific fields and deep-tech domains, our approach is both pragmatic and passionate. We are relatively agnostic, but we like to sail the seas we know. Our decisions and interests are largely shaped by the expertise that we house within our firm and the vast network we’ve built over the years. This is why our core focus is, as I said earlier, on B2B SaaS, industrial- and deep tech.

Geographically, until recently we were predominantly oriented towards the German-speaking regions of Europe. But now we’re broadening our horizons. Currently, we’re scoping our additional search to include the innovative ecosystems of the Nordics, the Netherlands, and the UK. These are our first steps in becoming a truly pan-European VC, and we’re looking forward to exploring collaborations in these regions.

What is the typical size of your investments in pre-seed startups?

Typically, our investment ticket ranges from 200,000 to a million euros. We’ve also set aside a reserve in our fund for follow-on investments as well.

What criteria do you use to evaluate the potential of a pre-seed startup?

Evaluating a pre-seed startup, to me, is much like looking at the three corners of a triangle. We have a specific framework to access the deep-tech founders but in general, we look at these three key areas.

The first corner? The team. It’s the heartbeat of any startup. We’re looking for those who rank among the top 5% in their domain with a strong emphasis on the tech edge. Unsurprisingly, Europe is swarming with such talent. Beyond their credentials, the other critical aspect of the team is their dynamics. And of course, I am also curious how harmonious the blend of expertise and vision with the technology they’re developing.

Shift your gaze to the second corner, and you’ll find the product-market fit. I know it’s a cliche sentence by now, but it became that for a reason. A great technology without a specific purpose is like a key without a lock. I am always quite excited to see startups whose assumptions about the market aren’t just assumptions but are fortified by substantial validation. We want industries to resonate with the problem that the startup’s product promises to solve.

To the third and final corner: the product stage. We often feel that if you’re still deep into lab work, perhaps grants and public funding might be your best allies. For us, the sweet spot emerges when you’re on the cusp of unveiling a prototype or better yet, when one is already in play.

What are the common challenges you have seen that scientists turned entrepreneurs have faced and how do you help them in such situations?

Through numerous interactions with founders and fellow investors, some challenges echo more persistently than others.

One that is probably discussed the most is the cap table. Scientists-founders are often overwhelmed when a prominent figure, like a professor whose work they’ve built upon, asks for a hefty equity stake. They think, “I owe this person my whole research; I’ll give them whatever they want.” However, handing over large equity shares early on can lead to significant dilution down the road. We often find ourselves mediating such situations, advocating for single-digit stakes. This is not because “VCs want to have all the power”, but precisely for the opposite – for us it is crucial to ensure that founders remain committed and valued.

The other thing that comes up when you ask a scientist-founder the question, “What’s your company’s vision?”, is that they often describe their product and the roadmap to the rollout. It’s like imagining a car but forgetting about the road it will drive on. There’s so much more to a startup than its product, and we emphasise that it’s not just about the tech, but about building an ecosystem that encapsulates vision, team, and growth. This could involve bringing someone on board with a commercial mindset, someone who can see the bigger picture and ensure the company’s trajectory aligns with the product’s potential.

And with that, one more common pitfall that I’d mention is undervaluing the importance of commercial acumen. The age-old adage of “build it, and they will come” is, unfortunately, more fantasy than fact. A stellar tech is half the battle; ensuring it resonates in the market is the other half. I found myself sometimes thinking “Does that industry know they have this problem?!” after I heard a scientist-founder pitch.

Of course, challenges also sprout from bureaucratic nuances linked to geographies, especially when it comes to intellectual property transfer negotiations. Here, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. To counter this, we offer Clueless No More, assembling panels and hosting events to stimulate dialogues, share founder insights, and collectively discover pathways through these challenging terrains.

What is the extent of your involvement and support in the startups you invest in?

At First Momentum Ventures, our pride isn’t just in writing checks, but in rolling up our sleeves and diving deep alongside our portfolio startups. Early-stage investment, contrary to popular belief, isn’t a grand gold rush. It’s about being at the crossroads of innovation, about passion for technology, and most importantly, about forging genuine partnerships with founders. After all, what’s the value of capital without context or guidance?

Our modus operandi here sets us apart. For nearly every venture we backed, we’ve actively played matchmaker, connecting them with top-tier talent to grow their teams. Our network of industry connections becomes an accessible network for our startups as well, simplifying market studies and introductions.

As a partner, we are also comfortable with wearing the hat of a strategist, guiding founders in preparing for future financing rounds. We can act like scouts on the frontier, assessing the landscape in advance to help position our founders favorably for subsequent funding phases.

Our support, however, is always an offer on the table, never an imposition. We believe in autonomy and respect the unique journeys of each of our portfolio startups. So, while we stand ready with a toolkit of resources and expertise, it’s always the founders’ call on how, or even if, they’d like to engage. After all, the journey to success is as much about respecting individual choices as it is about collective collaboration.

Can you describe the diligence process and timeline for making an investment decision?

When it comes to due diligence, we hold two guiding principles in balance: respect for a founder’s time and the importance of thoroughness. To strike that delicate balance, we’ve calibrated our process to span roughly two weeks, ensuring we leave no stone unturned while also moving briskly. Remember the triangle I mentioned before? The name of the game is to really understand the three key points and get the investment team comfortable with them.

On the technical side, we leverage our in-house knowledge as well as the expert interviews.

The team dynamics and potential of the founding team is the second key point. Here, we dive deep into understanding their leadership traits, their ethos when working alongside teammates, and their reputation among peers. This insight primarily comes from conversations and references and paints a holistic portrait of the team behind the tech.

Lastly, market foresight. It is very important for us to gauge the promise and potential pitfalls of the market landscape. At the moment we largely rely on interviews to help us scope this, but I’m excitedly looking to integrate this component into our tech framework as well.

How should scientists who read this blog approach you for further guidance and what should they come prepared with?

They’re more than welcome to join our community at Clueless No More. We’ve set up this space to champion free knowledge exchange and to ensure open channels of communication. Once you’re there, feel free to reach out to me on any topic, anytime. No prior preparation is required; if something’s on your mind, let’s have a chat about it. That said though, while I would love to be as helpful as possible, I’ll always be transparent about my capacity and expertise on certain subjects. Just remember to come with an open heart. Sometimes, the feedback or advice might be tough to digest, but it’s always shared with the best intentions.

Could you share some insights on your views about IP and patents when it comes to startups based on research?

Navigating IP transfer requires patience and preparation. The process can often be more complicated and extended than scientists-founders anticipate. Here are some key insights I’ve gleaned, especially from our recent panel discussion on IP transfer at Clueless No More, that we co-hosted with SPRIN-D, and welcomed the insights from Georg Püschel (Wandelbots), Patrik Aspermair (NOSI) and Barbara Diehl (SPRIN-D):

  • Expect Delays: Always anticipate that the IP transfer process will be time-consuming. It’s crucial not to rush things or make decisions under duress. Preparation and patience are your allies here. It can take even a year. Take that into account.
  • Seek Experienced Advice: It’s beneficial to have someone with firsthand experience guide you through the process. If possible, find a founder from your institution who has navigated this before. They can offer a familiar and understanding perspective – they can meet you at your starting point, and they already have a good idea on where you should be heading.
  • Negotiation is Key: During initial meetings with tech transfer offices, you might be presented with a list of “standard” requirements. While these may be their initial asks, they aren’t set in stone. Always be ready to negotiate and seek clarity on their demands. Understand why certain conditions are being set and, equipped with your advisor, enter subsequent negotiations with a clear head.
  • Empathize with Tech Transfer Offices: It’s important to remember that tech transfer professionals are not adversaries. They’re passionate about your technology and want to support your startup. However, they also have the responsibility to safeguard the interests of the university and, by extension, larger entities like the Ministry of Education. This is the reason why I believe they sometimes seem stringent or cautious. Approach negotiations with an understanding that both sides are working towards a common goal.

Lastly, what message or insights would you like to convey to scientists who aspire to turn their research into innovative and successful startups?

The journey ahead is both exciting and daunting! Here are some tips to guide you along the way.

Your research is the foundation of your startup, and you are the best in the world at it. Believe in its potential and ability to make a difference. This conviction will drive your ambition, help you through challenging times and it will be a magnet to others, inspiring them to believe in your vision. But remember, a startup is more than just cutting-edge research and you have to develop a holistic perspective early. Engage in business dialogues and build industry connections and VC relations early on, well before the prototype stage. Just as the scientific method thrives on scrutiny and peer review, remain receptive to industry’s feedback about your startup, and use it as a tool to refine your strategy and approach. If navigating these waters seems too foreign for you, be open to welcoming experts who can steer the ship alongside you. As you assemble your team, look beyond your lab; the world is teeming with brilliant minds from diverse backgrounds, waiting to add value.

And when the going gets tough, always hold onto your “why” Why did you start this journey – to make a difference, to solve a pressing problem, to bring a new solution to the world. Your “why” will keep you grounded and motivated.


Thank you to Ana Koller for contributing to our funder perspective series.

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