We launched the 2021 edition of our Global Accelerator Programme, now called Startup Academy on the 6th of September; the Startup Academy is a virtual acceleration that helps early-stage oncology and digital healthcare startups to achieve their goals and their products become accessible to patients as soon as possible. The mentors are at the core of the programme and without them, we couldn’t have put together such a compelling set of activities, workshops, and events.

This week on the blog, we introduce Johnny Kollin who is one of cLAB Ventures’ mentors and the host of the program’s workshop on risk assessment. Kollin is the founder of Dubai-based Várri Consultancy and works closely with startup companies, advising them on risk management and strategy. Kollin has more than 13 years of experience working in banking and FinTech. In places such as Abu Dhabi and London. He talked to journalist Alexandra Sandels about his involvement with cLAB Ventures, challenges and opportunities for startups and how it was setting up his own business in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is the second year in a row that Kollin participates in cLAB Ventures’ mentoring program. As part of his mentorship this year, Kollin recently hosted a workshop focusing on risk management and assessment for startup companies.

Getting involved with cLAB was for several reasons, Kollin said in a video interview from Dubai.  

“I like their business model in that they help startups with advice. Through their program, founders can improve in areas such as marketing and finance and enhance practical skills such as presentation techniques and how to build a pitch book, all of which are needed to successfully commercialize their ideas,” Kollin said.

Working with health sector focused cLAB as a mentor is also a way for Kollin and his newly launched Várri Consultancy of “giving back to the community,” as he puts it.

“Many of us will, at some point in our lives, be affected by cancer. Many of us know someone who has been diagnosed with cancer and so do I. My way of giving back is to contribute with my expertise in finance to help researchers and entrepreneurs on their journey to finding new and improved cancer diagnostics and treatments,” Kollin continued.

“During the pandemic, the focus on risk management increased”

After working in banking, risk management, and Fintech for more than a decade for companies such as Barclays, Kollin decided last year that it was time to start his own consultancy.

“I had reached a point in my career where I saw a need for a boutique consultancy for specific areas of expertise. After having spent more than a decade in the UAE and some 13 years in various credit risk roles, I felt like I had something to contribute with,” Kollin said.

In December 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic raged worldwide, Kollin set up Várri Consultancy and began advising clients on risk management and strategy. But how was it setting up a business in the middle of a global pandemic? For Kollin, the timing wasn’t a problem, but rather provided an opportunity.

“I started seeing people from my network, both from near and past interactions, reaching out to me for advice. What happened in 2020 was actually an important driving factor for me. During the pandemic, the focus on risk management increased, which, from a commercial perspective, was in my favor. So for my particular circumstances, the pandemic improved the prospects for starting a consultancy,” Kollin said.

He believes the pandemic has greatly enhanced the understanding of risk management among medium-sized companies and smaller businesses such as startups that in pre-pandemic times may not have focused on assessing risk and preparing business continuity plans for tough times.

“Large international organizations are required to produce business continuity plans and test them regularly. However, corporates, in particular smaller organizations, may not have been used to having it in place. In the past, they might have viewed events such as a global pandemic as very unlikely to occur, so the business continuity plan was seen as a ‘tick the box exercise’, or as something overly bureaucratic. Now, we’re seeing a greater interest from smaller companies because now they’ve seen it in practice – what a risk event can mean in practice and how it impacts their businesses,” Kollin said.

“Many startups need hand-holding”

Kollin has worked with startups and advised them for several years. Earlier this year, he was a mentor in Techstars Hub 71 Abu Dhabi accelerator program which he says helped deepen his understanding of the challenges startups in various sectors face. 

From 2019 to 2020, Kollin was part of a team that set up a challenger bank in the UAE, leading the organization through a complex banking license process and establishing a credit risk function from scratch.

“It’s not every day that you start a bank. Having that experience has taught me both the differences between an established international organization and a challenger startup type of organization, as well as practical things like how to actually go through the licensing process,” he said.

Currently, Várri Consultancy advises several clients, including a number of startups, on risk management and strategy. So what differentiates startups as clients from more established companies and large corporations?

“Many startups need, what I would call, hand-holding. It’s one thing to produce a fancy PowerPoint presentation for a client and tell them ‘this is what you need to do’. It’s another thing to help them to implement it. Established corporations may have various forms of infrastructure in place, such as specialized teams, that can implement the plan. In a startup, it’s usually the same person taking on several concurrent roles even though they may lack deep expertise in each of these roles. Therefore, startups usually need a bit more hand-holding and guidance,” Kollin said.

In today’s geopolitical and financial landscape, having proper governance structures in place and assessing risk factors are key areas for startups to focus on in Kollin’s view.

“Whilst many startups might be clear on their strategy, what they want to achieve, they sometimes forget about the risk angle – what can affect their strategy either positively or negatively. You might have a clear idea of your direction, but you also need to understand what events could occur along the way to achieving those goals,” Kollin said.

“Maintain your integrity”

So what’s his best advice for those setting up a startup in the current climate?

“One of the most important commercial lessons is the ability to identify and formulate problems and create several possible solutions to a problem. You can often work around hurdles if you have identified the problem accurately, and you can often work towards a solution in different ways. Another lesson is to maintain your integrity, which is particularly important in risk management and something that I believe has served me well,” Kollin said.

On a regional and local level, Kollin stresses the importance of following what could develop to regulatory and legal risks for companies stemming from what he calls “the rapid pace of development in the financial services sector”.

“Large amounts of resources are being channelled into these industries, and regulations are developed at a rapid pace, which also results in a certain degree of uncertainty as to regulatory developments. This needs to be taken into consideration to ensure that the organization remains adaptable to that fast-changing environment. It all comes back to risk management, including what we call also upside risk or opportunity risk; that is those uncertain events that may affect your strategy positively. If you can foresee what the impacts will be of some of these regulatory changes, then you could also position your company to benefit from those changes,” Kollin said.

Kollin looks forward to advising this year’s mentees and wishes all the participants in the cLAB Ventures program the best of luck as they prepare for the Demo Day on the 11th of November. Being a part of this mentoring program will also provide valuable insights for Kollin.

“It will be an opportunity for me to learn about the sector, how startups position themselves, what needs they are seeing in the market, and identifying the potential next trends. It helps me in staying closer to the market,” he concluded.  

cLAB Ventures - October 12, 2021