The route to having a child, if you’re unable to conceive naturally, is one of those things people rarely think about until they come up against it directly. The sparsity of information, postcode lottery and not to mention the emotional and financial strain it can put on families, can be overwhelming. That’s why, when we met Nader, it was a no-brainer for us to back him and his vision to support families and their fertility with Gaia.
Nader AlSalim went through four failed IVF attempts at three clinics in two countries with a price tag of £50,000 before he and his wife got pregnant. Just like millions of people each year, his path was expensive, emotionally taxing, and lonely. Nader saw a problem and sought to find a solution —he exited a 14-year career in investment banking and started Gaia, a London-based startup combining reproductive health data and financial technology to make fertility care accessible to everyone.
“This is not a woman’s issue. This is a family issue.”
— Nader AlSalim, Founder & CEO, Gaia
Nader has very clear ambitions. He’s not building another femtech business. “This is not a woman’s issue, it is insane that people think that.” he points out. “This is a wider family issue underpinned by many socio-economic factors and delayed parenthood. And what Gaia is doing is making sure that more people have awareness and financial access to building families.” We are thrilled to back Nader and the entire Gaia team in their $3million seed round alongside Kindred Capital and US-based Clocktower Ventures. To learn more about Nader’s background and thoughts on why fertility care has been overlooked, we recently sat down to ask him a few questions.
What is Gaia all about?
Gaia is about solving access to fertility care. We divide access into two core pillars: information and financial. Our starting position is that Gaia will better prepare people for their fertility journeys. We created a program that uses curated information to make the learning process manageable and digestibleWe call this “breadcrumbs learning”; it mimics how people learn today. Then we start understanding the person behind the patient. By that I mean analyzing patient information and comparing it with data from previous IVF patients to provide a personalised prediction of IVF success. As opposed to shooting in the dark, which is what happens today. At this point, many people realize that they cannot access fertility treatments because they either cannot afford it or they are unsure of the costs involved.
This is when our main value proposition kicks in. We use data to predict IVF outcomes. And in turn, Gaia can help clinics develop tailored financial packages using accurate, data-driven predictions about a patient’s likelihood of success. Think of a new kind of insurance where you know how much you are covered for upfront and what is the maximum you will ever pay. We are basically enabling people to access their most optimal IVF treatments and not drop out due to cost or some financial unknowns.
What is the founding story behind Gaia?
Gaia never really started out as a company. It was a much more organic process. It started as a list of questions my wife and I had as patients. We have gone through many failed IVF cycles, four to be precise. We got pregnant on the fifth. That cost us about four years of our lives. Three clinics in two countries and £50,000 later, a baby showed up. This is not unique to us. There are millions of people that go through this struggle yearly across the globe. And it’s a silent struggle — there’s this stigma of shame and guilt that surrounds fertility which no one really talks about it.
Gaia started with a very, very simple hypothesis: can we as a couple take the guesswork out of getting pregnant through IVF? And by doing so, can we improve financial planning around it. The reality is, when it comes to fertility, everything is opaque. diagnosis, medication, success rates, embryo selection, etc… But on one hand, we have groundbreaking scientific breakthroughs in the shape of deep learning models predicting the shape of proteins with many complex twists and tangles but when it comes to a much simpler IVF process, it is a black box. We barely understand it’s physiology but nothing else really. So there is clearly a disconnect between what’s happening in biology and data in general and what is happening in reproductive medicine. Which is not much. And that latter remains a very expensive component of healthcare.
From a patient experience perspective, ours was sadly really typical of a broken health care system that often leaves people feeling overwhelmed and powerless. Hence, Gaia was more of an idea to take on that system, understand data, and redesign access to fertility care on a more equitable basis.
Before this, you were in investment banking for 14 years. Was it difficult to leave behind a lucrative career to start Gaia?
Yes it was. On a rational level, the risk-reward of starting a start-up never really adds up. It may sound cheesy but it’s the underlying motivation that makes this worthwhile. I mean if you combine building a super charged for-profit company while being mission driven and doing a component of social good, I think that’s a very unique place to be. And I think I just, by complete chance, found that spot. And I am very grateful for that. It wasn’t really a decision. It was more of a natural conclusion of events.
I frankly had no aspirations to be an entrepreneur. I’ve always thought entrepreneurs are crazy to think that they can beat the odds. But an opportunity presented itself. I was a user. I had a crystal clear understanding of the pain points. I also had a clear idea of how to redesign the process. Starting with something I have a lot of experience in, analyzing risk.
Why is fertility care such a cloudy and slimy-understood space?
“It’s a silent struggle — the stigma, the shame, the guilt. This needs to change.
I’ll give you this stat. According to the World Health Organization, Fertility is the third-most serious disease globally, after cancer and cardiovascular disease. It affects one in five couples in some form or shape. There are a couple of things that come into play here. For one, people treat it with less seriousness than any other disease because they think, if you can have a baby, that’s great. But if she can’t, then there’s no life lost. But, mathematically, it’s the same thing: the lack of ability to create a life is exactly the same as taking away life. The second thing, which I think is a deeper issue, is that it’s still stigmatized. You don’t just walk into a dinner party and discuss your bad sperm or your horrible IVF journey. We don’t do that. It’s a silent struggle — the stigma, the shame, the guilt. This needs to change.
What excites you most about the fertility care space?
How terrible it is.
If you really think about it, there isn’t a brand or service today for when men and women want to go and build a family. And there is a brand or a service for almost everything else. Our thesis is that in the last 5-10 years the family – as a social construct – has fundamentally changed and will continue to do so. But the path to parenthood hasn’t really. It has just become far less linear. We believe that the non-linearity of that path will pose more challenges to family formation across the whole spectrum. From awareness and information to access, affordability, and better patient journeys.
I also like that we are at the intersection of healthcare and fintech. Access to and affordability of healthcare is increasingly becoming a critical component of everyone’s life. So the exciting opportunity is to build a trusted brand in a category rich in consumer emotion, engagement, and spend, but currently devoid of reliable access or information.
What surprised you most about the fertility space since you started working on Gaia?
I have found that what’s even more difficult to talk about than the emotional pain is the financial cost. No one wants to put a price on the ability to conceive, or think about how relative wealth or NHS eligibility can be the difference between having a child or not. When I went through IVF, I was in a privileged position in my life where money was less of an issue. And I was very grateful for that but I never really appreciated to which extent people suffer with the financial component of treatment.
Many people go through the whole IVF process and they end up worsening their family’s financial conditions for years to come because they’ve taken on expensive credit card debt, remortgaged their house, dipped into savings, etc.. To listen to these stories first hand is always eye opening.
You’ve just announced your recent fundraising round. What are your immediate next goals?
Hire a team that can build a company that launches products people love. We’re trying to be thoughtful in terms of how we execute. The immediate goal is to launch our first product in the first half of this year. During that time, we’re investing in our brand, developing our product and building a network of top tier clinics to work with. Long term, we have this north star of turning fertility care on its head and changing its future. How? We don’t know yet but to start we need to create a magical experience for our immediate users and that relies on getting the best and the brightest minds early doors.
Interested in learning more about Gaia? Go to gaiafamily.com and check out opportunities to join the team full-time here.
By Carlos Espinal and Reshma Sohoni
Investors are generally judged by the size and volume of their successes, for, after all, it is expected that you will lose some to win some, but rarely do investors talk about their mistakes and misses. There are a few investors out there, however, who have had an investment portfolio they call the ‘anti-portfolio’ which highlights their most regretted ‘passes’. Effectively, which companies would have yielded them amazing outcomes had they invested. Not all anti-portfolios are the same, however, sometimes companies will go up before they ultimately don’t materialize into what was expected of them. So in the short term, some companies might be part of an investor’s anti-portfolio, even though in a longer term, they might ultimately (or not) be satisfied with their decision – just comes with the territory.
It is, therefore, no surprise that in spite of our successes, with 280+ companies backed to-date and $5Bn in follow-on funding raised by our portfolio, here at Seedcamp we’ve had our own anti-portfolio in the making since 2007. This includes companies such as Citymapper, Bulb, Flux, Strapi, Impala, Colvin, GTMHub, Cognism, Unmind, Patch, Rahko, Pipedrive, Deliveroo, and SimilarWeb to name the most notable ones. Whilst the process of decision-making internally is beyond the scope of this post, what I would like to do is highlight the kinds of issues we felt companies like the above had that, at the time, we felt were sufficiently significant that we chose not to invest. Hopefully, this effort to highlight the investor decision process and how, like everyone in life, we can get it wrong.
When we get things wrong, we learn. Here’s what we have learned from these misses which happened between 2007-2021. We have learned to invest in more companies than less. We learned that 6/10 investments a year wasn’t enough. We learned we need to make 30+ in order not to miss any edge cases. We have learned to invest all year round. Historically we only invested a few times a year. Now we invest 365 days a year. We learned we need to be flexible with structures. Today you can see we offer pre-seed equity, a warrant option, and seed equity. We also do convertible notes.
We are often told by founders that pitch to us that we are very clear about our decisions and the Pros and Cons of why we ultimately say Yes or No. Learning from our misses and our successes has directly enabled us to be just this clear and upfront. Because we fully know, some will have been the right decisions and some will be ones we regret. We don’t have a crystal ball and our views of where markets or technology are going may be right or wrong.
At the pre-seed stage, there are many variables that are in flux across every crucial aspect of the business – product, marketing, talent, business model. There are holes and weaknesses nearly everywhere you look. As such, when we meet a founder/founding team it isn’t always clear how they’ll be able to execute their vision, or worse, they’re unable to articulate their vision in a way that will bring a customer, team, or investor along with them. Sometimes we haven’t been able to envision product development out far enough. Or we struggle with the go-to-market being considered. In a few cases we question how they will make money because, for most of them, they will need to do just that at some point.
One of the things investors are regularly criticized for is having a ‘lemming’ mentality, whereby as soon as one investor of note is ‘in your round’, others naturally want to jump in. However, what if you’re an investor who chooses NOT to be part of that lemming mentality? What if you feel that you just can’t wrap your head around the viability or scalability of the idea? Then what? Sometimes there is a reason why smart mentors, advisors, and investors come together, and it’s because something is worth the time in spite of your anxieties! And likely, if so many people we respect push for a founder/company, then it’s as likely that users and customers will also love the product.
Many times we follow these recommendations and choose to invest. In a few cases, we don’t, and we agonize over these decisions. Investing is also about saying No, not just about saying Yes.
It isn’t unusual to have investors invest in a new segment across several companies competing for the same market at the same time. You want to ensure that the company you back will be the winner. That it’s this team and this product that will be the one that attracts the most brilliant talent and can raise the required amount of follow-on funding to enable the business to be the category leader and create enough distance between itself and its competitors. The investor anxiety, therefore, is around all the question marks about whether that particular team and product have what it takes to go the distance and whether the time is NOW. Companies often need a sizable amount of capital to grow. The worst thing to see is a smart team and product that just can’t raise enough capital to reach escape velocity versus competition.
When one invests at the early stage, it’s difficult enough to value companies. Added to that if you operate as much of a standardized investment model as possible, there is a relatively narrow band of valuations typically associated with seed and pre-seed investing. There are always outliers and when an investor is confronted with one and it isn’t clear how the company merits this higher valuation to break through to the company being worth its valuation, this can also create a paralysis moment for investors. As much as standardization of valuations and terms allows for a better outcome for both startups and investors, time does pass between the first time you get an application or meet a team and when you ultimately are in decision-making mode. And in that time, gaps can build between valuation expectations of the team and the investor.
With the recent announcement of the numbers we’ve had to date, we’re very excited about the companies we have backed, many of which are in line to be a hugely disruptive business that will affect the lives of many. In that spirit, in spite of sharing with you all part of our anti-portfolio, we are excited for what the future brings, even if it comes, at times, in the form of the ever humbling realisation that we can’t predict this future and that sometimes we will get surprised by the brilliant founders in whom we did not invest. Hindsight is clearly 20/20.
The Seedcamp Nation includes the brains behind some of Europe’s most exciting companies including the likes of Hopin, Revolut, Primer, and Sorare. If you’re looking for pre-seed funding, apply here.
Managing taxes is notorious work. And if you are part of a tax team in a hyper growth startup that’s mid-international expansion, coordinating taxes across multiple geographies is no small feat. In the past, tax professionals have had only one viable option to manage taxes: hire a large, expensive firm to help you. This approach is cost-ineffective and merely serves as a stop-gap solution. In steps Loc.tax, a startup that empowers tax professionals to achieve sound tax governance with a “Tax Operating System” consisting of always up-to-date company data, regulatory data, visual analysis tools, and extensive team collaboration. Loc.tax has created a product that serves as the single source of truth for streamlining global tax operations and projects.
We’re excited to join loc.tax on their company journey in a $3.6m round led by our friends at Cavalry with participation from Mustard Seed Maze and Amaranthine. The team has the relevant market experience and founder-dynamic to tackle tax management head-on. Prior to building loc.tax, Hans Kayaert (CEO) and Stevi Frooninckx (COO) worked together at Avnet on various projects and M&A deals. Kasparas Aleknavičius (CPO) and Bart Van Remortele (CTO) previously founded a company in the SportTech space together. From our first call on, the team’s years of experience working together on various projects was apparent. Some of the world’s most exciting companies are already using the platform via it’s subscription model and it’s truly disrupting how these teams handle their global tax operations and projects.
“Most fast scaling companies turn to the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms to outsource the handling of accelerating international tax complexity, denying themselves the opportunity to empower their internal functions and capture strategic tax data value.” comments CEO Hans. “Loc.tax provides a collaborative platform that makes tax teams in hyper-growth mode stay on top of the ever-changing international tax, risk, and compliance workloads, while enabling transparency with internal and external stakeholders, including auditors and tax authorities. We are delighted to have the support of well-respected investors on our mission.“
We’re thrilled to support loc.tax as they expand their development team and accelerate the growth of their subscription tax management platform.
“Almost all the key functions of multinational organisations have greatly benefited from the increased efficiency and transparency brought by the adoption of modern, collaborative software but the tax function is one that has been overlooked until now,” notes Partner Sia Houchangnia. “Loc.tax is about to change this and we are very excited to back Hans, Kasparas, Bart and Stevi!”
Want to join the loc.tax on their journey in building the TaxOS for the fastest growing companies in the world? Check out the hiring opportunities here!
When Seb was in his Expert in Residence role with us here at Seedcamp he identified an opportunity in the HR space. Founder of JustBook, he teamed up with David, previously at Mosaic Ventures & Soundcloud, who combines Fintech and enterprise sales experience to found Ben. Ben allows companies to offer their employees a flexible benefits package while alleviating the admin burden. In a world that is increasingly remote, Ben allows companies to cater to their increasingly diverse workplace needs. Managing Partner Reshma and Associate Kyran caught up with him to discuss his experience with the Seedcamp Nation, how Ben was founded and their plans for the future.
Reshma: So Kyran & I are super excited to be here, to speak with Seb, CEO of Ben. Seb was an Expert in Residence (EIR) with us at Seedcamp from 2019 onwards but before we get on to that – what does Ben do?
Seb: Thank you so much for having me! So yeah, what is Ben? Ben is an end to end platform for employee benefits and reward management. Why would anybody build a new platform for benefits? The truth is most benefit programs actually have very low engagement and the reason for that is not just UX and things like that. It’s literally that the things that are on offer are just not relevant for people and that’s hard to rectify. If you are a small or mid-size company, it’s actually not easy to offer something that’s right for everyone. If you think about it, in a diverse workforce, something that’s relevant for somebody in their forties might be totally useless with somebody in their twenties and vice versa. The explosion of remote working actually makes that even more so in the sense that all of a sudden somebody is working from a co-working space or from home not the office – they just need different things.
Ben takes a novel approach to this market, by using payment cards and financial infrastructure. We say companies should set their budget and then employees get to make the choices: they log on, select their health insurance, gym subscription and so on. We do this by, on the one hand incorporating core benefits and at the same time, we have the Ben payment card, which is a real MasterCard, can be used anywhere, but we are able to restrict where it can be used. That’s how we can enable any company to have amazingly impactful and cost effective benefits programs!
Kyran: We know you very well at Seedcamp from the time you spent with us as an Expert in Residence. Can you tell the audience a little bit more about your background prior to founding Ben?
Seb: Sure, I’m German, originally I started in physics and I was a scientist. I attended uni in the UK, even did a PhD in computational physics and wanted to be an academic, really enjoyed that journey but actually didn’t quite enjoy the career. I changed my mind as many academics do and went into management consulting spending over three years with Bain, but during the last financial crisis, left to start my first company in 2011 with a bunch of friends, which was based in Berlin. It was a last minute booking platform purely for mobile called JustBook founded in “the year of mobile”. In 2011, the app store had just properly launched. Everybody had an iPhone and everybody was installing apps. A year later, Instagram got sold to Facebook for a ridiculous amount. We all know how that ended. Uber was killing it. So there was real disruption catalyzed by the platform shift.
We were going to disrupt travel. We built the company for two years raising a bunch of capital from Index, DN and others before selling the company to Secret Escapes – which turned our company into their European operation. I ended up moving to London to run the UK market for Secret Escapes as their MD, which was a super cool opportunity and I stayed there for over four years. I joined when there were 200 and when I left, there were a thousand. I then took a bit of time out, spent a bit of time in the Valley, figuring out what the cool kids are up to and then wanted to find my next gig. While I was doing this I was an EIR at Seedcamp. While with Seedcamp, I identified a new opportunity and used the Seedcamp Nation as a sounding board to further discuss my thoughts on the space before founding Ben
Kyran: Yeah, and in terms of that sort of sounding board capacity, I remember some of the early conversations we were having as a team when you were looking at a few different verticals, some overlapping, some not. Can you talk us through what that process looked like and what was the sort of effective light bulb moment, which got you so excited about the opportunity here with employee benefits?
Seb. So, it was seeing these companies pitching, but also looking around at the Seedcamp portfolio and beyond. I think as an entrepreneur, you always look for real changes that open up opportunities. I believe the best companies sort of have been started on the cusp of a change, I mentioned the platform switch which occurred when JustBook started, then looking at your portfolio, in FinTech, for example, there’s so much change going on there, which is something I saw firsthand at Seedcamp. Things like PSD2 regulation, changing consumer trends, shifting to trusting new challenger banks with their money, the ability to just offer payment cards and things like that. And it was very much the intersection of FinTech and financial instruments with HR tech, which felt like it would be successful.
I remember from working at Secret Escapes that it’s a notoriously under-productised part in any company. In HR it feels like we are in the first inning and then talking to my now co-founder David, who brings a lot of experience in payments and financial services, we realized that it’s this combination of adding payments to HR that can create really cool solutions in this area of reward and benefits. This is because fundamentally, you’re transferring value and transferring a benefit is actually hard because you’re not transferring cash but a benefit in kind. To do this you need to get the benefit in kind and that’s what makes it complex for small companies, which is where payments infrastructure can help.
Reshma: At Seedcamp, founder market fit is very important to us. David was mentioned earlier but, how did you find each other and decide to work together?
Seb: David’s the perfect co-founder and we’ve known each other for years. We actually met through work at a meetup that I hosted at Secret Escapes while he was still working at SoundCloud and we’ve always found time to look at potential angel investments together and so on. David’s background is in startups as well; he was a previous founder, worked as a Product Manager with SoundCloud and as an investor at Mosaic investing into Series A startups, specifically marketplaces in FinTech. The last few years, he was focused on working with the large banks, such as HSBC and Barclays, on FinTech innovation so he has seen a lot of startups work with the big banks. He brings strong enterprise and FinTech payments experience to the table.
Reshma: On the employer-employee relationship, have you needed to tweak your offering based on the changing needs of your customers on the back of the year we just had?
Seb: It’s been a very interesting year, we closed the funding round in February and started hiring the team. Obviously COVID hit, for real in March and we spent the summer building the product. We ended up building a much more ambitious product than we initially set out to build, partly because of COVID. We had to do a lot more customer development to understand what companies would want. On the back of that, we believe this is a change, we’re going to look back at pre COVID and post COVID. Remote working is here to stay.
In the HR space we’re busy, initially getting everybody ready for the home office and then furloughing occured. It’s only really been from August where companies came back and said, “Hey, we actually really need this. We need health insurance, wellbeing and 50 other things that we didn’t think we would need for working from home support.” So, it’s been a year of two halves really. Building and figuring out where people want, then the last few months incredibly busy onboarding and getting them the right thing.
Kyran: We’re excited about getting our cards here at Seedcamp soon! 🙂
Can you tell us a bit more about the types of companies you’re working with to personalize their employee benefit programs and why they chose Ben as a solution for their problems?
Seb: On the one hand we have smaller companies between 20 to 150 people. These companies don’t usually have a fully fledged benefits program set up. So the Ben card specifically is a super great way of just saying, “Hey, I want to commit 50 pounds a month on health and wellbeing” and it immediately works. The other type of companies we are working with are mid-market companies. So, that’s literally starting at 150-200 going up to 500 people. Usually, they have existing programs that are becoming complex because people want different levels of cover in insurance for example. For these companies, it’s about on the one hand, delivering cost efficiency and higher impact on the program, but also just removing the admin burden.
Kyran: How do you think the HR world looks like in the next kind of three, four, five years, and how do you see Ben fitting into that landscape?
Seb: We believe rewards and compensation benefits are going to become more complex with people moving to other countries and working in very different circumstances. We’re seeing a lot of things happening on the pure rewards and compensation front with companies, enabling people to work from wherever they want and things like that. Where we fit in is we want to be the best solution for those 5-10% of staff costs that are currently being spent on benefits. We believe the future is flexible and want to be this platform where you as an employee can make choices giving this responsibility to employees in order to have the maximum impact. At the same time, we remove the admin burden for the company. So, it’s a win-win and we’re well on our way to building that.
Reshma: What are roles that you guys are recruiting for and how can people learn more about those roles?
Seb: Yes! Well in 2021, we’re going to be significantly growing the team, so lots of exciting roles to apply for in pretty much all areas. It’s a great time to be joining the company as we’ve got a product in the market and are accelerating rapidly. We’re building out all of Growth, Sales and Customer success and are currently looking for amazing people who have done this before in maybe a mid-level role and are looking to build from scratch. Founder sales are really important and David and I continue to do that, but we’re keen to build a very solid layer of future leaders to take Ben to the next level. There will also always be some Tech roles open – so if you’re a Python/Django rockstar or love React, do give us a shout.
If you’re looking to join a rapidly growing team empowering companies to best support their teams, check out Ben’s hiring opportunities here
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