Slush revokes €1mn tech prize for UK start-up Immigram because founders are Russians

Slush revokes €1mn tech prize for UK start-up Immigram because founders are Russians
Slush revoked €1mn tech prize for the UK registered start-up Immigram simply because its two founders are Russians despite the fact they fled their homeland and have supported Ukraine in its war against Russia. / bne IntelliNews
By Anna Arutunyan November 24, 2022

The Slush 100 programme is a pitching competition for tech startups in their early stages of development that offers a €1mn equity investment prize to scale up their project. It is reportedly based on the best and most promising pitches, framed by ‘an ethos of getting things done, unapologetically and efficiently.’ Unless, it seems, you hold the wrong passport.

This year’s winners were Immigram, a firm based in the UK and launched in 2019. It helps the best IT professionals from around the world get jobs in the UK through the Global Talent visa scheme, find accommodation and generally settle. These are not refugees or asylum seekers, but people with the skills that companies such as Google, Samsung and Revolut needed to hire, and are, by the criteria of the scheme ‘a leader or potential leader’ in their field.

However, the founders of Immigram are two Russian expats. CEO Anastasia Mirolyubova has been living in the UK since 2016, and Mikhail Sharonov has been living in Georgia.

In the current climate, it was depressingly inevitable that any hint of a Russian connection would draw both genuine and performative outrage, spearheaded by the Polish and Ukrainian tech sectors.

Even though Immigram had gone through a ferocious competition against a thousand other pitches and presumably careful scrutiny by a panel of industry judges, Slush, and the equity funds stumping up the prize, could not have backpedalled more quickly. The prize was statement that it ‘stands with Ukraine and condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine. For this reason, we do not partner with Russian companies or funds or accept startup or investor applications from companies based in Russia.’ Quite how this applies to a UK-based company that is neither based in Russia nor in any way associated with the invasion remains unclear.

While both Mirolyubova and Sharonov are still Russian passport holders (not unusual, especially considering how many years it takes to acquire a new citizenship), there is no question of their having any connection with Putin’s state.

Indeed, Immigram reportedly also supported Ukrainian IT specialists wanting to move to the UK via the Global Talent route and had helped buy an ambulance for Ukraine.

Only some 10% of Immigram’s clients have come from Russia. However, the fact that adverts on job boards suggested the positions were inside the country – this is standard practice in the current environment, to prevent retaliation by the Russian authorities – was spun as evidence that it was recruiting for Russian companies.

Most of Immigram’s business is in helping prized specialists, from everywhere from Belarus to Brazil, to take up skilled jobs in the UK and elsewhere. Insofar as it does help Russians get visas, it is actually contributing to a brain drain that is already being felt there, and plays its own small role in undermining Putin’s war economy.

Ironically, even that has somehow been turned against it, with the suggestion that it is indecent for skilled Russians to flee the country instead of staying and resisting Putin. Yet it is strange how in their seeming quest to be seen as doing the right thing these partisans of Ukraine’s cause apparently remain ignorant of the fact that Putin’s regime is violently authoritarian, one where protesters have a good chance of being beaten, imprisoned and even raped in police custody.

Mirolyubova, who by her own account left Russia in part for political reasons, has said that she has started getting death threats ‘for rightfully winning a startup competition with the wrong colour passport.’ The tragedy is that this kind of knee-jerk response does not benefit Ukraine. Only one man gains from Slush’s virtue signalling: Vladimir Putin. Not only does he get to keep more of his tech talent, but his last, desperate attempt to legitimate his war and his dictatorship depends on persuading Russians that the West is so ‘Russophobic’ that they are in a battle for their own survival.

It is self-serving nonsense, and even his own propagandists have trouble sustaining it. However, cases like this mean they have real events to use, and are gifts to them and to Putin.