According to Carlos Fernández, CFO at Polymath Ventures, the firm’s inception happened way before the venture building concept, as it is known today, became popular. “Created in late 2012 by Wenyi Cai, Polymath was described as a ‘company builder.’ Our model has been evolving [since then], but our main focus continues to be on the Latin American middle class [comprising a target audience of more than 310 million people]. When we started, our business was much more offline than online. Today, it is almost purely digital. We are building it faster because the companies are scaling faster, too,” said Fernández in an exclusive interview with LABS. Having co-built six companies in the region, Polymath intends to break new ground in the Brazilian market in two to three years and make its first investments only as a VC.
Conceived in Bogotá, Colombia, Polymath opened an office in Mexico City in 2017. “We always try to create companies capable of navigating across the region. So after Bogotá, the natural jump was Mexico, but we don’t see ourselves operating physically in more than three countries in the region.”
That being said, Fernández told LABS that Brazil will be Polymath’s next market in the next two-three years. “The Brazilian ecosystem has been more on the B2B side than on the B2C side. Polymath is totally B2C, so we can bring our expertise in building B2C businesses in terms of understanding how this kind of business works and the technology [behind it].”
Having taken longer in the past to launch new businesses, Polymath imagines that it is now capable of co-creating one to two new startups a year. In 2021, indeed, it co-founded two (Ropstar and Tani Salud).
Behind Polymath’s venture building methodology
What Polymath does first is to define its concepts of areas and industries that may concentrate solutions to major problems of the middle class. For example, the ‘working woman,’ financial inclusion, and mobility are some of the latest concepts that Polymath worked on recently, giving birth to new businesses.
In the second step of Polymath’s method, a team of around six people takes a deep dive into the concepts for about three-four months, looking for opportunities areas. “From those opportunity areas, we try to set up business ideas that might cover our identified needs. From this stage, we move to pilots, defining which one looks more promising. Then, before launching it, we look for the founders, the talented people that we think fit the project, so we can launch it together,” explained Fernández.
That means that in the early days of a startup built by the studio, 80% of the staff will be Polymath employees who are already trained to do this launching process. As the business consolidates its market fit and grows, the Polymath team decreases, increasingly acting as support for areas such as back office, talent acquisition and development, and marketing, to mention a few. Establishing good governance is also crucial so that the business can walk with its own legs. So, the natural role evolution of Polymath begins as ‘co-founder,’ moving later on to ‘supporter’ and ‘advisor,’ and, finally, to ‘relevant stakeholder.’
Polymath’s portfolio is made up today of:
- Aflore, a direct sales network for financial services, especially lending services, for those neglected by the formal banking sector in Colombia founded in 2014. It raised a pre-Series B round of $6.6 million in February last year with the participation of Amador Holdings, Unreasonable Capital, and other existing shareholders, including Polymath. In the middle of 2020, Aflore had raised a $10 million debt venture funding from Accial Capital;
- Autolab, also founded in 2014 in Bogotá, is one of Latin America’s leading auto repair and parts platforms. It does that by partnering with independent shop owners to grow their businesses through technology. It landed in Mexico in 2021, and it intends to operate in Peru and Brazil soon;
- Elenas, launched during TechCrunch Startup Battlefield in 2018, it’s a social commerce marketplace that empowers women to achieve financial independence. Having raised $8 million since its foundation, it has more than 550,000 sellers using its tools, ranging from stock building and direct negotiation of over 80,000 products at wholesale prices with 1,000+ brands to access to logistics and payment services. It operates in Colombia and Mexico;
- Ropstar, launched in 2021, it’s a second-hand fashion marketplace, connecting consumers to over 500 thrift stores across Colombia;
- And Tani Salud, a marketplace of medical procedures founded in 2021 that connects middle-class patients with doctors and surgeons and which raised a $700,000 pre-seed round in March, with the participation of Polymath and other funds and individual investors.
Polymath’s VC plans in Latin America
Beyond participating in some Seed and Series A follow-on, from co-founded startups, in June, Polymath intends to launch a fund targeting external early-stage investments, mainly pre-seed and Seed rounds.
“This VC fund is mostly, like 80%, for external companies [not co-built by Polymath]. The other 20% will be accessible to the startups of the venture builder studio as long as a professional, third-party investor leads their follow-on rounds,” stressed Fernández. He said that Polymath believes in developing a hands-on VC model, not primarily focused on portfolio diversification like other funds, but concentrated in the segments and industries where it has experience and knowledge to share.
Fernández didn’t disclose the size of the fund or the number of startups in which Polymath plans to invest.
Eventually, Polymath also intends to create special-purpose vehicles with other investors, to participate in late-stage rounds of startups it knows well.