Hunting unicorns in Ireland and the Nordics

Alexey Bulygin
11 min readMay 28, 2021

Despite the pandemic, the European VC market is growing at a fierce rate. In fact, 2020 saw a record €45bn in venture investments (compared with €37bn in 2019), with around 8,000 deals made. In Q1 2021, this growth not only continued, but accelerated, driven by both the ongoing growth of the largest European venture markets and the emergence of new markets.

Ireland and the Nordics: Home to tomorrow’s unicorns

Together, our focus markets of the UK, Ireland and the Nordics comprise about half of the European VC market.

While the skyrocketing VC market in the UK is well documented, the Irish and Nordic markets hold plenty of ‘hidden opportunities’ worth highlighting.

If you’re not persuaded by the statement, “The Nordics & Ireland are homes of tomorrow’s unicorns”, keep reading and let me convince you otherwise. Or feel free to jump to the takeaways, if you are looking for some fast insights. Enjoy! 😊

Market activity: deals, exits, fundraising

Both the Nordics and Ireland are booming in terms of the number and volume of deals being done. In 2020, the Nordics saw about 1,000 deals (with €5.1bn invested), while there were 400 deals (with £800m invested) in Ireland. To give you some context: the Irish market accounts for 15% of deals made in the UK and Ireland combined, even though the population of the whole is only about half that of London.

More importantly, VC deal activity in these markets is soaring, having grown 2.5 times in both since 2017, significantly overperforming the European market as a whole.

In the same way a start-up with a good product, large market and strong traction clearly holds significant potential, this data alone makes the Nordics and Ireland a good bet when you’re searching for tomorrow’s champions. However, there’s more!

Both markets also provide investors with good and growing exit opportunities. In 2020, investors in the UK and Ireland succeeded in making 183 exits (worth £6.2bn in total), while those in the Nordics made 119 exits (worth €1.3bn in total).

VCs driving startup infrastructure growth

The active growth of VC investments is clearly driving start-up infrastructure development in both markets, with growing numbers of new accelerators, VCs and PEs launching every year.

According to PitchBook, 2019 was a record year for fundraising in both markets, with £5.9bn invested in VC funds in the UK and Ireland, and €1.4bn in Nordics-based VC funds. Later, despite the pandemic, 2020 saw 49 new VC funds (with £3.9bn of capital combined) in the UK and Ireland.

Among the notable funds that closed recently are:

Most prominent global VCs (either EU- or US-based) are also actively exploring these markets, and this evident trust of investors can give us additional confidence that we’ll see further growth in investment activity and the emergence of new global tech giants in these markets.

What led to the raising of so much VC in these markets? And which segments in these markets hold the largest potential?

Ireland and the Nordics: hot verticals

Looking at the historical structure of VC deals and the latest rounds in both regions, we can see:

(i) The software (especially B2B SaaS) industry is soaring.
We’re seeing a wide variety of B2B SaaS solutions actively developing and raising capital to accelerate scaling. These specialise in everything from cybersecurity and compliance to customer engagement solutions, and from FinTech and LegalTech to AI & ML applications.

(ii) Certain sectors are skyrocketing in particular markets:

  • HealthTech & BioTech in Denmark and Ireland
    Received up to 30% of 2020 VC investments in Denmark and up to 20% in Ireland;
    Notable exits include: Forward Pharma (NASDAQ: FWP) IPO at €583m valuation and the acquisition of CMC Biologics by AGC for €558m.
  • Gaming/mobile gaming in Finland
    Home market for: Supercell (Tencent bought majority stake in it), Rovio (HEL: ROVIO, IPO at €866m) and Small Giant Games (acquired by Zynga).
  • Fintech in Sweden
    Payment companies Klarna and Northvolt closed the two largest Nordic rounds in 2019 and 2020 respectively.

(iii) Few notable B2C-targeted platforms and marketplaces
We’re not seeing these types of businesses raise funds in these markets, although they are home to some great companies providing B2C services, subscriptions or devices.
*Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that there are NO B2C platforms within these markets. Wolt, Kry and others are doing a great job without a doubt!


Stockholm is the largest VC hub in the Nordics, with Sweden accounting for 50–60% of all deals in the region. Activity is mostly clustered in Stockholm, with deals also happening in smaller cities such as Malmö and Gothenburg.

The strong Swedish ecosystem

Sweden’s VC market has developed gradually. Swedes have the reputation of being ‘doers’ and good team players, while there is also a culture of committed serial entrepreneurship. Moreover, Sweden has a sizeable community of angel investors, who are often entrepreneurs or ex. entrepreneurs themselves, who provide start-ups with advice & support far beyond seed stage.

It’s also no secret that Sweden is well-known for its good social welfare system, and strong local and government supports helping hubs, such as the Chalmers Innovation Office based at the Chalmers Institute of Technology in Gothenburg. This gives entrepreneurs the cushion they need to take risks. The last piece of the puzzle is the high quality of Swedish education that enables strong talent acquisition.

All these factors combined have led to the gradual creation of a healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem, which has seen the growth of well-known tech companies such as Skype, Spotify, SoundCloud, Mojang (Minecraft developer), Klarna, King and many others.

Venture market development

Before 2014, Sweden was a somewhat hidden VC hub in the EU. Since then, as the tech companies just mentioned began to scale globally, Sweden started to get more attention from investors. In fact, VC investments grew sixfold from €0,4bn in 2014 to €2.6bn by 2020.

Stockholm is now one of the largest tech hubs in the world, with the highest share of a national workforce working in tech (around 20%!) and the second-highest number of unicorns per capita after Silicon Valley. Quite impressive!

Most of the best-known EU- and US-based VCs are actively investing in Stockholm and wider Nordics. Take a look at any of their portfolios and you’ll quickly spot at least three or four companies from this region. It’s also home to active domestic VCs such as Northzone, Vinnova (governmental agency), Chalmers Ventures, Industrifonden, Creandum, EQT Ventures and Almi Invest, and corporate investors like IKEA’s Bootcamp, Bonnier Ventures, Volvo’s CVC fund and others.

Sectors to watch

The hottest segments in the Swedish market correspond to those where the Nordics outperform in general, with B2B firms dominating, although we also see some great B2C companies.

According to PitchBook, the most funded segments are:

  • Software services — €4bn+ raised
    Notable examples: Funnel, Detectify, Apica and others;
  • Digital transactions management platforms — €3.5bn raised
    Notable examples: Klarna, Woila and others;
  • Healthtech/biotech — €2.4bn raised
    Notable examples: drugs developers like Oncopeptides and digital health business like Kry.

The Swedish market is also notable for the fact that most of the companies founded there go global (or at least scale to the wider EU market) early, often from day 1. This comes down to market size, as the country’s population is only about 10 million. Its internal market (especially when it comes to demand for B2C products) is limited, while firms can easily sell and monetise B2B-targeted and software products globally.


Finland is the second largest Nordic VC market, with roughly €1bn funding raised in 2020. While its market is quite similar to Sweden’s, some factors distinguish it:

  • It’s at an earlier development stage.
    It’s about 2.5 times smaller than the Swedish VC market, but has significant growth potential.
  • It has been significantly stimulated by governmental initiatives.
    These include Business Finland, Tesi (a government-owned fund of funds and VC), and other acceleration and incubation programs.
    One of the most active Finnish VC funds — Finnvera — has also received funding from the Finnish Government.
  • There is more focus on hardware.
    Finland is well-known for its talented engineers and cutting-edge innovations, and we see VC-funded companies including more hardware-tech businesses across devices, wearables, and so on.
  • It’s a gaming giant.
    Finland is one of the leaders in the gaming and mobile-gaming industry globally (I am a BIG fan of Rovio’s Terence, if you know what I mean), which accounts for a notable share of the capital invested in the Finnish market.

Finnish investment scene

The most active local investors (apart from those mentioned above) are Life Line Ventures, Innovestor, Butterfly Ventures and Inventure. Early-stage ecosystem is presented with accelerators including Aalto Start-Up Center and Startup Sauna.

Finland’s VC description won’t be complete without mentioning Slush. This truly unique conference started as a student staffed event and has become one of the largest and most visited EU start-up events, despite taking place in the chilly Finnish November. Highly recommend it if you want to dive into the Nordic startup scene!

Given all of the above, Finland has already become a home for notable tech companies such as Wolt, Aiven, Ouraring and others. With all the necessary infrastructure in place and growing attention from the EU and US VC communities, Finland may follow Sweden in becoming the next home for Nordic unicorns.


Despite being geographically close to the UK, Ireland’s VC market is distinct in nature, and rather similar to the Nordic markets.

In the 2000s, Ireland tailored a tax regime for tech companies and other big multinationals. Since then, it has become a hub for global giants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook and many others. Most have moved tech development or sales centres to Dublin and hired actively for their hubs there. Within a few years, Dublin had become chock-full of outposts of the world’s largest tech companies.

Dublin has become a hub for entrepreneurs, growth companies, multinationals and the world’s largest tech companies.

Over a decade or so, Dublin has become a city full of top-class talent and corporations seeking to use or acquire tech solutions. This burgeoning ecosystem gave a notable boost to the local start-up scene.

The city has seen many ex-corporate tech specialists, each with a deep understanding of B2B pain-points and the skillset necessary to address them, become entrepreneurs and start to offer services to their former employers. Companies like Tines (founded by a former DocuSign security team) is a great example of such a success story.

Sectors seeing most investment

The small local market, coupled with significant demand from global tech companies relocated to Dublin, means the hottest topic in Ireland is the B2B SaaS space, making it very similar to the Nordic markets.

Investment activity in Ireland is concentrated around:

  • Cybersecurity
  • Customer engagement
  • FinTech
  • Legal and compliance tech
  • AI & ML
  • BioTech, HealthTech and MedTech

Notable government investment

As in Finland, government agencies have played a significant role in the development of the Irish VC market. Enterprise Ireland (a government-backed fund of funds and VC) is the most active VC investor in Ireland, with 125 investments in 2020. It was the first-ranked seed investor in Europe and the second in the world in 2019, according to the global PitchBook ranking).

Enterprise Ireland acts is a limited partner (LP) or fund manager in most of the active Irish VCs, including Enterprise Equity, Act, Delta Partners, Frontline Ventures and others. It also creates early stage infrastructure through financing and managing accelerators, for example, New Frontiers, and programmes for entrepreneurs. As a result, the Irish government has managed to create very favorable conditions for entrepreneurs to launch and run new businesses.

Growing global attention

The only way Ireland slightly lags the Nordics is in garnering the attention of global VCs, although that is starting to change. In the past 18 months, Sequoia, Kleiner Perkins, Index Ventures, Accel, Uncork Capital and Greylock have all made their first-ever investments in companies based in Ireland. This clearly marks a shift and flags a growing interest in the market of global VCs.

Keeping in mind what we’ve seen in Sweden and the best-in-class infrastructure that has been set up in Ireland, don’t be surprised to see continuous growth of VC investments in Irish companies in 2021 — the market potential is clear.


(i) The Nordic and Irish VC markets account for roughly 25% of European VC investments, and their growth is outpacing the rest of Europe.

(ii) The Nordic markets developed gradually, with Sweden being the clear region-leader, while the Irish market is booming over recent years: VC investments doubled in 2020 over 2019, while investments in the first five months of 2021 have already outstripped those in 2019.

(iii) While the Nordics and Ireland have different start-up and VC landscapes, they also have a lot in common:

  • Local markets are relatively small, so there is limited demand for B2C businesses and soaring software (especially B2B SaaS) industries.
  • Each has developed entrepreneurial ecosystems and infrastructure, often due to government support.
  • There is still a massive gap of Growth Capital (Series B+ investors) and international capital in both regions, comparing to developed VC geographies. Together with relatively small local markets, it makes global expansion a prerequisite for success.
    No doubt that this status quo is gradually changing with global VCs entering these markets & larger local funds closings, but there is still room for improvement.

Overall, these factors and local market specifics result in:

  • Strong growth of entrepreneurial activity and VC markets
  • Increased interest from global VCs, although there is still a lack of sufficient international capital
  • Clear potential of Irish & Nordic start-ups to scale globally
  • A shift of focus to B2B segments and software business:
    Segments such as CyberSec, Compliance, FinTech and LegalTech are flying, while B2C services (especially B2C marketplaces) are less common.


We’re confident we’ll see a number of new unicorns born in these markets over the next few years. If you plan to be one of them, please drop me a line and we’ll be happy to support you on your journey!



Alexey Bulygin

Principal at Verb Ventures. I work alongside a passionate team to empower early stage tech disruptors within the world of platforms in their journey