Tayla Sheldrake & MotionLab.Ventures Investment Fund

Tayla Sheldrake, Managing Director of MotionLab.Ventures, is a seasoned expert in the HardTech startup space and has an extensive background in identifying, building and scaling innovative technology ventures. Find out which advice for HardTech founders she shared with us and what she predicts for the Berlin startup ecosystem.
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1. Hi Tayla. Thank you for agreeing to do the interview. Could you tell us about your background and connection to the startup world?

I’m originally from Johannesburg, South Africa, but I have lived abroad for the past nine years. I initially left South Africa to pursue my tertiary education in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and later in Entrepreneurship and Innovation. Still, I ended up working within Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the US, Sweden, and East Africa before I landed in Berlin three years ago. 

I suppose my connection to the startup world has always been present. In fact, most of my family back home founded their own businesses. This has instilled a deep interest in establishing and nurturing new ideas and concepts. Thus after my bachelor’s, it was a given for me to continue my MSc in Entrepreneurship before landing in one of the startup capitals of the world.

2. You’re the Managing Director of MotionLab.Ventures – MotionLab.Berlin’s newest branch and investment fund. Tell us about your mission at MotionLab.Berlin over the past years.

MotionLab.Berlin’s vision is to empower HardTech pioneers to have a positive impact on society and the world. We achieve this by enabling individuals who wish to create and build physical products with access to high-end machineries like 3D printers, CNC mills, and more, as well as an esteemed network of engineers, startup experts, investors, and corporates with plenty of knowledge and capital. What is very important to us is that the solutions developed in our space truly drive innovation and create sustainable change. That’s why we are so proud to see startups such as the direct air capturing solution NeoCarbon or the last mile delivery solution ONOMOTION come out of MotionLab.Berlin. 

And maybe I’m especially proud of this as it aligns with who I am and what I want to achieve. I may not be an engineer, but I’ve always been drawn to hardware products and building physical products, as I strongly believe the next software will not change the world – after all, every software needs hardware to function.

My journey at MotionLab.Berlin is somewhat unusual. Upon arrival, I noticed MotionLab.Berlin wasn’t actively supporting the in-house startups with knowledge. Given my background, I sort of slotted into the startup coach role and started developing our startup and accelerator programs. After establishing and growing our four programs and onboarding new team members, I ended up with the flamboyant title of Head of Startup Success. Essentially leading a team that is directly responsible for making our over 80 HardTech startups successful. 

This has undoubtedly been a huge learning curve for me, and as things progressed, the opportunity presented itself for MotionLab.Berlin to take the next step and found its own little venture fund. This meant that my past year has been filled with an intense deep dive into the VC world before I took on my new role as Managing Director of MotionLab.Ventures – MotionLab.Berlin’s newest branch and investment fund.

3. What’s going well in the startup ecosystem in Berlin at the moment? What’s the ecosystem lacking?

Certainly, one of the strengths of the startup ecosystem in Berlin is its vibrant and diverse community of entrepreneurs, investors, and professionals. Berlin also benefits from a supportive infrastructure for startups. There are numerous coworking spaces, incubators, and accelerators, both privately funded and government-funded, like those supported by BSS or Exist. These provide fantastic resources, mentorship, and networking opportunities to early-stage companies. This, combined with a well-established presence of venture capital firms and angel networks, further contributes to the funding ecosystem, allowing startups to access the necessary capital to grow and scale their businesses.

Additionally, Berlin has a thriving tech ecosystem, focusing on sectors such as e-commerce, FinTech, mobility, and HealthTech. And I have seen strong growth in IoT and Industrial Tech solutions over the past two years. This I find quite promising as such solutions often require hardware and software elements. 

However, there are still areas where the startup ecosystem in Berlin can improve. One challenge is access to later-stage funding. While early-stage startups may find it relatively easier to secure seed funding, scaling companies often face difficulties in attracting larger investments. Another area that could benefit from improvement is talent retention. While Berlin attracts top talent, there’s a need to create an environment that encourages professionals to stay and contribute to the local ecosystem long-term. This can involve initiatives such as providing more job opportunities, fostering connections between startups and universities, and offering support for international talent in terms of visas and integration.

4. You’re an early-stage HardTech startup investor and mentor. Considering your experience in the HardTech startup sphere, which are the top three tips you think founders should always keep in mind?

Good question. The top three things I would always recommend HardTech founders to keep in mind are: 

  • Focus on a compelling problem and solution by measuring traction: HardTech startups often tackle complex problems that require innovative solutions. It’s crucial for founders to deeply understand the problem they’re addressing and ensure their solution is truly compelling. Conduct thorough market research, identify pain points, and validate the demand for your product. By clearly articulating the problem and demonstrating how your solution effectively solves it, in other words, your traction, you can attract investors and customers alike
  • Emphasize a strong technology roadmap: Hardware startups heavily rely on technology and innovation. Having a clear and well-defined technology roadmap that outlines your product development milestones is important. Investors want a solid understanding of the technical challenges you’ll face and how you plan to overcome them. Highlight any proprietary technologies, patents, or intellectual property that give your startup a competitive advantage. Regularly communicate your progress and demonstrate that you have a realistic plan for achieving key technological milestones
  • Build a diverse and experienced team: Hardware startups require multidisciplinary expertise, so building a team with a diverse skill set is crucial. Seek individuals with technical expertise, product development experience, and domain knowledge relevant to your industry. A strong team demonstrates to investors that you have the capability to execute your vision. Additionally, emphasize the ability to iterate and adapt quickly, as hardware development often involves challenges that require agility and problem-solving skills.

5. What do you predict for the ecosystem in Berlin in the near future?

I think Berlin has shown strong resistance over the past few years, particularly during the COVID crisis. This only speaks merit to the fact that the Berlin startup scene will likely continue to grow and mature. I believe it will remain an attractive hub for entrepreneurship and innovation, coupled with supportive policies (shout out to the Berliner Startup Agenda) and infrastructure, and this will contribute to the ongoing expansion of the ecosystem. 

And maybe this is a far reach, but with all the recent layoffs and the fantastic unemployment system that Germany offers, more individuals will use their newly gained “free time” to actually pursue new ideas and found some exciting startups. So, yes, I will go as far as saying that we can expect to see an increase in the number of startups, investment activity, and job opportunities within the ecosystem. 

Aside from that, I suspect that new technologies will emerge as global trends such as AI and IIoT evolve. Hopefully, this diversification will create opportunities for cross-sector collaboration and contribute to the overall dynamism of the ecosystem.

Thank you for sharing your story and insights, Tayla. We wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.

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