While European entrepreneurs have traditionally looked west to seek their fortunes, Fleur Pellerin wants them to face east.
The former French minister and founder of Paris-based venture firm Korelya Capital believes that her mix of experience, connections, and cultural capital can help make that happen. More than four years after founding Korelya, Pellerin is preparing for a new phase that she hopes will expand that bridge between Europe’s ecosystem and Asia.
“It's a very complicated market, but it's a huge opportunity because it's such a huge market,” Pellerin tells Sifted. “You absolutely need to have local partners if you want to do anything.”
One of those moves includes the addition of Franco Danesi as a Korelya partner, she says. Danesi, who comes off a seven-year stint as investment director at Kinnevik, was previously an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and Qinvest. The Italian-born Danesi will work from Korelya’s London office and Pellerin is betting he will help raise the firm’s international profile as well as nudge the firm into some fintech deals.
The new partner arrives at a key moment because Korelya is looking to raise its next fund. The company has more than €300m under management, but almost all of it is invested. Fortunately, with portfolio companies such as Wallapop, Vestiaire Collective, Glovo, Bolt, Devialet, and Ledger, the young firm has created an early track record that it can boast about.
Pellerin wants to increase the scaleup and growth investing the company has been doing across Europe. But she’s also looking to expand the firm’s presence in Seoul.
Currently, the two-person team there supports Korelya’s portfolio companies. But the ambition is to start investing in South Korea and the firm will be adding partners with investment skills in early 2022.
Underlying all of these moves is Pellerin’s belief that Korelya is in a unique position to connect European startups to Asia. While she wasn’t initially confident about how such a pitch would be received, she’s found that international credibility is helping Korelya wriggle its way into deals with founders who are looking for investors who can bring more than just money.
“When we created Korelya, we were not sure that it would be of any interest to founders to grow their business in Asia,” she said. “But what we found is that most of the companies reacted very positively to that value proposition. And we were able to enter very competitive financing rounds because we had that angle.”
Making her mark
When recounting her journey to becoming one of the most influential startup figures in France, Pellerin often sounds surprised and amused by the unlikely series of events that landed her there.
After growing up in a Paris suburb, she attended business school and then enrolled at the École nationale d'administration (ENA), the traditional breeding ground for France’s civil service and political class. A career in civil service eventually led her to join president François Hollande’s government in 2012 to oversee small and medium-business affairs.
When France’s entrepreneurial community rebelled over a proposed tax program, Hollande tasked Pellerin with stepping in to quell the controversy and find a compromise. The process of working toward a deal began what she described as a “sort of love story between the ecosystem and myself.”
Those closer contacts inspired her to develop La French Tech, a programme designed to support startups by highlighting the ecosystems’ strengths, boosting funding, and reforming the nation’s notorious red tape. Though she moved on to another government post the following year, the programme cemented her bonds with the startup community.
But during her time in Hollande’s government, Pellerin’s profile took another unexpected turn.
Born in Seoul, Pellerin was abandoned on the street, taken into an orphanage, and then adopted by a French couple when she was six months old. Growing up, she had no memories of South Korea, did not speak the language, and considered herself thoroughly French.
Despite that, her appointment as a junior minister by Hollande triggered a media and political sensation in Korea. She was besieged with calls from Korean journalists, received honour guard receptions when part of a delegation to Korea, and was invited to meet directly with the Korean president. Leaders of the nation’s economic and technological giants also were eager to greet her, allowing her to forge bonds in a short period of time.
Describing this period, Pellerin still calls it “strange,” a disorienting celebrity status that she hadn’t sought. Still, it opened up a big opportunity.
Among those taking an interest in Pellerin was Naver, the South Korean internet giant. When she left Hollande’s government in 2016, she took the unusual step of renouncing her civil service status and its lifetime benefits and job protection. She had begun thinking about opportunities in VC and her newfound Korean connections when Naver offered to help bankroll a new firm with €100m.
Korelya’s Asian connections are designed to be a two-way street. With Naver, for instance, Korelya can offer access to the firm’s massive R&D capability, particularly in areas like AI and robotics. Naver, which is one of the main backers of the Line messaging platform, operates across Southeast Asia and can help others navigate the complexities of entering markets such as Thailand and Viet Nam, Pellerin said.
At the same time, firms like Naver and others have been wanting to invest in European startups but were finding it challenging to break in and establish ties. Korelya helps facilitate such deals. In 2019, for instance, the firm invested in Spanish delivery service Glovo, but also helped a Korean asset management company participate in the deal.
It’s sometimes difficult for Asian investors to be part of the deals in Europe because Europe is so far away.
“It’s sometimes difficult for Asian investors to be part of the deals in Europe because Europe is so far away,” Pellerin said. “But Asian capital can be interesting for European businesses.”
For its own investments, Korelya is looking for teams that already have some interest in Asia. That was the case with Devialet, the French maker of advanced speakers, which was eyeing the Chinese market. The company figured the country’s strong market for luxury goods and its love of all things French would make it a perfect fit. While Devialet eventually wants to make bigger inroads in the US, getting some fast traction in Asia allowed the company to grow in the meantime, Pellerin said.
Pellerin also acknowledged that there’s still a lot of work to be done. There are not many big European success stories in Asia. And the recent tensions between the US and China have clearly made some nervous that Asian markets are too complicated or unpredictable, she said.
Her job is to keep making the pitch that Korelya can be the right guide and partner.
“We have this access because of my personal story, which is again very strange,” Pellerin said. “But it’s not just saying we’ll help you and then see how it goes. Our market access is real and we are there for our startups at every stage.”