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Hands On Venture Capital Learning – Nurturing Student Startups With The Seed Fund

The Oxford Seed Fund (OSF), led by the Entrepreneurship Centre at Saïd Business School, has raised £2.5m from Oxford Science Enterprises (OSE) to support start-ups over the next three years, for the first time making it Europe’s largest, and one of the world’s biggest, student-led seed funds. 

To better understand the impact that this programme has on students, two Seed Fund alumni share thoughts on their careers, their experience with the Oxford Seed Fund (OSF) and why this type of support is so important for entrepreneurs around the world. 

Maria Rotilu is the Principal and Fund Manager at First Cheque Fund at Octopus Ventures, one of the largest and most active venture capital investors in Europe. She was the managing director of OSF for 2020-2021. An operator turned investor, her career has seen her scale multinational technology startups like Uber and Branch. 

Srin Masipalli is a technology entrepreneur, executive and investor. He was one of the first students to run OSF, completing his MBA in 2012-13. He was the founder and CEO of Accomable, a technology startup that supported accessible travel, acquired by Airbnb in November 2017. He is Co-Founder of People & Robots, building generative AI ‘software as a service’ applications that solve problems for enterprises.

Tell us how you became involved with the Oxford Seed Fund, what are your memories of the experience? 

Maria: I was the Oxford Seed Fund’s Managing Director for 2020-2021. On reflection, time flew so quickly. There are so many incredible memories of the year, from teach-ins by VC professionals democratising access to the knowledge to our demo day of the top twenty start-ups we selected for the year. 

Srin: It started when I applied to participate at the beginning of my MBA. I was particularly drawn to this prospect due to my keen interest in entrepreneurship and venture capital. As it was the inaugural year of the fund, I saw the opportunity to play a role in shaping the fund’s direction whilst also learning about early stage investing. The Oxford Seed Fund experience was my introduction to the world of investing and the learning was immense and a lot of fun! The numerous founders I met, all with their ideas, energy, and vision, were inspiring. The wisdom and experience gained from these interactions have been pivotal in crafting my own entrepreneurial path.   

How did the Oxford Seed Fund help you, what did you learn from being involved with it, and is that learning still helping you today? 

Maria:  Venture Capital is an opaque asset class, and building a career in it requires knowledge, access to start-up opportunities and a community of investors like yourself. Especially at the early stage, pre-seed and seed, these start-ups have yet to be mainstream and are nested in the networks of people, so accessing them requires access to their networks, which can be an issue. 

I also do not believe you can just read and be a great investor; I think VC is a bit of an apprenticeship career where you learn by doing, and the more you do, the better you get.  

The Oxford Seed Fund was pivotal in my journey because, through the experience, I could learn from experienced investors and simultaneously apply this knowledge by investing alongside an incredible team. With the support of experts’ ventures as advisors and the Oxford Seed Fund brand, I built a critical network as an investor that continues to give rewards long after the programme. Without it, it would have been challenging to do so given I had limited networks and access prior. 

Srin: The Oxford Seed Fund served as a brilliant platform for me to learn how to appraise early-stage companies. A pivotal lesson from my involvement was the realisation that the attributes of the founders in early-stage companies were more important than business plans and forecasts at the seed stage. This perspective has been foundational to my approach and continues to guide my entrepreneurial and investment decisions.     

What are doing in your career now? 

Maria: I am one of two GPs who lead a £10m pan-European pre-seed fund at Octopus Ventures. We are a leading multi-stage fund investing in the ideas and industries that change the world. I joined just after my MBA program at Oxford Said to build out the fund. We fundraised and closed the £10m fund in early 2022. We invest standard £100k tickets in pre-seed start-ups across Europe, building technology companies across B2B software, Fintech and Digital Health Industries. 

We have made 24 investments and drive about two monthly investments. I spend my days finding and funding founders, building world-changing start-ups and tackling large markets using innovative technology. 

Srin: Following my MBA, I co-founded a company called Accomable that was acquired by Airbnb. Recently, I co-founded a start-up in the Generative AI arena, known as People & Robots. Alongside my entrepreneurial endeavours, I maintain an active role as an angel investor, supporting other early-stage companies to achieve their potential.   

How important is the Oxford Seed Fund, and these types of funds, to entrepreneurship? 

Maria: Experiential and practical programs like the Oxford Seed Fund are crucial to teaching entrepreneurship and venture capital, especially as technology rapidly evolves. My experience with Venture is that you learn by doing, and the hands-on, practical experience that the Oxford Seed Fund presents for any professional looking to explore VC as a career or entrepreneur looking to build a VC-funded start-up is simply invaluable.   

Srin: Funds like the Oxford Seed Fund are of paramount importance within the entrepreneurship sector and the Oxford ecosystem. They provide a superb opportunity for learning, especially for those lacking pre-existing ties or experience in Venture Capital. The Seed Fund not only provides essential financial backing for nascent companies, but also stimulates and encourages entrepreneurship in the Oxford community. 

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