The Best Venture Firm You’ve Never Heard Of
Hummingbird Ventures has built an astonishing track record – all while staying out of the limelight. Its secret to success? A meticulous approach to identifying outlier founders.
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If you only have a few minutes to spare, here’s what investors, operators, and founders should know about Hummingbird Ventures.
Quiet excellence. Hummingbird is not a brand name firm, even in its native Europe. Despite its low profile, it has produced exceptional returns since its start in 2010. Its first three vintages have all produced returns greater than 10x on a net basis. Critically, these are not just paper gains – Hummingbird has also distributed real capital.
All that matters. Ask managing partners Barend Van den Brande and Firat Ileri for the strategy behind their success, and they will quickly point to one variable: the founder. While other factors matter, Hummingbird’s team believes that the right entrepreneur is 80% of the equation.
Difficulty and divergence. Lots of venture shops consider founders important in their rationale. No one assesses them quite like Hummingbird. The firm adheres to a meticulous psychological approach that looks for unusual signals. For example, Hummingbird looks for neurodivergent founders who have endured real trauma.
(Don’t fear) The Reaper. Hummingbird believes that every “legendary” company goes through two to three near-death moments. That has come from its experience backing startups like Peak Games and Gram Games. This belief has led Hummingbird to double down on startups when other investors have packed up their pencils. According to leadership, this has been a key driver of returns.
Contrarian by nature. Ileri and Van den Brande see considerable flaws in the venture ecosystem. Their contrarian takes include a disdain for platform teams, skepticism for verticalized, sector-specific funds, and general disbelief in the idea of VCs “adding value.”
The bumblebees were kept in the freezer.
When the boy searched for ice cream, he would find them. It wasn’t easy to tell what they were at first: their bodies piled on top of one another, paper wings stiffened, and half-yellow coats furred by the cold. He was old enough to understand why they made no more sound but not why his grandfather had put them there to begin with. What motivated a person to close a bag of bumblebees to the euthanizing cold of a freezer? What did his grandfather hope to achieve?
It was Barend Van Den Brande’s first confrontation with how strangely, how discomfitingly intellect could manifest. He would come to make a career out of such encounters. In 2010, Van den Brande founded Hummingbird Ventures, registering the investment firm in his native Belgium. He did so with little fanfare and absent of interest from Silicon Valley’s brand name firms. Anyone bored enough to note Hummingbird’s establishment would hardly have given it more than a moment’s thought: an unheralded manager had started a small venture capital firm in a small country. Belgium, then as today, was best known for its blonde ales and wafels, not its vibrant tech sector.
From his home base in Antwerp, however, Van den Brande set about building his venture firm. He did so without many conventional advantages. He did not have a proven track record, nor had he apprenticed at a storied fund. Though he had worked as a financial analyst in Boston for a spell, he had few connections to the power brokers of Sand Hill Road, let alone the endowment managers sitting beyond the green-felt lawns and pale stone of the Ivy League. And, as he would have told you himself, he was a bit odd. Van den Brande lacked the easy charm that could beguile entrepreneurs into parting with their equity or seduce limited partners into penning a check.
What he did have was formidable intelligence, jolting directness, ferocious curiosity, and a total allergy to bullshit. These final two traits would prove the making of Van den Brande and his firm.
In the thirteen years since its founding, Van den Brande has built Hummingbird into one of the best-performing venture funds of the past decade. It has delivered three vintages with over 10x net returns. It’s done so without hitting the buzziest startups of the past cycle, instead capitalizing on a roster of relatively under-the-radar giants, including Peak Games, Gram Games, Kraken, BillionToOne, and FPL Technologies. It’s the kind of sustained excellence liable to make marquee fund managers up the dosage of their daily nootropics out of concern.
Hummingbird has achieved this success while staying out of the limelight. True, it has built a strong reputation in Europe. But ask the average tech founder for the continent’s power players, and Index, Accel, Atomico, Balderton, and Northzone are more likely to be mentioned. Make the same query about the United States, and the names of several other avians, mammals, trees, and fruits would be mentioned before anyone turned to the humble Hummingbird. Though known by their entrepreneurs and listed on the occasional cap table, they are virtually anonymous to even sophisticated American audiences.
Van den Brande and his team have driven such returns by ignoring much of the asset class’s conventional wisdom – and forging an extremely opinionated investing framework. Many venture capitalists emphasize the importance of the entrepreneur to their underwriting; none mean it quite as much as Hummingbird. For Van den Brande’s firm, the founder is not merely important; they are the only thing that matters. Forget about flocking to a hot new market or playing nice with Sequoia or Benchmark. If you want to deliver consistently superior returns, Hummingbird believes you need to find the most exceptional entrepreneurs on earth – not merely the top 1%, but the top 0.1%.
Finding such outliers is not easy. It also might not look like you’d expect it to. Hummingbird isn’t searching for the slick Stanford MBA, affable Google APM, or winsome McKinsey associate. It cares little for credentials or the experienced pitchman’s smooth patter. Instead, Van den Brande’s seven-strong roster of investors is pursuing a very specific kind of entrepreneur – someone with unreasonable ambitions, astonishing clock speed, and a frightening hunger that portends a deep, personal unease. Such people do not always make adept students or easy colleagues. But they’re liable to have a handful of bumblebees buried in the freezer. And to have a good reason for it, too, if you care enough to ask.
Hummingbird’s chief virtue is its ability to ask questions that give these anomalous founders the comfort to open their metaphorical ice boxes and reveal the strange, raw edges of their personality inside.
To understand how this firm works, we have spent more than four months researching Hummingbird, investigating its returns, and speaking with nearly twenty sources, including its founders, team members, entrepreneurs, external parties, and other fund managers. Many shared their stories on record for the first time.
Throughout his career as a venture capitalist, Barend Van den Brande has likely heard upward of 10,000 pitches. Ten thousand times, a founder has sat before him and told a story. They have spoken of their background. They have narrated the problem before them. And they have unfurled their solution.
It is the job of a venture capitalist to listen to such stories – and to poke at them. To find the holes yet to be darned and stick a finger through the fabric. To find the story beneath the one being told, hiding. To hear what is being said and what is not.
Van den Brande appears to have honed this skill much more finely than the average practitioner. “The thing that has struck me the most, that is unique about Barend, is that he has this linguistic mind,” Salar al Khafaji remarked. “He’s very, very language-oriented. The only other person I’ve met that has the same [propensity] is Mike Moritz.” Hummingbird invested in al Khafaji’s autonomous building platform, Terraform, in 2021.
Perhaps because of this skill, Van den Brande is a halting narrator of his own story. He worries that the details he includes – and those he elides – set a path for the listener, the reader, to follow that, by necessity, deviates from reality. A story can never encapsulate the fullness of someone’s life, no matter how diligently it is told or transcribed. There will always be a sly cut, a subtle jump, an omission, a conflation. Speaking with Van den Brande, you get the sense he would prefer to download the entirety of his life experiences and hand it over on a USB to avoid any confusion. “I’m very worried about narratives,” he said in our conversation. “I’ll share with you a number of narratives; I just worry that they are narratives. And before you know it, if you have enough of these narratives, you become a cartoon, you become a cliché.”
Van den Brande’s disclaimer reveals something of his mind, his selfhood, and the stories we will tell about his life. He seems to be saying: Listen to my stories, take them for what they’re worth, but don’t imagine they explain everything.
The city of Mechelen is nearly equidistant between Antwerp and Brussels. It occupies Belgium’s Flemish region, a country that Van den Brande describes as a “compromise.” After generations of French, German, and Dutch sallying back and forth over the same stretch of land, an independent country formed. “Apart from surreal artists and a couple of artful soccer players, it’s not necessarily a country known for success in technology or for conquering the world.” It was here that Barend Van den Brande was born.
Belgium’s Flemish identity was an important aspect of Van den Brande’s upbringing. His father, Luc Van den Brande, was Mechelen’s representative in Belgium’s House of Representatives before becoming Minister-President of Flanders; his mother was a teacher and homemaker.
When Van den Brande reflects on his childhood, he skips over much of it. But he makes time for the bumblebees. Yes, those bumblebees. While Belgium often felt “provincial” to the young Barend, an environment where people cared too much about what others thought of them and innovated too little, his grandfather was an exception. “[He was] this crazy inventor grandad,” Van den Brande recalled. “The type of person where – normally, you would go to the fridge of your grandparents and maybe take out an ice cream, right? When I would go, I would still find ice cream. But what I would [also] find was a bunch of frozen bumblebees.”
What was he doing with them?
“He was experimenting with combining different species of them and trying to find a very healthy one.” In particular, Van den Brande’s grandfather was obsessed with how bumblebees might improve tomato production. To stimulate pollination in greenhouse environments, humans typically walked from one tomato plant to another, holding what it is tempting to call a vibrator. This vibrating device emitted a frequency that emulated a bumblebee’s buzzing, shaking pollen from a tomato plant’s flowers. Though reasonably effective, it was a slow, manual process. Couldn’t bumblebees manage the task themselves? Particularly if engineered for it?
Van den Brande’s grandfather would never commercialize the biotechnology he developed, though a few years later, another Belgian tinkerer did. In 1987, veterinarian Roland De Jonghe started a company named Biobest, offering genetically engineered bumblebees to aid with tomato plant production. It has gone on to produce hundreds of millions of euros in revenue, demonstrating the potential of even erratic-seeming experiments.
The wacky grandfather is one of the “narratives” Van den Brande cautiously offers about his early years. The other came nearly a decade later and carried none of the same charm. On a family vacation bordering the North Sea, Van den Brande suffered a windsurfing accident that almost drowned him. Hours later, he was lucky to float ashore at De Panne, a town near the French border. Reflexively, he underplays the experience – “You [can] connect the wrong dots, right?” – but it’s clear it marked him. In the immediate aftermath, he recalled reckoning with his mortality. “I suddenly felt like, ‘Poof! Life can be really short. Let’s do something with it.’” Even years later, he would find himself returning to the incident and the subject of near-death experiences.
“We live as if nature and nurture were equal parents when the evidence suggests that nature has both the whip hand and the whip,” the author Julian Barnes once wrote. While Van den Brande’s upbringing influenced who he became, a particular personhood is baked into the genes. From an early age, Van den Brande was distinctly different from those around him, a discrepancy he would come to categorize in later life as “a level of masked autism.”
At the University of Louvain, he preferred the company of engineers to the economists in his program. Though he received a Master’s in that subject, he spent much of his time studying philosophy. Spend enough time with Van den Brande and this interest becomes clear. Few other investment managers’ internal writing begins with a convincing discussion of Cartesian dualism.
Architecture was another interest that germinated during this period. If you were to meet Van den Brande without context, this is the career you’d pick for him based on sight alone. His precise features, round, dark-rimmed glasses, keen gaze, shock of blonde hair, and vaguely Nordic bearing suggest a life designing trendy bungalows in Oslo.
As it happens, Van den Brande has built a house – several, in fact. During his years as an investor, architecture acted as a release from the limitations of investing. “VC has this weird tension. Everything in a startup needs to happen now. But at the same time, as a VC, you put a pawn on the chessboard. For a while you have this idea of ‘Wow, what if we can help [our entrepreneurs]! Let’s interview another twenty VP Sales candidates and do all these things!’ In reality, what you need to accept at some point is that, yeah, maybe they’ll take a little bit of your advice, mostly not. The good ones won’t.” And so, into the early hours of the morning, Van den Brande turned to architecture as a creative outlet. “I always felt it kept me sane,” he said. His crowning achievement is a property in the Alps, up at 2,200 meters. “You get there with a ski-doo. It’s really tough building conditions.”
Both philosophy and architecture seem to say something about Van den Brande. He is abstract and exacting, cerebral and results-oriented.
It took a few years after graduation for Van den Brande to make his way into venture capital. It wasn’t a typical career in Belgium in the early 1990s, meaning that it didn’t show up on his radar as an option for several years. He worked as a financial analyst at SG Cowen’s Boston office, studying nascent internet businesses.
By 2000, he was ready to begin investing in this class of companies himself – but not before considering writing a book. His experience off the coast of Belgium had stayed with him in the intervening years and made him wonder how many others had experienced similar hazards, both personal and professional. How had it changed them? What residue had it left on their selves, their souls, their lives? In particular, he was interested in how many entrepreneurs had undergone something that affirmed their fragility, their mortality. He hoped to convince founders to share such experiences, creating a kind of compilation of hardship.
The book did not get very far. “I got to reach out to a number of European entrepreneurs around the year 2000. [This was] the first generation that had built something, probably to the tune of $50 to $100 million outcomes. So I called them up, and I said, ‘Hey, I need you to talk openly about that.’”
He was swiftly met with two types of dismissals. “One was typically combined with a condescending ‘my friend’ or something – which would be like, ‘Listen, my friend, I’m not going to be a chapter in the book; I’m going to be a book.’” The ego of these participants prohibited them from participating in a project with such a diffuse focus.
The second type of rejection was more interesting to Van den Brande. “The other ones said, ‘Listen, you’re onto something. But if people were to know how at some point I was crawling on the ground at a junction and all the way thinking I was going to go left and then in the very last moment [taking] a right – in my next crisis, I don’t think I want half of my team [to know] exactly how it went in my darkest moments. They need to trust me as a leader.’”
Though Van den Brande’s book project didn’t go anywhere, that second type of response solidified his intuitive sense that he was onto something. That the task of building a company from nothing was darker, rawer than many made it seem. “I think we’ve always been on the lookout for: ‘What is the Pixar version of a startup? What do we want to believe about the world? What should be a good world – with all of us [having] equal chances of being a founder?’ And then, waking up to: ‘Oh my god, this power law thing is real. This is scary. Like, you can win for a while in Europe, and then a Brazilian 17-year-old might literally eat you up in two years. So you better find a solution.’”
It would take a long, difficult decade for Van den Brande to truly commit to the ideas he was circling.
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The same year he tried and failed to compile his book of trauma, Van den Brande officially began his career as a venture investor. In 2000, he took the wraps off Big Bang Ventures, a €10 million fund focused on the Belgian startup ecosystem. Though Van den Brande was several years out of university by this point, his newest endeavor would provide a humbling education of its own.
Van den Brande founded the firm with a fellow Flemish graduate, Frank Maene. After receiving a pair of Master’s degrees in economics and accounting, Maene had spent a stint in America, working with the growing cadre of dotcom companies. “He had been in a startup before in the States. The only Belgian guy in a startup and in sales [over there].” That expertise felt invaluable to Van den Brande at the time. “I was like, ‘Oh, wow! Someone that has seen the inside of a startup. Let’s start this together.” To further bolster Big Bang’s bonafides, Van den Brande recruited a roster of entrepreneurs to serve as advisors.
The fund’s approach was simple and logical. “My thesis was that: ‘Oh, look, in Europe we’ve got a bunch of wonderful old universities.’ This is how naive it was. My best take was, ‘Maybe we’ll find smart people very close to universities. And probably Belgium has been overlooked.” Though a reasonable premise, Van den Brande would quickly find its limitations. First among them was that Belgium was too small a market. “Way too tiny,” Van den Brande remarked. He expanded his scope to the Netherlands. Then France, then Germany.
So began the “macho phase” of Van den Brande’s VC career. He packed his day with coffee meetings, business lunches, and networking events. He was burning with energy to do something, and, absent of a better idea, he chased the opportunities that came his way and scurried for the companies he backed with frenzied intensity. In part, this convivial whirlwind soothed Van den Brande’s desire to placate his limited partners (LPs). He explained his tendency during this period to jump into the fray with Big Bang’s founders, saying, “I wanted to go to my LPs and be like, ‘Look, look, look, we’re almost company builders.’”
The other reason Van den Brande spent his time this way was that it was alluringly, deceptively pleasant. “The thing is, as a VC, you can feel really, really good about your life. Why? Because you talk to seven, eight, ten wonderful entrepreneurs – people full of energy, amazing ideas, and in a domain where you’re scratching the surface. And so, you can be at the end of any given day feeling like: ‘Woof, this was a rich, wonderful day.’ It’s possible that you have not created any value, you’ve not done anything useful.”
Some venture investors may spend their lives this way. If you are not careful, decades can pass in the thin glow of dazzling company. A career can be made not so much by thinking or doing but by appearing to think or do. Though some part of Van den Brande enjoyed the shallow satisfactions of performing the role of venture investor, it never felt a perfect fit. Even during his greenest years, there seemed to be a niggle, an itch, a prickling dissatisfaction that stopped him from embracing the role entirely.
For one thing, Van den Brande invested slowly. In 2000, Big Bang’s inaugural year, the fund backed a single startup. While a cautious pace at the best of times, it was especially so during the febrile rush of the dotcom era. “People were just frantically doing deals. Probably even shareholders [thought]: ‘Yeah, just pick up a couple of these companies. Anything seems to go public. And then we’ll plug in a little bit more pre-IPO money.’”
Even as the bubble began to burst the following year, Big Bang’s LPs didn’t see much value in Van den Brande’s measured deployment. “The same shareholders sat me down and said, ‘Hey, you know what? The Swiss seem to be good at making watches. And we seem to be good at doing things like chocolate. And the Americans, they seem to be good at things like software. But you’ve done like one investment. Maybe this is not your thing. Maybe in Europe, funding amazing tech companies is a bit too much to ask. And why wouldn’t you do something else? Because you’re clearly not very good at this.”
Van den Brande’s approach would be vindicated in time. By reserving capital for the years after the dotcom bust, he avoided an early, ignominious end to his investing career. “It was good that I wasn’t just boom, coming to action and wanting to leave a mark and doing ten, twenty investments. That would have been the start and the end of my career.” Indeed, that reserve would subsequently help raise a €31 million follow-on vintage.
Still, he understood his LPs’ criticism and felt more than a little dissatisfaction himself. Though he filled his days meeting entrepreneurs, he had yet to meet one that seemed unmistakably unique. As Van den Brande described it, he spent his days walking a vast beach, turning over shells. Over nearly nine years at Big Bang Ventures, he studied thousands of them in search of one true anomaly, one perfectly imperfect shell.
By 2009, Van den Brande had invested €41 million without finding a single outlier founder. Big Bang’s performance reflected as much. Though nine portfolio companies were eventually acquired, including by major firms like Sun Microsystems and FIS Global, the fund barely returned LP’s money. “I think they got something like 9% net IRR,” Van den Brande said. That wasn’t bad for vintages at the time, putting Big Bang in the top quartile, as Van den Brande recalled. Still, it didn’t convince Big Bang’s ambitious manager. “If you want to be part of the next Google, there was no sign of that.”
Above all, Van den Brande felt that venture capital was almost nothing like he’d expected. Though he had read industry blogs, sought out the counsel of American investors, built an advisory board, devised a rational thesis, and spoken to as many founders as he could, he felt he’d scarcely broached the marrow of investing. He’d done things by the book, but where had that gotten him?
“I remember thinking: ‘What I need to do now is more than a 10% change. There’s something entirely off. I need to turn up the volume a little bit and really question everything.’”
As the world readied itself for the next decade, Van den Brande made a decision: he would start a new fund with a radically different strategy. In 2010, Hummingbird Ventures was born with €19 million under management.
Though Van den Brande didn’t yet have the words for it, this firm would operate with a radically distinct philosophy. Above all, it would relentlessly search for the kind of outlier people Van den Brande had yet to find.
It did not take long for Hummingbird’s GP to be rewarded. The same year Barend Van den Brande launched his new firm, he met Sidar Sahin.
The vast nature reserve of venture capital houses a variety of species. There are the peacocks that flash their feathers and do little else. There are the lemmings, darling tundra hamsters that scrabble and careen in a general direction. There are the lions, great beasts whose roars ensure none in the kingdom miss their prowess. And there are the wolves that may move in packs but do not need one, that howl with saudade but prefer silence, that hunt with little noise but full lethality.
Pamir Gelenbe is a wolf. He has invested in exceptional companies, and yet, search his name on Google, and you will find little more than a page of decrepit links and old photos. He last tweeted in 2020. While that is not nothing – he has not disappeared into a cloud of vapor – it represents a fraction of the press, attention, and noise his work might have garnered were he an aggrandizing lion.
“[Pamir] has a big role in this story,” Van den Brande said. Exactly what role?
Gelenbe and Van den Brande first met in 2007 at a tech conference in Paris. In 2010, they reconnected. It was this second meeting that would kickstart their relationship in earnest. In the other, each found someone with a similar obsession for startups and fierce curiosity about the world around them. “He is truly one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met in my life,” Van den Brande said.
In addition to being impressed by the ex-Morgan Stanley banker’s intellect, the Hummingbird general partner was also intrigued by Gelenbe’s take on a burgeoning startup ecosystem. Though raised in Paris, Gelenbe had Turkish roots. That connection had given him a chance to see some of Turkey’s early successes and meet the country’s promising entrepreneurs. Intrigued by Gelenbe’s comments on the Turkish ecosystem, Van den Brande decided to head to Istanbul to assess the market for himself. In Turkey, Van den Brande quickly found the anomalous shells he had sought in Western Europe at Big Bang Ventures. “I started to see the kind of founders I was looking for all my life.”
Demet Mutlu was one example. When Van den Brande met the young founder, she had just returned to Turkey after a stint in New York. As she told him, she planned to build an e-commerce business, though she had yet to start. Despite the project’s nascency, Van den Brande was keen to understand Mutlu’s projections. “I said, ‘How much revenue will you do in the first year?’ And she said, ‘One hundred million.’ And I said, ‘Oh really? How? Why? And her answer was, ‘Because I will.’”
Silence. Mutlu offered no more.
“I hadn’t seen founders like that in Europe. If we think about founders willing to please VCs – that didn’t count here. If your answer is, “Because I will” and you don’t even give an explanation, you’re not going to give me anything.” To Van den Brande, the combination of dizzying self-confidence and ferocity portended a fearsome entrepreneur – someone who would not be easily knocked off course. Regrettably for Hummingbird, however, Van den Brande chose not to invest. Mutlu’s company, Trendyol, became Turkey’s first decacorn and was last valued at $15 billion.
Thankfully, Van den Brande soon found a similarly unusual entrepreneur. Pamir Gelenbe provided the introduction.
Sidar Sahin had a long entrepreneurial track record. In the early 2000s, he started a couple of successful gaming companies before attempting several other startups. Not all succeeded. As Sahin told the Wall Street Journal in 2012, “I have started many companies. Most of them failed.” Those failures came at a financial and personal cost. “I burned more than $10 million of my own money. I would see a good model and copied it. I tried to build a social network because Facebook wasn’t here in Turkey then. But you cannot do it if you have ego and a focus problem. I hit the wall big time, then again, then again. I said enough. I learned a lot about myself, but it was hard.”
Those difficult moments may have marked Sahin, but they did not deter him. By the turn of the decade, he was ready to return to the arena. He started by helping Trendyol get off the ground, assisting Mutlu as a co-founder. While Mutlu’s firm grew rapidly, Sahin’s passion for gaming meant he quickly set his sights on building another business in the space. He called it Peak Games.
At one level, Peak Games began with a simple premise. In 2010, Zynga demonstrated the potential in “social gaming,” leveraging Facebook to become a mass-market megahit. Sahin saw potential in a similar approach aimed at geographies Zynga had yet to penetrate.
Sahin had grander ambitions than simply building a business, however. “I started Peak to change the world,” the founder shared in the same interview. In particular, he hoped that by creating a successful, high-performance business in Turkey, he could help seed an ecosystem. “It is about changing something in Turkey. The only way to do this is to build product and engineering-focused companies in Turkey,” Sahin added. An admirer of PayPal’s talent density, Sahin hoped that someday, Peak might produce a “Mafia” of its own.
This was the founder that Van den Brande met in 2010. Over several meetings, he assessed the investment opportunity in front of him.
Before continuing, pretend for a moment that you are in the Hummingbird investor’s shoes. You meet an entrepreneur who has had both successes and failures. He is now building a new company, Peak Games, that seeks to capitalize on the “social gaming” market, a category that piggybacks off social media platforms like Facebook. It is competitive, with Zynga already three years old. He has a big, lofty vision. You find him slightly awkward.
You ask some questions. You learn about his past. About his wins and losses. You talk to references – they are unspectacular. You learn he has raised no money, and knowing the immaturity of the Turkish venture market, you can be confident that no capital will rush in.
What do you do?
If you have your filter attuned just so, if you can separate signal from noise, you will hear the drive behind these details. You will hear someone who overcame hard times to arrive at this point; someone capable of building impressive things but not being sated by it; someone with a chip on their shoulder; someone who sees the world differently and will not rest until they tilt it at least one degree in the direction of their choosing. “He had this intensity and clock speed which had us think he would swim across the Bosphorus every day if he needed to,” Van den Brande said.
Van den Brande had yet to formalize his founder filter, but in Sahin, he discovered an arresting template, a first draft upon which a thesis would be built. “Sidar’s qualities are now woven into our founder’s thesis,” he said. In November of 2010, Hummingbird invested $500,000 into Peak Games, at a valuation of $2 million, pre-money, giving the firm a 20% stake in the startup.
As it turned out, Sahin not only served as an example for the kind of founders Hummingbird targeted. He would also show the fund what an exceptional team looked like. From the beginning, this seems to have been a particular focus for Sahin. “How we want to change the world is we want to create a culture here. It is about creating vision and culture,” he told the Journal. “It is all about people.”
As Van den Brande discovered, finding the right people for the job occasionally necessitated unorthodox approaches. For example, to filter out less dedicated applicants, Sahin held recruiting interviews after midnight. “You can imagine most people would be like, ‘Hell no, I’m not going to do that,’” Van den Brande said. “It wasn’t that the rest of the team was there working and burning the midnight oil. It was a way to sort out who really wanted it.”
This methodology resulted in a fierce, tightly-knit team capable of producing incredible output. By witnessing the creation of Peak’s high-performance culture and watching other versions play out at future startups, Hummingbird began to understand what a great team truly looked like. Again, it didn’t conform to Silicon Valley wisdom.
The best founders “[dared] to lean on super special talent,” Van den Brande noticed. “Not just the people with a certain MBA and the linear people and the people who are supposed to be these future leaders of a generation.” Startups like Peak weren’t filled with former valedictorians or star athletes. They were staffed with golden children, those preordained for productive lives. Like the founders of the startups they worked for, they were strange, unorthodox, and piratical. “We started to run into teams where none of the people working there made any sense.”
It would take years and a near-death experience for Peak to prove the virtues of its eccentric culture.
The fund returner
Outwardly, Peak’s early years projected easy success. By 2012, the company was attracting coverage from publications like the Wall Street Journal and The Economist. The latter’s article spoke of a “Boom on the Bosphorus.”
Sahin’s company had earned that attention after rapidly amassing millions of active users. It had done so by paying close attention to the local context in which its games were released. For example, rather than producing a pixel-by-pixel facsimile of Zynga’s Farmville franchise, Peak created versions suited for local audiences. For the Muslim world, for example, its Happy Farm title removed pigs – a verboten food for adherents – and added hijabs to female characters.
Despite such ostensible success, Peak struggled to convert momentum and attention into venture funding. With funding running low, Sahin turned to Hummingbird and found relief. Van den Brande led a bridge round into the company, helping to keep it afloat.
Why did Van den Brande do that? Why step in when seemingly no others would? For Van den Brande, it was a pragmatic decision. If you believe you have backed an extraordinary founder, the sensible choice in such moments is to recommit. Episodes like Peak’s bridge round would contribute to another core Hummingbird belief. “Now, we see a normal byproduct of any legendary, generational outcome as two, three near-death moments,” Van den Brande said. When such moments arise, Hummingbird sees it as an opportunity, perhaps even a promising sign. “This might be just the thing they need. This might be the glass ceiling that they need to go through.”
Sahin more than repaid that faith. In the following years, Peak’s CEO transformed his social gaming startup into a mobile behemoth responsible for launching international hits like Toy Blast and Toon Blast. He also created a remarkably high-leverage team – according to Van den Brande, Peak produced $600 million in revenue from just 100 employees at its apogee.
A decade after Peak was founded, it was sold. In 2020, Zyga acquired Sidar Sahin’s company for $1.8 billion. For Hummingbird, it marked a stunning validation of their approach. They had found an outlier founder in an unusual geography and backed him to the hilt. From an investment of just $5 million, they had scored a return of $276 million – a gross multiple of 54.4x. Peak alone returned Hummingbird’s first fund 9.1x.
Perhaps even more satisfying for Sahin was that he succeeded in seeding an ecosystem. Without exaggeration, Peak can claim to have a “Mafia” of its own. Dream Games is perhaps the best example. Founded in 2019 by Peak alumni, the maker of megahit Royal Match was last valued at $2.75 billion in a $255 million Series C led by Index Ventures.
One hit seems lucky. Two feels like momentum. Three begins to look like skill.
Using Sidar Sahin and his team as a template, Hummingbird embarked on a thrilling run. They did so armed with an increasingly precise approach predicated on the idea that unreasonable, brilliant, strange, damaged people made the best founders and that these people often emerged in overlooked geographies and sectors.
Pamir Gelenbe, who introduced Van den Brande to the Turkish market, provided critical, if mercurial, support. Though dazzlingly intelligent, Gelenbe’s presence was unreliable. To some extent, that was to be expected. After all, he was a venture partner rather than a GP. But even accounting for the transient nature of his position, he cut a mysterious, flighty figure at times.
“He would be the kind of guy who might disappear for three weeks, entirely off the face of the planet,” Van den Brande remarked. Then, he would re-emerge as if nothing had happened. “I remember it clearly. I was at a breakfast in Istanbul. Bing! Pamir. A sign of life. ‘Hey, you’re in Istanbul, too?’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, where have you been?’ ‘I’ve been in Thailand for the last three weeks!’ ‘Ok, have you been diving?’ ‘No, no, no, no, no! I was there to map the whole nascent e-commerce ecosystem.’”
Van den Brande took a sanguine approach to such eccentricities, just as he did with founders. “Instead of having a strategy and people needing to fit into that strategy, why not find an excuse to be in the room with super special people and then make it work their way? Pamir was like that.” It would prove a savvy choice.
Another “super special” person arrived on Van den Brande’s radar in 2012. That year, a young graduate with no venture capital experience applied for a job at Hummingbird Ventures. He would come to shape the future of the firm.
Born and raised in Cyprus to Turkish Cypriot parents, Firat Ileri moved to the US in 2004 at the age of 16. He’d been accepted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His arrival in Boston was fortuitous for a young man as interested in entrepreneurship as he was in engineering. The same year Ileri matriculated, a college student in neighboring Cambridge founded a company named Facebook. MIT was one of the first colleges allowed onto the rapidly growing platform. At freshman orientation, a fellow student asked Ileri if he had an account yet. It served as a striking example of what an audacious undergraduate could accomplish with the help of technology.
That sentiment was not confined to geekier corners of Harvard Yard. At MIT, Ileri seemed to be surrounded by budding entrepreneurs. His freshman-year roommate was an Iranian-American named Arash Ferdowsi. Ferdowsi dropped out of college the next year to start Dropbox with classmate Drew Houston.
Kyle Vogt, another Kansan entrepreneur, lived two floors beneath Ileri and Ferdowsi’s room. He would go on to launch Justin.tv, which became Twitch. The video streaming platform sold to Amazon for $970 million in 2014. Later, Vogt founded autonomous vehicle startup Cruise, delivering another considerable exit, this time to General Motors. (Less than two weeks ago, Vogt left his role as CEO in the wake of a safety incident.)
This germinating world of startups and dropouts entranced Ileri. By his sophomore year, he had picked his path. Since he didn’t have the focus to hone in on a single idea, a trait that seemed necessary to found a company, he would take on the role of venture capitalist. It seemed a perfect fit, allowing him to follow his curiosity to technology’s farthest corners.
In 2009, Ileri graduated from MIT. He departed with a Masters degree in electrical engineering and computer science. Despite his credentials, Ileri struggled to break into venture capital. Though startups were undoubtedly on the rise, the asset class remained small, with few positions open to fresh-faced graduates, no matter how impressive.
Ileri took a job at JP Morgan’s London office to bide his time and bolster his resume. Even while working for an Emerging Markets group, he kept his eyes peeled for openings in venture capital. One day, in 2012, he spotted a position for which he felt tailor-made: Associate, Hummingbird Ventures.
Not only was the firm based in Europe, convenient for the converted Londoner, it had an explicit mandate to invest in Turkey. As well as boasting a native’s fluency, Ileri harbored a growing belief in the ecosystem. “I was very bullish on the country,” he recalled. Hummingbird clearly felt similarly – and had made the investments to prove it, backing a firm by the name of Peak Games. Ileri applied. Thankfully for all parties, he got the job.
It was a baptism by fire with Van den Brande involving the junior investor in nearly all facets of fund management. “I had to do anything from reporting, thesis-building, sourcing, portfolio management.” That range far exceeded Ileri’s expectations. “Usually, as an associate, you’re mainly doing a lot of the legwork,” Ileri said. “I was given a lot more responsibility. That helped me accelerate my learning curve massively.”
One way to understand Hummingbird is as a symphony. A coherent storyline runs through the firm, from its earliest days to its modern iteration. Within it, there are repeated motifs, crescendos and decrescendos, points and counterpoints, and players that storm into the foreground and fade into melody.
Turkey was the first movement in the Hummingbird symphony. Molto allegro! The movement began by finding Peak Games but swiftly gathered speed. Just six months after beginning his venture career, Firat Ileri spotted another remarkable Turkish entrepreneur.
Mehmet Ecevit bore many similarities to Sahin. He had overcome adversity to become a startlingly motivated adult. A love of gaming inspired him to launch his first startup, OyunStudyosu, in 2008. During his three-year tenure at the company, Ecevit launched Sanalika, a virtual world game that would become the most popular of its kind domestically. By 2011, though, he was ready for a new challenge. Ecevit just wasn’t sure what that challenge should be.
Convinced that Ecevit was a true “maverick,” Ileri sought to help him discover his next adventure. For starters, he introduced Ecevit to his other MIT roommate, Kaan Karamanci. Karamanci was running a family textile business at the time, “bored out of his mind.” Games had become his escape. “He was playing for five hours a day,” Ileri recalled.
After bringing them together, Ileri made a suggestion: “Why don’t you build a new gaming company together, and we’ll fund it? I’ll be hands-on with you guys.” The investor was true to his word. After Ecevit and Karamanci agreed – and added a third co-founder, Alpay Koralturk – Hummingbird led a $2 million pre-seed investment into what would become Gram Games.
Ileri’s commitment to Gram went far beyond that of a typical investor. Filled with the exuberance of youth, he embedded himself at Gram, moonlighting as a full-time employee. “I probably learned everything about startups there,” Ileri recalled. “I helped fundraise, I hired the first employee through sourcing on LinkedIn – who became CEO of the company after the company was sold. I pulled all-nighters with them when it was crunch time.” Ileri also put his finances on the line. “I invested all my savings into the company. I didn’t have much, I was 24.”
As with Peak, Gram did not follow a linear path. Early in its life, vicious infighting between the three co-founders nearly scuppered the enterprise. To try to play peacemaker, Van den Brande held sessions with each of the three founders separately. It was an experiment he is not eager to repeat. “Each of them, for two hours, came pitching to us independently, trashing the other two founders. After five, six hours, I remember jumping in a taxi, totally toast.” Van den Brande ended the day with such little hope that he called Ileri to share an update. “I told him, ‘Hey, for the next reporting, let’s make sure that we tell our LPs we just lost a couple of hundred grand on Gram Games because we should send them all home. This is like one giant kindergarten.’”
Van den Brande worries about sharing this story. He worries about his delivery: “I use terms like ‘kindergarten’ — I have quite a cartoon-type of brain, where this is not super politically correct. To do it in that fashion.” He also worries about how sharing it might be misconstrued. “Out of context, some of this is potentially super condescending, as if we don’t take it seriously what we’re doing here. ‘It’s all one wonderful-discovery-journey-adventure.’”
Those who listen to Van den Brande’s story carefully, who hear it in its context, should reach the opposite conclusion. It reveals something fundamentally true and too often unsaid about company building: it is messy. It may not comply with a wholesome Disney narrative in which plucky upstarts band together to defeat the big bad incumbent. Disruption is disruptive. If you are to be a serious backer of this sector, if that is your real goal (and not the associated glamor of playing the role), then you must meet reality on its terms. It is messy. So, look into the mess, into the muck of leaves and grime and bones, and see. Find the mark. This is the scapulimant’s art.
In 2013, with Peak’s success far from assured, Hummingbird was still wrestling with the reality it had uncovered. Was this really what great startups look like? Did backing an outlier entrepreneur necessarily involve turbulence? “We still had notions of: ‘Ok, we go for special founders, but…’ There’s something also uncomfortable about it because we had the notion that there must be startups out there where they’re not kindergartens, where they’re adult people, and they sit down, and they draw a roadmap together for the next five years.”
Van den Brande found this process so discomfiting that around the same time Gram was roiled by bickering, he conducted a “confession” in Istanbul. Those attending? His LPs. Van den Brande had already taken some unusual liberties by that stage. When he’d founded Hummingbird, he’d done so with an explicitly European mandate. Did Turkey count? It depended on which side of the Bosphorus you stood. Regardless of how one categorized a country, it was fair to assume Hummingbird’s financers had expected the firm’s GP to spend more time in London than Levent.
Among Hummingbird’s theoretical transgressions, some creative geography didn’t weigh heaviest on Van den Brande’s soul. Instead, it was the firm’s increasingly fierce belief in unusual, ferocious, uncomfortable founders.
“I said to my own LPs, ‘Listen guys, we’ve got to do a confession.’ Now, a confession implies sin. It implies maybe there’s a crime involved. Maybe you should go to jail. Maybe my choice of words is unlucky at times.”
Still, there was an intent in Van den Brande’s verbiage. “I found it interesting to call it a confession.” He proceeded to run through a hypothetical with the collected LPs. Imagine if Hummingbird had invested in all of the good companies it had seen and none of the bad ones, that it had, in effect, a 100% hit rate. How would such a record have been possible? What rationale could have led to that outcome, with the benefit of hindsight? “I told them, ‘Listen, I know this sounds like a bit like of an iffy or a shaky type of exercise. But the only way to do that is to put 80% on the founder. And you know what? I’m taking all of your money here, and for the last two years, we’ve been leaning in a direction which is super uncomfortable.’” Hummingbird could say what the assembled LPs might have wanted it to say, to spout acronyms and facile frameworks (“we are really good at acronyms in the tech industry,” Van den Brande remarked), but that wasn’t the reality of their approach. Hummingbird believed that founders were four-fifths of the equation – that was its confession. “‘We do this with your money, you need to know.’”
To Van den Brande’s credit, he didn’t turn from Gram’s mess. He stared closer, finding the founder he felt he and his team had to support. “We felt one of them we need to really, really back,” he said. That person was Mehmet Ecevit.
Ultimately, Gram’s founders would reach a similar conclusion. Ecevit became CEO, with Karamanci staying on as a fully involved co-founder. Altay Koralturk left the company on amicable terms. He would succeed on his own terms, founding second-hand furniture marketplace Kaiyo. It raised $43.1 million in capital from firms like Lerer Hippeau and Edison Partners, with its latest round in 2022.
Meanwhile, Ecevit and Karamanci led Gram to a winning outcome. In 2018, Zynga acquired the startup at a valuation of $394 million. At the time of the acquisition, Hummingbird owned nearly 30% of the business, which it acquired for just $2 million. Ileri had delivered a 49.5x gross return on his first-ever investment.
Even before Gram’s sale, Van den Brande recognized what a remarkable talent he had found in Ileri. Though only in his early twenties, Ileri had the nose and sagacity of a much older investor. Allied with the fervor of youth, that made him a formidable practitioner. While another venture capitalist might have been content to milk Ileri’s skill for a decade before granting him a junior partner role, Van den Brande felt a forced apprenticeship made no sense. After all, if exceptional entrepreneurial talent could arrive fresh-faced, why couldn’t exceptional investing nous? “Something tells [me] that while we see 21-year-olds rise to the occasion in just a number of years to run worldwide generational companies, also in VC you have people who come in with just a few years but outcompete ‘experience,’” Van den Brande said.
And so, in the first inning of his investing career, Firat Ileri became a fully-fledged partner at Hummingbird. Together with Van den Brande, he would define the firm’s direction in the years that followed. “In a way, Firat was the best investment I ever did, with Gram just being the first fund-returner,” Van den Brande said.
There were other harmonies in the Turkish movement: CicekSepeti, an online florist, and Armut, a marketplace for moving, cleaning, repairs, and other home services.
In 2013, however, Hummingbird entered its crypto movement. Accelerando!
Around that time, Pamir Gelenbe had been utterly, irrevocably red-pilled. His interest turned from emerging markets like Thailand and Turkey to the peculiar paradigm shift occurring at one of computing’s oddest frayed edges. In the summer of 2013, Gelenbe and his wife hosted their first crypto conference, named Bitcoin London. Over the following years, they would host several more under the CoinSummit moniker, attracting speakers like Ethereum cofounders Vitalik Buterin and Gavin Wood, Marc Andreessen, Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, AngelList’s Naval Ravikant, and then-Stripe CTO Greg Brockman. (Brockman now serves in the same position at OpenAI after a brief three-day sabbatical earlier this month.)
Gelenbe may have been the most indelibly bewitched by crypto, but he was not alone amongst Hummingbird’s team in recognizing its potential. Van den Brande had attended crypto conferences for several years without succumbing to its cultural mores. “I wasn’t an early adopter. In those days, you needed to pay to get to a crypto conference. Everyone else was trying to do that in bitcoin and lost ten to fifteen minutes screwing around with not-so-functioning wallets. I would still be the guy using my credit card.” Ileri, too, had gotten excited by the sector’s promise. “We all got into crypto,” he recalled.
A meeker firm might have treated its interest as a dilemma. After all, Hummingbird had already stretched its mandate to include Turkey. To account for that shift in strategy, “HV2,” its $39 million follow-up vintage, had explicitly cited its focus as Turkey. Could it now gerrymander that vehicle into a shape that might accommodate crypto? Van den Brande hoped Hummingbird’s next LP summit would not require a second confession.
But a life without sin is a meal without seasoning. In late 2013, Hummingbird found a startup that shattered its mandate – and invested in it anyway. Kraken was a cryptocurrency exchange. It was based in California, which is not in Europe. But in Jesse Powell, the firm spotted another anomalous, non-linear builder.
Pamir Gelenbe encountered the lank-haired entrepreneur in May of that year, meeting him at the Bitcoin Foundation conference in San Jose. Though they came from very different worlds, the pair connected so quickly that when the conference ended, Powell invited Gelenbe to stay at his home in San Francisco. That way, they could keep the conversation going.
When Gelenbe arrived at Powell’s place, he found a barren apartment, devoid of furniture. To accommodate his guest, Powell offered to set up a tent in his living room. Gelenbe could also have a camping mattress if he wanted. They spent the next week talking and eating sushi.
What did they talk about?
Powell’s past, for one thing. He had grown up in a family with little money, the child of young parents trying to make their way in the world. In his teens, he had developed an obsession with Magic: The Gathering (MTG), the fantastical card game. Not only had he enjoyed it, Powell found he had a gift for the game, frequently beating much older and more experienced players. It would prove to be a fruitful hobby, introducing Powell to similarly curious, nerdy individuals — some of whom would go on to become key figures in the coming crypto wave.
Games also provided inspiration for Powell’s early entrepreneurial ideas. Though he started earning money by taking odd jobs around his neighborhood, it didn’t take long for him to recognize the internet offered much better leverage on his time. To make ends meet as a philosophy undergraduate at California State University, Sacramento, Powell worked at a cell center. While there, he noticed many of his colleagues playing massively multiplayer online (MMO) to alleviate the bone-crushing boredom. In doing so, Powell recognized the need for an online marketplace designed to trade virtual goods — the kinds of spells and weapons and gilded, synthetic tunics that his co-workers chased while trying to resolve a customer service issue. To capitalize on the opportunity, Powell built Lewt, a platform to buy and sell such items. Before long, he would be running a much larger exchange.
Gelenbe and Powell did not live exclusively in the past. Over maki and nigiri, they also shared thoughts on the future. In particular, they discussed the Bitcoin revolution. While Gelenbe was fascinated by the movement, he discovered Powell held an almost religious belief in the technology. That fervor was allied with hard-won pragmatism; Lewt had experienced significant chargeback fraud with users purchasing an item, taking possession of it, and then reversing the charge. Powell saw Bitcoin as a practical solution to this and other issues.
To galvanize the adoption of cryptocurrency, Powell saw the need for an exchange. This was not a new idea. By the time Gelenbe and Powell met, several other players had arrived at a similar conclusion. Mt. Gox, for example, had been founded three years earlier by a fellow Magic: The Gathering obsessive, Jed McCabe. (Hence the “MTG” nomenclature.) Though Mt. Gox had undergone several security breaches since McGabe sold the platform in 2011, it remained popular. The year that Gelenbe and Powell met, it processed as much as 70% of bitcoin transactions.
Powell wasn’t satisfied with this status quo. In his view, Mt. Gox was an unacceptably weak exchange, one rife with potential risks. The Bitcoin world deserved a player that cared about security, one that obsessed over it. The more Powell spoke, the more Gelenbe felt this obsession, this almost unhealthy drive to solve the problem at hand. By the time the Hummingbird venture partner departed Powell’s desolate apartment, he felt convinced he’d found another outlier.
His colleagues would reach the same conclusion. “He’s a very different character,” Ileri remarked. As much as Powell’s personality stood out, his distinctive views of the cryptocurrency market also made a mark. “He was the definition of an early adopter,” Ileri said. “It was just fascinating, the first meeting…he predicted things which still hold true. He said, ‘Hacking will be a major issue, so we will be a security-first company. And regulation will be another issue so we will do our KYC properly and we will not be a cowboy exchange.’” Such conservatism was uncommon in crypto at the time. “It almost sounded corporate,” Ileri remarked.
In the end, Hummingbird would invest approximately 8% of its “Turkey Fund” into the company, a concentrated bet.
Once again, it paid off. Kraken has grown into one of crypto’s largest exchanges. From a $6 million investment, Hummingbird amassed a peak stake of 16.2%. It would sell more than half its shares in 2021 at a weighted valuation north of $5 billion. To this day, Kraken is Hummingbird’s best investment on a gross multiple basis, returning approximately 112x.
Though Hummingbird would also invest in the crypto wallet Argent, its second movement was abbreviated by Pamir Gelenbe’s departure in late 2016. “With crypto taking off, Pamir one day said, ‘Listen, sorry, but anything else but crypto is so deadly boring. I can’t look for one minute anymore at another regional play, another marketplace – super boring.’ We tend to be all a bit extreme in how we look at the world,” Van den Brande recalled. For Gelenbe, the future belonged to the decentralists. He wanted to focus his full time and energy on the space and start a fund of his own, Libertus Capital. Van den Brande provided his support. “Instead of having a fight with people, we became a cornerstone investor.”
Quietly, Libertus has assembled an impressive track record of its own, backing Livepeer, NEAR, 1inch, Ledger, POAP, Aztec, Art Blocks, Sky Mavis, and other crypto startups. Gelenbe brings the same Hummingbird-style thinking to the sector. Henri Stern, CEO of Privy, shared his thoughts on Gelenbe, formed over nearly a decade of friendship. “Pamir has relentless, shameless curiosity,” Stern said. “The best compliment I can give someone is being curious and open to questioning things to the point of almost aloofness. The questions that you don’t ask in polite society – Pamir will ask them.” His fund exemplifies that sensibility, Stern suggested. “Libertus has been unique in that throughout their existence, they’ve been coming in with a beginner and growth mindset.” Gelenbe is a personal investor in Privy alongside Sequoia Capital, Paradigm, Blue Yard, and Generalist Capital.
Other sectors could lay claim to Hummingbird’s third movement. For a stint, the firm backed a clutch of successful marketplaces, including ride-hailing app Beat and food delivery service Deliveroo. It also found several fintech winners, including Singaporean business operations platform Aspire and Indian bookkeeping product Khatabook. Increasingly, the firm flitted between continents, backing startups in Europe, the US, Asia, Latin America, and beyond.
While all significant, none feel like an utterly distinct new chapter. Instead, Hummingbird’s third movement is best understood as a push into biotech. Animato! Con fuoco!
Here, Firat Ileri truly led the charge. Personal health issues had made him particularly passionate about the space, but the traditional composition of biotech startups presented an issue. “The team setup was usually like a scientist and a hired CEO coming together.” That flew in the face of Hummingbird’s founder-focused framework.
It didn’t help that no one on Hummingbird’s team had expertise in the sector. A meeker investor might have steered away as a result; Ileri felt it was a solvable problem. “People said, ‘This is for life science [firms], you guys are tech investors.’ I said, ‘You’re right, I’m not a biotech expert, but I’m sure we can hire some junior people who can help us get there, and we pick the founders.’”
In 2019, Ileri discovered a biotech founder that fit Hummingbird’s thesis. Oguzhan Atay boasted a stellar academic track record with a Ph.D. in systems biology from Stanford. As Atay explained, his doctorate had taken an original approach to his subject area. “It was a very interdisciplinary approach to basic problems in molecular biology – questions like, ‘How does a cell make a decision to divide?’” That involved mathematically analyzing the actual decision point for a given cell.
Though Atay’s research gave him the opportunity to continue climbing up the academy’s rungs, a desire for impact brought him into the world of entrepreneurship. “I had a good academic career. My professors, my PIs had been very supportive of me continuing that journey. I think what I realized was that the opportunity for bringing this quantitative approach to molecular diagnostics was just incredible in terms of the number of people impacted, the problems we could solve.” In 2016, Atay founded BillionToOne to help detect disease “one molecule at a time.” Today, BillionToOne offers cancer and prenatal detection products.
When Ileri met Atay, he was struck by how different he was from other biotech founders. “I wasn’t looking at a traditional biotech company,” the investor recalled. “I was looking at a founder that possessed a lot of the traits that we were looking for.”
The story of BillionToOne’s Series A round is a helpful case study, demonstrating Hummingbird’s process and how it resonates with founders like Atay. Hummingbird began at a disadvantage. For one thing, it was alerted of the round midway through. Given the competition to back BillionToOne, that was a real impediment. It didn’t help that Hummingbird was not exactly an expert on molecular biology. If it were to reach conviction on Atay and his company and make a compelling claim to lead the round, it would need to do so quickly.
The pace at which Ileri’s team advanced their understanding surprised Atay. “It wasn’t even an area they were particularly knowledgeable about; they got knowledgeable about it very, very quickly. They spent probably every waking hour learning about it. So, at the time I started talking to them, they didn’t know much. By the end of a one-week process, they knew a lot, much more than even some of the more sophisticated investors that were looking at that particular field.”
Hummingbird’s learning speed wasn’t the only thing that impressed BillionToOne’s CEO. Atay was struck by how little Ileri seemed to care about what other investors were doing or thinking. “They could have waited to see what the interest looked like, but they just went into the process and learned as much as they could,” he recounted. “They weren’t really looking for other signals.” In that respect, Hummingbird seemed to operate as he might have. “I actually thought their approach was very similar to how a founder would approach a problem in the sense that you either believe in something or you don't believe in something. You don’t look at other people to decide.”
Despite a delayed start, Hummingbird offered Atay a term sheet first. Typically, funds put an expiration on such deals, giving the company a matter of days to accept the proposed terms. To Atay’s surprise, Ileri put no such strictures on the offer. When four other term sheets arrived shortly after that – including several from larger funds offering higher valuations – Ileri was open to negotiation. “Most investors during that period, they wouldn’t really negotiate terms or they wouldn't really negotiate them with an equal footing.” The fact that Ileri was open to changing the stated valuation – even if he didn’t match the highest offers – put Atay at ease. “I think that experience made me more like, ‘You know, even when they have all the cards, they are a very good partner. They are not going to take advantage of us if we are ever in a difficult situation.’” In the end, Atay and Ileri agreed on a valuation, and Hummingbird led the Series A.
In a funny piece of symmetry, Pamir Gelenbe would also invest in BillionToOne, using a very Hummingbird-esque move. Despite Libertus Capital’s focus on crypto, Gelenbe would bend his mandate and make a heavily concentrated bet in biotech. Some founders are simply too good to pass up.
In the years since investing in BillionToOne, Hummingbird has added several new names to its biotech roster, including Enveda, Basecamp Research, Kernel Biologics, Kaleidoscope, Amber, and others. Viswa Colluru, Enveda CEO, echoed Atay’s comments about Hummingbird’s diligence process. “There were no games,” he said, “No blow-hot, blow-cold common to even the biggest Sand Hill names. They don’t change their mind based on how hot the deal is.”
Building that discipline, that independent thinking, is hard enough at an individual level. It is even more challenging to instill it in a team.
It is only slightly easier to get a job at Hummingbird than it is to receive funding. According to Van den Brande, his firm backs 0.1% of the founders it assesses. It hires just 0.11% of the job applicants it receives.
Here are the numbers. Over the past three years, Hummingbird has assembled a team of 10 investors. That came from an applicant pool of 8,700. “We didn’t speak to every single one of them,” Van den Brande said. “But I can safely say, with a healthy level of obsession, we checked out every single profile of every individual working already in the VC industry” – and quite a few outside it.
Most candidates are not a culture fit. Hummingbird looks for a very particular kind of investor, just as it does on the founder side of things. The firm operates “nomadically,” with “hubs” in North America, Europe, and Asia, but the freedom to chase one’s curiosity. If an associate wants to follow in the footsteps of someone like Gelenbe and map out the Thai ecosystem or obsess over the machinations of the NFT market, they can do so.
This independence comes with expectations. As we noted at the start of this piece, Hummingbird does not have a strong brand. It has not built its success on a steady inflow of exceptional founders showing up at its doorstep. Instead, it relies on relentless outbound sourcing. “Our team has a target of speaking with 20 to 30 companies a week [per person],” Ileri said. “If you have ten people, that makes more or less 10,000 companies per year.”
That intensity and independence are not a fit for everyone. One long-time European investor noted that this model can make Hummingbird a challenging place to work; if you are not fond of cold calling, it’s easy to imagine why.
Hummingbird’s selectivity also tests its junior investors. When it’s time to apply for a job at another firm, you will be asked about your track record. What companies did you invest in? Where did you find them? How have they done? Because Hummingbird invests in such a small percentage of the startups it reviews, it’s entirely possible to work for several years without being able to share a single “I’m thrilled to announce” post on LinkedIn. Even if you do manage to get one or two across the line, the low survival rate of startups means that you may have no wins to share when it comes time to sit across the table from a potential employer. This approach has delivered stellar returns but requires extreme patience on an individual level.
It is also challenging to rise through the ranks. One source suggested that Hummingbird had an internal rule that stated a junior investor could only become a partner if they returned a fund with their investments. If true, it’s another test of patience – and a high bar, albeit one that both Gelenbe and Ileri quickly cleared.
Though unorthodox, Hummingbird’s culture and operations have created a team Van den Brande believes has considerable promise. “We have a number of people doing really well now. Ideally, in a few years from now, you’ll see some of them doing what Firat did.”
Finding new rainmakers will be particularly important in the coming years. Hummingbird can no longer count on Gelenbe’s gifts. Van den Brande remains active and driven, though perhaps at a slightly healthier level than he managed in the past. “[The hunger] is not to the point it was ten or fifteen years ago when it was dead or alive, and feeling that I needed to almost in a Japanese warrior type of style ritually kill myself for not completing something. I had that type of intense thinking before. Now it’s like, ‘Ok, I’m not going to ritually kill myself here if I don’t find the next OpenAI.’”
Van den Brande’s nose for talent remains active, but there is always the risk that motivation can flag once the summit has been reached and there are no more worlds to conquer. This is true in any discipline, but it is perhaps a particular risk when exceptional performance brings total financial comfort.
As Van den Brande gently steps back, Ileri is increasingly taking the reins. “For the moment, Firat is really the man in charge,” Hummingbird’s founder said. Ileri will hope that one or more of his support team is ready to step up in the not-too-distant future.
Contrary to venture fashion over the past decade, Hummingbird has yet to invest in an extensive platform team. It has just a single Talent partner. It may not surprise you at this juncture to learn that Van den Brande sees little merit in this phenomenon. An internal document reads: “Overly stereotypical by way of making a juicy argument: we would hold that platform teams are first and foremost VC marketing, designed to win over entrepreneurs and LPs.” Do not expect Hummingbird to rival Andreessen Horowitz in the hiring stakes any time soon.
The most significant practice outside Hummingbird’s investor roster is its fund of funds, Nomads. The firm’s investment in Libertus Capital ignited its interest in the asset class, as did a general dissatisfaction with its current practitioners. “No single pension fund manager ever wanted to back us at Hummingbird,” Van den Brande recalled. “[We thought] they always asked the wrong questions.”
Van den Brande felt he and his team could do better by applying the lessons learned in backing outlier founders. “We have done well with strange birds. Some of the best strange birds are often solo. We saw the solo GP coming before it was called a solo GP, with Pamir our first one. We thought, ‘Maybe we’ll back them. Maybe they’ll become ten times bigger than Hummingbird.’”
The Nomads initiative is led by Wouter Gort with a four-person support team. Yavuzhan Yilancioglu and Jordan Nel are critical to this group, leading investment activities and research, respectively.
In Wouter Gort, Hummingbird seems to have found a particularly well-suited leader. Before leading Nomads, Gort had a successful venture career of his own. Between 2011 and 2014, the Dutch investor served as a Managing Director at Atomico, one of Europe’s best-known funds. A few years later, he teamed up with former colleague Pogos Saiadan, an ex-Silverlake associate, at Greyhound Capital. While at the growth equity firm, he and Saiadan backed fintech winners Revolut, Brex, Ualá, N26, and Marqeta. In the process, Gort built friendships with other Europe-focused investors, including Barend Van den Brande and Firat Ileri.
In 2021, Gort stepped back from Greyhound and began investing his own money. He was increasingly drawn to investing in funds rather than directly into startups. Hummingbird began to solidify its interest in the fund-of-funds opportunity around this time, and given Gort’s close relationship with its Managing Partners, the two parties decided to join forces.
Nomads first fund pursued a more orthodox strategy. It started with two core beliefs: “We thought tech value creation will only increase and this acceleration will take place predominantly in the private markets,” Gort said. Nomads used a “barbell” approach to capture that opportunity, backing big-name funds like Tiger, Addition, and Northzone alongside smaller, unproven managers.
Despite the aura that investing in prestige funds created, Gort decided to shift Nomads’ strategy away from that category. “We dropped it quite early. It was not really a differentiated product. You can also go to Moonfire or JP Morgan or Horsley Bridge.” Starting in 2021, Nomads began to focus exclusively on insurgent funds, which it believes can be Hummingbirds. As Van den Brande said, that strategy had “higher upside potential and more picking edge for us.”
Specifically, Nomads hunts for opinionated, non-consensus investors aiming for extremely asymmetric outcomes. “It is trying to find funds that can do 10x,” Gort said. “Which then excludes a few models. It will exclude models that have more than $250 million under management. It’s just hard to return that. There are some exceptions, but in general, it’s hard to do. It will exclude people that have a very diversified portfolio. It will also exclude complex decision-making models or playing in a pool where there’s not a lot of alpha, where there’s not a lot of arbitrage involved.”
As you might expect, Nomads takes an extremely Hummingbird-esque approach to identifying asymmetric fund managers. It sources widely and is unafraid to make unorthodox bets. For example, Nomads portfolio currently includes two funds based in Africa: CRE and Raba. That is not the kind of investment decision you are likely to see from Horsley Bridge.
Nomads also takes a deeply personal, detailed approach to assessing managers. I say this from first-hand experience. In the spring of 2022, I was introduced to Wouter Gort’s team as part of my fundraise for Generalist Capital. Across three conversations, I was intermittently annoyed, intrigued, and engrossed. Gort and his colleagues asked questions I received from no other LP. It was reminiscent of conversing with a relentless, precocious child, each question begetting another. What type of founders did I look for? What did that mean? What did that mean? After three or more of these burrowing questions, you begin to realize what you really think and how deeply that thinking goes.
Nomads declined to invest in Generalist Capital. Yet I left grateful for the experience, improved by the rigor of their questions.
Managers that Nomads has backed corroborated that experience. “It was probably the most rigorous process I went through in all of fundraising,” Michael Dempsey of Compound said. “Very different.”
Pardon Makumbe, founder of CRE, had a similar experience. “We had a first call, and it was just striking how thoughtful these guys are. Like, wow.” What exactly was so differentiated about them? “They really understand venture in a differentiated way. So in the due diligence process, the thrust of their questions really went into places that most LPs don’t necessarily exist in a way.” In particular, Makumbe noted just how little it felt like the Nomads team was following a checklist.
“It’s much more like an interview format,” Gort said. In particular, Nomads looks to understand how a given fund manager makes decisions. Gort listed a few questions to that effect: “How do you get to the best decisions as quickly as possible? Are you able to move on those decisions?”
As well as studying the meta-game, Nomads seeks to understand its managers as people. Just like Van den Brande wants to understand what makes a certain founder tick, Gort looks for the same. Raba’s George Rzepecki recalled his early interactions with Nomads: “It was less about, ‘Let’s go into the weeds and tell me why you invested in this company.’ It was more around, ‘Hey man, why are we sitting here? Why are you doing this? And why are you building the firm the way you’re building it?’”
Those kinds of questions serve to unveil a person, to lay bare their motivations. Rzepecki found himself talking about his upbringing and the financial hardship his immigrant family had endured to allow him to play junior tennis competitively. “It was a burden for my family. When I was a kid, you know, when we would travel to tournaments, the other kids’ parents just had much nicer cars than my parents did. We rolled up in a Honda Accord hatchback, and they had very luxury automobiles. I remember that very vividly and how badly I wanted to do well and to work to help my family. That detail, I shared with very few investors.” For Hummingbird and Nomads, these details can be the making of an investment decision.
While Nomads needs to believe in a manager’s differentiation, they don’t require them to share a worldview down to the pixel. They are looking for firms that can emulate Hummingbird’s returns, not ape its strategy. Michael Dempsey noted that his firm, Compound, takes an almost axially different approach to Van den Brande’s. That was clear to Dempsey during his fundraising discussions with Nomads. “I said, ‘Hey listen, how we view venture is almost entirely the opposite.” For example, while Hummingbird places 80% emphasis on talent, Compound focuses on particular markets, building “very prescriptive” theses charting how they believe a sector will play out. It didn’t matter, Nomads still invested.
It’s worth noting that, like Hummingbird, Nomads is fundamentally flexible. While it has seen promise in African venture capital today, it might shift its focus to another geography in the future. “Like with any startup, we have distilled an approach to not be struck by theory but explore a super fast-changing world,” Van den Brande said. “We have an investing framework where we might do zero in Asia, but if we are onto something, we deploy 80% in Asia, in theory.” There’s every reason to expect Nomads to have a symphony of its own.
There is such craft in Hummingbird’s approach that codifying it explicitly feels like a minor sacrilege, as if the best way to study a Monet painting were to break it into individual brushstrokes. Still, there is an explicit strategy that Hummingbird has worked to translate, even if some aspects of it lay just beyond articulation. Stripped to the fundamentals of venture, what does Hummingbird’s model look like?
To understand the fund’s playbook, let’s examine how it approaches a venture fund’s core functions: raising capital, sourcing companies, selecting investments, winning access, providing support, and selling one’s stake at the right time.
At the start of Hummingbird, Van den Brande pitched pension funds on investing. He quickly learned that his approach did not appeal to large institutions. “I thought they spoke a different language,” Van den Brande said. To these capital allocators, Hummingbird presumably appeared to be a small shop focused on some of the ostensibly less interesting corners of the European market.
The result of those rejections materially impacted Hummingbird’s LP base and how the firm raises money today. Rather than target large institutions, Van den Brande’s team has focused on winning over high-net-worth individuals. As Hummingbird has succeeded, that increasingly includes the founders of its best-performing investments.
Hummingbird has found this LP base advantageous. For one thing, it has given the fund the freedom to maintain a flexible mandate. Institutions tend to view a fund investment in the context of a broader portfolio – one might be designed to generate access to fintech, another to Latam, a third to growth investing. While Hummingbird has always focused on early-stage investing, it has consistently evolved its mandate, shifting from Europe to Turkey to crypto to biotech. A pension fund would likely have been less accepting of that fluidity.
Maintaining a stable of individual LPs has also created resilience for Hummingbird. When Silicon Valley Bank collapsed earlier this year, many institutions pressed pause on new fundings. “We did our most recent fundraise three days after SVB collapsed,” Van den Brande recalled, “[Individuals] were the only non-flaky people. Where the rest of the world stopped funding VC, we went out and a week later were oversubscribed.” While Hummingbird’s performance inspired a significant part of that demand, Van den Brande attributes some of it to the investors’ profile.
“We don’t limit ourselves to verticals, niches, or geographies,” one of Hummingbird’s fundraising decks reads. “If your innovation field gets over invested and innovation tapers off, you now invest in more expensive niche plays, no?”
Hummingbird fundamentally does not believe in the merits of specializing. Though it may develop a keen interest in one sector or geography, it has no desire to turn itself into a verticalized fund. As the quote above suggests, that’s because it believes that, over time, it will limit upside. “We find it amazing how LPs find it plausible that Vertical or industry-specific VCs have a strong edge over Generalist VCs,” another document reads.
Hummingbird is also unconvinced that specialization positions you better to capture the best opportunities in your chosen niche. “People forget how Climate VCs studied the ins and outs of their industry, only to miss out on Tesla,” the same document reads. Hummingbird sees the same process happening in AI today, with specialist funds frequently overrun by better-resourced generalists.
Beyond maintaining a broad aperture, Hummingbird conducts relentless outbound sourcing, as discussed. While they are not alone in doing so, their approach appears to be particularly high volume.
At its core, Hummingbird is a picker. It focuses most of its time and energy on the process of selection. This may sound obvious. Doesn’t every venture capitalist care about making good investment decisions?
Presumably, yes, but not all maintain quite such a high standard. Higher velocity and more diversified funds tend to invest in a larger number of the opportunities they see. Y Combinator, wrapped in an accelerator’s packaging, is a successful example of this approach. Whereas Hummingbird reports investing in 0.1% of the companies it analyzes, YC’s acceptance rate is 1.5 - 2%.
Hummingbird makes fewer decisions and, as a result, takes great care to minimize its error rate. The upshot of this is a concentrated portfolio with less than twenty positions per fund. As we’ve discussed, when Hummingbird believes it is onto a winner, it is unafraid to double and triple down – even when other investors shy away. “We had more than a few moments where we’re the only one left standing in the room, and we’re the only one writing the last check,” Van den Brande said.
According to the GP, this boldness has made a significant difference. “I would argue half of our returns are just the double-down,” he said. “Half of it is the pick, and half of it is the double-down.” Van den Brande’s conversations with some of the managers Nomads has backed have convinced him the same is likely true for many good managers.
Concentration influences selection, but it’s not really the art in and of itself. Throughout this piece, we’ve woven in stories of what Hummingbird is looking for. There is no exact checklist – this remains as much art as science – but there are traits and backgrounds the fund finds predictive. We have used many of them: a chip on the shoulder, a frightening sense of urgency, a non-linear journey, a demeanor that tips into the unreasonable.
While important, these traits are the symptoms that arise from two more fundamental signals Hummingbird looks for in founders. They are not the kind of signals that fit neatly on a boilerplate website or Twitter bio. But they reflect the reality of entrepreneurship and what it takes to be an agent of creative destruction.
First, Hummingbird believes that an experience with trauma is predictive. “All of the best people, in our opinion, have gone through a level of trauma. Where at some point life shows up and it’s not just all Tom and Jerry and cartoons. And it shows its teeth,” Van den Brande said.
Van den Brande recognizes that this is an uncomfortable position to hold. But it seems quite clearly to be an opinion with considerable merit. For some time, research has suggested a connection between childhood adversity and entrepreneurship. Indeed, earlier this year, The Generalist explored this topic in “Who Becomes an Entrepreneur?” discussing how those raised in the regions worst hit by China’s “Great Famine” were most likely to become entrepreneurs.
A look at some of the most effective entrepreneurs of the past few decades offers anecdotal support: Bill Gates endured consistent bullying, Elon Musk lived beneath the rule of a cruel and violent father, and Steve Jobs grew up with the knowledge his birth parents had given him up for adoption.
Other investors have discovered this connection; Van den Brande is certain. He relayed a story he had heard about Sequoia legend Doug Leone. “He would literally go straight to the heart, almost in the first sentence. He would be like, ‘What happened to you when you were fifteen?’ And people were like, ‘Excuse me?’ And he would say, ‘Listen man I came from Sicily…on the playground, I was the most bullied kid in school. Now you know my fuel. Now it’s your turn.’”
The second trait Hummingbird finds predictive is neurodiversity. The fund means that in a clinical sense. In particular, it has observed a connection between exceptional entrepreneurs and some degree of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). That may come with associated traits like bipolar disorder and dyslexia. “Just in the Hummingbird team, we have three people with dyslexia out of ten,” Van den Brande said. He hadn’t known that during the hiring process, only discovering as much after the fact. To the Hummingbird GP, it feels potentially indicative of a certain type of thinking or cognitive orientation.
Again, there is compelling evidence for Hummingbird’s observation. Research studies have demonstrated a connection between mental health issues and starting a business, another topic explored in The Generalist’s piece on entrepreneurship. The study we discussed found links with bipolar disorder, ADHD, and OCD.
Looking at great entrepreneurs, we once again see this thesis embodied. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk have either claimed to have Asperger’s syndrome or have been long suspected of having it. Peter Thiel has previously highlighted this link, calling Asperger’s “a plus for innovation and creating great companies.”
Unless you are Doug Leone and have the brio to cut straight to the chase, uncovering these aspects of an entrepreneur is not easy. How does Hummingbird do it?
To start with, it takes its time. While it avoids a checklist-style diligence process like the plague, it tries to overload a first meeting with behavioral questions. Later in the process, however, its investors begin to ask questions with a more personal resonance, designed to reveal something of your quiddity.
What was your childhood like? How did you do in school? Were you a good student? What’s the first big decision you made that your friends and family thought was foolish? Why did you go to college? Why did you work at a big company? How did you survive there for two whole years?
Van den Brande has his own schtick for getting to these kinds of questions. “The way I did it was like, ‘Hey, listen, I’m a bit of a combination of Dr. House and Forrest Gump. I can’t help it, but I need to know a couple of weird questions.’ In a way, you’re creating a vulnerable space.”
It can be an intriguing experience to go through. Viswa Colluru of Enveda described his meetings with Hummingbird as “incredibly unique.” “[The] classic example is a partner meeting where the entire hour was filled with behavioral questions, some of which were provocative on purpose. They weren’t looking for a ‘right answer’ but instead how I thought about the problem and pushed back on a position,” he said.
Finally, it’s worth noting that to make an investment decision, Hummingbird requires a consensus amongst its partners. Both Ileri and Van den Brande must agree on the opportunity’s merits. Van den Brande believes the back and forth between them – an “atypical ping pong,” as he calls it – is critical to Hummingbird’s success. “Without Firat, my decisioning would surely result not in 10% less performance but multiples of fund returns less.”
Much of Hummingbird’s strategy seems designed to avoid hypercompetitive rounds. It tries to identify promising areas before they have become overrun by other funds and maintains a broad aperture so that it can find interesting companies that might have escaped rivals.
Inevitably, though, it must go head-to-head against other players, as it did when backing BillionToOne. Hummingbird doesn’t seem to have a sneaky secret weapon in such instances. It cannot point to a mammoth portfolio support team waiting to get to work. It does not have proprietary software that will help you find your next fifty engineers. Sure, it has connections, but it is not a consummate schmoozer, a door-opener, or a finagler of difficult introductions.
So, how does Hummingbird win? In essence, it does so by counter-positioning against all such perquisites and the rest of venture’s indulgences. In both word and deed, Van den Brande’s firm communicates it is not like the rest of the field. It will not wait to see what other firms do; it does not believe in their fuzzy offerings, and it cannot imagine that you, a serious founder, will be fooled by such transparent marketing. While it may not appeal in all cases, its sincerity and conviction clearly work sufficiently well.
As mentioned above, Hummingbird does not believe in the merits of platform teams. Fundamentally, it thinks that most VCs damage the businesses they invest in and that to outperform the field, you should lean back. That echoes the position of another famed investor. Vinod Khosla once estimated that 70-80% of peers contributed “negative value” to their startups.
To avoid incurring damage from overreaching investors, Van den Brande believes that a good founder must learn to filter out 95% of the advice received from external sources, his included. Such a position indicates why Hummingbird tends to leave its founders to their own devices.
There are exceptions, of course. Firat Ileri worked extremely closely with Gram Games, for example. The firm also had a particularly close relationship with Peak Games. In more recent times, it allocated a team member to help with Enveda, eventually giving their blessing for her to join the portfolio company full-time.
In general, however, Hummingbird prefers to take a lighter touch. Rather than hovering over its founders like a nervous helicopter parent, it tries to stay out of the day-to-day and only enter the fray when necessary. As Hummingbird’s history shows, it seems particularly valuable in moments of crisis, stepping in to lead a bridge round when no one else will or separating squabbling co-founders. Such support may not be easy to market, but it can be invaluable.
Van den Brande owes Frank Gibeau a thank you card. During his tenure as Zynga CEO, Gibeau has acquired two Hummingbird portfolio companies, Peak Games and Gram Games. While those sales supercharged Hummingbird’s returns (especially on a distributed to paid-in capital basis), the fund has also been clever about manufacturing exits outside of these liquidity events.
In particular, Hummingbird successfully sold more than 50% of its Kraken stake during the bull market of 2021. It was a clever move and a good example of market timing.
There is a reason why Hummingbird’s latest €200 million fundraise was oversubscribed within a week. Since its inaugural vintage in 2010, Van den Brande and his team have produced phenomenal returns, as demonstrated by documentation The Generalist was able to review.
Producing three vintages with net total value to paid-in (TVPI) greater than 10x is remarkable. Critically, Hummingbird’s gains are not all on paper; it has distributed to paid-in (DPI) rates above 7.5x on its first three funds. This performance puts Hummingbird in extremely elite company. As we’ve discussed, Hummingbird’s success has been driven by a small number of bets like Peak Games, Gram Games, and Kraken.
Hummingbird’s newer funds also appear to be trending nicely, though it will take time to get a true sense of their performance. In addition to the six vintages above, Van den Brande and Ileri have raised one other — its most recent €200 million raise. That capital is split between an early-stage practice and Opportunity Fund.
Beyond Hummingbird’s impressive performance, there are other interesting takeaways. For one thing, the firm has raised a relatively small amount of capital relative to its success. Across seven vintages, it has pulled in roughly €540 million – a fraction that a less rigorous firm might have raised. Especially after the purchases of Gram and Peak Games went through in 2018 and 2020 (not to mention Kraken’s rise) maintaining discipline on fund sizing is impressive. Presumably, Hummingbird could have raised considerably more during this period but recognized the limits of its strategy.
Hummingbird’s team is optimistic about its investments that have yet to come to full fruition. Ileri highlighted the firm’s biotech and healthcare cohorts as particularly promising. “It’s still quite early to be honest, but I feel really bullish,” he said. Hummingbird has built a substantial stake in BillionToOne; its continued growth could deliver the next bonanza for the fund. Others worth watching include Pristyn Care, Basecamp Research, Kernel Biologics, and Enveda Biosciences. Over the past year, Enveda has been independently highlighted as a promising company in several different Generalist pieces. In our interview with Dimension’s Zavain Dar, for example, he cited CEO Viswa Colluru as a particularly special entrepreneur.
Most symphonies have four movements. Where will Hummingbird’s next one take it?
It may delve ever deeper into the biotech world, extending this movement before considering the next. Although Hummingbird is the quintessential anti-FOMO investor, it may discover an overlooked angle amidst the AI revolution to focus on, finding fresh melodies among thinking computers.
The fund’s investment in Terraform could be an example of this interest. Hummingbird’s team thinks a great deal of the Dutch company and its founder Salar al Khafaji. Terraform is leveraging artificial intelligence and robotics to revolutionize the construction industry. Perhaps Hummingbird’s next act will focus on this kind of embodied intelligence.
Hummingbird’s greatest talent is that it sees the world as it is, not as we think it should be. It meets reality and invests in it, as it is.
It is a pragmatic act, but also a philosophical one. By successfully investing in the world it sees, Hummingbird affirms reality’s integrity. Van den Brande and Ileri can generate a return by capitalizing the unreasonable because innovation is unreasonable. Because progress is messy. We scrabble with fingernails full of mud. We pound our bodies bloody against a barrier to see what lies beyond. We lurch forward strangely and without logic. We rely on those we do not like, and still, we should feel grateful for them.
This is the world as it is.
The Generalist’s work is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal, business, investment, or tax advice. You should always do your own research and consult advisors on these subjects. Our work may feature entities in which Generalist Capital, LLC or the author has invested.