Last week saw the first ever TechCrunch Startup Battlefield take place on the continent, specifically being held in Nairobi. TechCrunch is, in case you didn't know, one of the more popular and well-known tech media publications in the world and it runs the Startup Battlefield events around the world to bring "top early stage startups together on one stage to compete for the coveted Disrupt Cup, a $50,000 prize, and the attention of media and investors."
For the event held in Nairobi, the prize money was $25,000 and two aeroplane tickets to Silicon Valley for the winning startup. The overall winner for TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa 2017 was judged to be LORI Systems - a Kenyan based startup founded by South African, Josh Sandler.
Now, curiously, LORI Systems were not part of the initial 15 startups announced as finalists for the event nor did their name appear on the day's printed agenda and programme.
"Yes, every single Battlefield competition we have alternates - in this comp actually not just Lori but 3 of the companies were alternates, however the others were pulled in as alternates before the program guide went to print. One of the teams had a last minute emergency and was unable to attend, so Lori was slotted last minute and actually received the least amount of training," explained Samantha Stein, Battlefield Editor at TechCrunch, to iAfrikan.
This is understandable if you've run events and specifically startup related pitch competitions. Some startups drop-out for whatever reasons and you might have some that can fill the spot on stand-by, which, in this case, is what happened with LORI Systems.
That's not the only thing that makes LORI Systems winning the competition curious. Added to being a late entry that didn't attend the mandatory bootcamp that finalists have to attend before the main day of the competition, two people who spoke on condition of anonymity suggested to iAfrikan that allegedly one of the judges who was judging the category that LORI Systems was in and overall, was accomodated by LORI Systems founder, i.e. allegedly slept over at the founder's house.
Stein, however, dismissed this "I can't comment on it bc [because] I know nothing about it - doesn't sound likely." Fair enough, given that those involved and with alleged knowledge of this are speaking anonymously and that there is no proof beyond any reasonable doubt, this could or could not be true. Unfortunately also, given these reasons, we cannot name the alleged judge that allegedly was accomodated by LORI Systems before the event. If this did actually happen, it is not necessarily a bad or corrupt thing, the main issue here is that, IF it did happen, the judge failed to recuse themself from judging especially any category involving LORI Systems.
That's not all though, it turns out, and this is confirmed by Stein, LORI Systems announced that the TechCrunch Startup Battlefield Africa after party will be held at their premises. Not only did they announce this, what made it curious is that they announced this about an hour before the final winners were announced at the event, according to those with knowledge of what transpired.
"Several startups work out of lori's space and many folks have requested to tour it including battlefield companies, investors and TC. Battlefield is a community. People are missing the picture and value if they think it's about wining [sic]," said Stein.
"It's about highlighting startups on stage and then they support each other afterwards. We actively encourage them to host one another, answer biz questions and make introductions for on another. Our SF community hosts at least once a month.
And it would be amazing if the community grew here to the degree where that was the norm. We asked th [sic] companies if anyone had space or wanted to host an after party - at this point there a small community together. Lori volunteered right away and that in no way impacts their results as the judges aren't privy to it and even if they were hosting a party doesn't make you a better business,"
Now, on any other day in another continent at a different event these would probably (I'm stretching it here) be valid points, except this was at a startup event in Nairobi where at the same event several speakers spoke about how being white (and male) affords you a certain amount of privilege when it comes to funding and other opportunities. Irrespective of how you paint it nothing screams privilege like what allegedly transpired with LORI Systems.
It seems however that the people at TechCrunch and Stein are 'tone deaf'.
"I'm not really following how that would be the case - they were competing against several other alternates, all after the announcement date who've been slotted as alternates, whether they made it into the print guide or not doesn't really affect the competition it's just the timing of the print guide. If anything alternates are at a disadvantage because they receive less training in the weeks leading up to the event by the TC team - we don't actively train alternates until they are pulled into the comp[etition]," added Stein.
Stein further explained that they have never had issues with alternates winning before. "Being an alternate or even not getting in at all doesn't mean they aren't great companies - we receive tons of applications and many of those applicants who don't get in go on to be super successful. We actually have had both wild cards and alternates win before - it's not the first time and won't be the last."
"I think what's really important is that we saw so many incredibl[e] companies from across the continent. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
And I hope it draws attention here both locally and internationally for investment because there is so much more to discover and feature here. And growing the ecosystem also will require local angels to support these entrepreneurs. We need more people telling the stories of these entrepreneurs and the problems they are solving. And helping people understand why those problems are important and large biz ops," said Stein.
At this point I'm starting to, for a split second, question if perhaps my analysis of what allegedly transpired is correct and if perhaps TechCrunch is actually the good guys bringing much needed "exposure" and "training" to early-stage technology startups in Afrika, and then...
"I also for the record have zero voting power. As the Startup Battlefield Director."
Understood, I replied.
"What did you think of the event and pitches?"
The pitches were good, I said while thinking that is not the point.
"Also if you're looking for an interesting story - gichini basically invented to iPad before the iPad existed,"
At this point, I switched to Google to double-check the meaning of gaslighting just to make sure I understood it correctly.
Make of this what you want to, but the issue of needing a white co-founder, especially in Kenya, to open doors and make your startup more palatable for funding from VCs is a topical one and TechCrunch seem to have poured more fuel on this fire.
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