The gateway between Silicon Valley and Malta

The gateway between Silicon Valley and Malta

Her friends jokingly call her the ‘Maltese Ambassador in Silicon Valley’. But for Tugce Ergul, Malta has serious potential.

Tugce Ergul is used to making difficult journeys. A Turkish-American citizen, she grew up in Istanbul then moved to Paris to study at the Sorbonne. After graduating, she worked as an investment banker at Rothschild and built a career as a venture capitalist. She then launched an advisory firm that works with more then 40 countries, now known as Angel Labs, in Silicon Valley and is now on track to raise a new Europe-focused fund with a brand new team – to be announced in 2019.

“Angel Labs is two companies under one umbrella organisation: a venture capital firm where we support early-stage technology companies around the world and an advisory firm where we work with family offices, corporations and governments,” Ergul said.

“Before founding Angel Labs, I was a director at a Russian-backed venture capital group and always felt the need that the investment world needs to be democratised and more inclusive – not only for the players of this space but also for the work product we can offer.

“This is why I’ve wanted to build a global co-investment platform that constantly educates new family offices, high-net-worth individuals and traditional investors to get them to fund promising entrepreneurs around the world. Angel Labs partners with Fortune 500 companies and governments to empower more investor communities around the world and promote investment syndicates.

“My initial goal was to make this asset class more accessible to diverse backgrounds while creating new funding resources for talented entrepreneurs around the world.”

And from San Francisco, she nowadays makes frequent trips to Malta.

“I spent almost a decade in San Francisco, first building a traditional venture capital firm and then an advisory firm that works with various governments and corporations around the world,” she said.

“Last year we opened our first office in Europe and I took over the role of leading our European operations and letting my San Francisco-based team oversee the US operations. With that, I started spending much more time in places like Paris, London, Berlin and Malta.

“For the past three years I’ve been spending quite a bit of time in Malta and with each visit I extended my stays and fell more in love with the architecture, culture and people who have been so welcoming to me. There is also the element of work-life balance which Malta has got right.

“Malta might not be fancy like St Tropez, a party destination like Mykonos, or romantic like Capri, but it’s one of the best places for work-life balance in Europe. There are very few countries and capital cities where you can lead world-standard projects and companies and still get to live a serene island life. Malta is not just 300 days of sunshine. Under the macroeconomic pillar, it’s one of the most business-friendly destinations in Europe.”

That said, Ergul could never justify spending a lot of time in Malta, given her internal duties to her company and team and given that most her workload comes from places like the US or London.

“But with the recent blockchain, fintech and real estate tech waves that Malta is strongly cultivating, the stars have finally aligned and I’ve found myself back in my favourite country, doing what I love doing and getting behind very interesting projects representing my company.

Progress might be taking away from the country’s distinctive edges

“This coincided with us opening our European HQ in France and positioned me back in Europe. Now I divide my time between San Francisco, Paris and Malta and have recently got a flat in Valletta. If our workload keeps growing as planned we will be opening an office here.”

Malta is being pitched as a primary jurisdiction for blockchain and DLT legislation is in place. Are there any other limiting factors that need to be addressed for the ‘Blockchain Island’ to fulfill its promise?

“Malta’s attitude to blockchain has been praised by the global crypto industry, and its push to become a global blockchain island seems to be working,” she said.

“This past summer has seen a wave of companies from around the world visiting Malta and trying to understand what this hype is all about. I think Malta’s open policies could continue to attract a variety of forward-thinking entities that could really shake up the financial world. For instance, Huulk, a digital exchange that has a focus on attracting listings from fintech startups that are Sharia-compliant, applied for a licence in Malta in late August. It is a great play targeting nations like the UAE or Malaysia. So, the upcoming regulations are clearly working to have these companies come take a look at Malta.

“However, the real issue is the attraction and the retention of talent. Malta needs to make sure it doesn’t become a jurisdiction where companies start shell entities and don’t bring out their employees. And the solution is two-fold. There need to be some minimum criteria ensuring local employment and organic talent attraction by truly building an inclusive blockchain ecosystem.”

But what does Ergul think drives Malta’s potential?

“Malta has been doing a great job instituting a series of financial and regulatory reforms. In the process, it has totally reinvented itself in the eyes of the world as a transit hub – not for ships, but for money – in an environment of regulatory legitimacy, transparency, and stability,” she said.

“Malta discovered how to use its assets: a deep-rooted adaptability, strong links to different cultures, the multi-lingual culture and its small size. It chose to compete in the financial services industry and avoided the traditional downsides of island economies, which is the high cost of transporting supplies in and out. Malta’s economic success has resulted in exemplary levels of unemployment, creating a recruitment challenge for employers, especially in the high-skilled sectors. But question marks remain around whether it’s sustainable, from an infrastructure standpoint, for Malta to sustain this economic growth through massive population growth and how Malta’s educational system needs to cater to the new digital economy.

“It is so great to see that the economic opportunities are blossoming, and most of the Maltese people are happy with these opportunities, but as an outsider I’m worried that progress might be taking away from the country’s distinctive edges. It makes me sad to see the skyline dotted with cranes rising above the church domes as the economic boom is intensifying the pace of construction. There are clear physical, environmental and ethical limits.

“Malta needs care and nurturing, not simply concrete and crassness. A one-size-fits-all model of growth – based on the US or Dubai – does not and should not fit Malta. It needs a model of planned development that is right-sized for its limits and capacities. Malta should grow, but do it greenly and sustainably. I really think that outside of the gaming, fintech and blockchain waves the country has been riding, the real growth will be driven by smart infrastructure – as this is the only way Malta can balance its economic growth with environmental ethics.”

What are Ergul’s plans and where does Malta fit in?

“Our long-term goal is to create a global household brand for all things investment – whether it’s traditional venture capital, private equity, corporate VC or crypto. We have so far advised the deployment of more than $100m in investments in over 40 countries and we would like to see that number grow to 50 very soon.

“While we might not accomplish that until the end of this year, we are focused on continuing our rapid growth in Asia and supporting sustainable tech innovation by unlocking new funding resources for many talented entrepreneurs around the world. We are also raising a new Europe-focused fund where we will keep making our own investment decisions.

“In Malta, we will keep working with family offices and advising them on investment strategies into new ventures, while also working with international blockchain companies arriving here, and acting as a gateway between Silicon Valley and Malta.”

Tugce Ergul is a co-founder at Angel Labs, the world’s first investor accelerator with a strong focus on diversity and inclusion. Before founding Angel Labs, she worked as a managing director at Startup Labs. She is an active member of the European VC network and speaks on entrepreneurship, economic development and technology at events around the world. She will be speaking at the Malta Blockchain Summit.

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