IN SEARCH FOR A ROCKET– Forbes Interview with Neoklis Lazanas
Neoklis Lazanas is less interested in projects with slim chances of distinction. Rather, the German with his Swiss venture capital fund Arclif Group is looking for entrepreneurs with unusual CVs and ideas with exponential growth prospects. There are currently two projects in his portfolio which he is particularly hopeful for – the Swiss wearable manufacturer Wearable 4 You and the e-car manufacturer MEV.
Neoklis Lazanas is a person who is not easy to understand. Or to say it better: what he does is not easy to understand. Due to the fact that the German-Greek who’s living in Switzerland has his hands on numerous projects with the Arclif Group, he has made 55 investments so far as an investor. His portfolio ranges from companies that focus on wearable technology to e-car manufacturers and CBD producers.
Just like a classic venture capital fund, Lazanas and his business partner Elena Skorochod spread their “bets” across industries and regions. The company employs 140 people worldwide and has its headquarters in Zug, Switzerland, but also has offices in Zurich, Athens, New Jersey, London, Dubai and Calcutta. But contrary to traditional venture capital funds, the Arclif Group does not invest with “other people’s money”.
The capital comes solely from two people: the founders Neoklis Lazanas and Elena Skorochod. “When you use your own money, you usually invest a little differently,” says Lazanas when we meet him in a video interview. But that’s not to say that the Arclif Group would be conservative as the duo showed willingness to take risks even in early bets. These included shares in Spotify and Facebook, which Lazanas bought from employees before the IPO – to earn the money he needed to launch the Arclif Group at the IPO.
But using his own money means that Lazanas has to think carefully about where he invests his capital, since his own pockets are naturally not as deep as the cash registers of banks and insurance companies. “Of course we are looking for the rocket, that is certain”. The investment focus is on technology-oriented companies with extraordinary founders. But the quick exit is not what he’s looking for: “We do not invest in order to make quick money, but orientate ourselves in the long term.” But it is not only the nature of the industries that’s in question; the investment amounts also have a wide range: “We start our investments at CHF 10,000, but can also invest up to of CHF 15 million”. Lazanas believes that two investments from the company’s approximately 55 investments will have “rocket status” in the future: the wearable 4you and the e-car manufacturer MEV. But with his diversified strategy, how will Lazanas actually manage to revolutionize billion-dollar markets such as the health, advertising or automotive industries?
Lazanas grew up in Bavaria as the son of Greek immigrants. After their arrival in Germany, his parents became self-employed as restaurant owners and worked hard to finance their lives and look after their children. Lazanas experienced first hand how hard entrepreneurship can be. And then he also got into his parents’ business: “I earned my first money as a waiter after graduating from high school.”
On top of earning his first salary, Lazanas also delved into another world. “I saw men in suits and ties driving sports cars. I wanted that”. Lazanas studied business administration in Fulda before moving to Cologne. He got a foothold in the automotive industry. His path led him to Ford, Lear Corporation, Freudenberg AG and General Motors Europe, where he gained expertise in global product sales. In 2006 he moved to the Indian AMTEK Group as a board member. The company has annual sales of around US $ 5 billion worldwide, and Lazanas, as the European representative, was in charge of the local business. At last he had achieved what he had dreamed of as a waiter: suits, fast cars, money in the account. However, the entrepreneurial Lazanas noticed that the job was not fulfilling. In September 2008 – two weeks before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and at the height of the financial crisis in 2008 – he went into business for himself.
As a consultant, he worked primarily for Indian companies that want to develop in Europe. He was successful – but the work was still not profitable: “I earned € 60,000 in the first year, but my travel and other costs approximated € 180,000.” Too low prices and too high costs led to a massive loss. “That’s a mistake that many founders make,” said Lazanas today. He changed his pricing, made money – but ended up in the private equity industry a little later. Through a VC friend, he noticed how lucrative it can be to buy company shares immediately before they go public. In 2009, for example, he bought shares from numerous Facebook employees – and did a good job at the IPO. He did the same with Spotify. “It was not a sum of millions, but it was a decent deal where I could multiply the capital invested.” The foundation for the Arclif Group was laid.
People’s way of thinking in the 90s and 2000s made Hummer one of the most coveted automotive brands of the world. But the high petrol consumption and the associated enormous environmental damage were soon considered outdated and Hummer produced the last units of the giant car in 2010. Today consumers want to drive environmentally friendly, smart little cars.
However, Lazanas assumes that the original fascination with the Hummer has by no means disappeared – and in 2009 secured the license so that the Arclif Group’s subsidiary MEV can manufacture fully electrified, smaller Hummer vehicles (on a scale of 1: 3). The entrepreneur emphasizes the simplicity of his approach. “This is not rocket science. We want to produce a compact car that can reach up to 80 km/h and a maximum speed of 130 kilometers. A car – now comes the highlight – that can be charged at any conventional slot. ”While the energy supply is not an obstacle to the breakthrough of e-mobility, the expansion of the charging infrastructure is one of the greatest challenges in order to achieve electrified car traffic”. The major Swiss bank UBS calculated that around 2025, almost US $ 400 billion will be needed globally to provide e-mobility with the right charging infrastructure.
If electric cars can now be charged using conventional slots, this could result in a decisive competitive advantage in the market. That is another reason why Lazanas wants to bring production, which is currently still based in China, to Europe and to his home country. “We are in advanced talks with the Greek government“, Lazanas confirms. However, the critical issue in that respect is that Greece is not necessarily known as a stronghold for automobile production. “Greece is not an automobile country. But Greece has announced plans to make individual islands completely green and sustainable. Such initiatives, driven by the government would, of course, help our project enormously”. And Lazanas is also pursuing a broader goal: “We want to contribute to bringing industrial production back to Europe”.
MEV plans to invest just under € 100 million over the next ten years to set up production. MEV currently sells 350 vehicles a year, but the number is expected to increase massively. Together with the new modular e-LCV, the production capacity for the e-lobster should increase to a volume of 12,000 units by 2025. Lazanas does not foresee in the case of MEV the lower profit margins that electric vehicles generally generate compared with combustion engines models: “The lower costs mean that we have a higher profit margin than traditional car manufacturers.”
The second rocket that Lazanas will soon set out is W4Y. The company has developed a chip the size of a grain of sand that (integrated in an artificial fingernail, for example) is able to transport data without a battery. The technology is to be used in several areas, specifically those of security, advertising, lifestyle and healthcare. “In today’s world where we desperately need the data as well as its secure transfer, such a technology is obviously very promising”.
Others obviously see it also this way: In addition to collaborations with some Swiss hospitals, W4Y is currently also taking part in a nationwide experiment in a European state, all residents of which should be continuously tested for Covid 19 over a period of one year. “We have a technology that works without a battery and offers the possibility of collecting and transmitting such data”. Lazanas did not want to confirm whether this state was Liechtenstein.
In challenging times Lazanas always finds himself in operational roles. Most recently, this was the case with a CBD provider whose online shop was severely affected by the crisis. But the Swiss citizen actually likes more his role as an investor: “If there is a need, we of course help the companies hands-on with our knowledge in the operational part of the business. However, our main task remains to serve the management of our holdings as a sparring partner on strategic issues”. Because finding the few rockets that are currently preparing for launch, more than fills Lazanas.