The League of Extraordinary Funders: Meet Maria Velissaris, SteelSky Ventures

Grasshopper Bank
Oct 13, 2020 · 5 min read

Welcome to our ongoing series “The League of Extraordinary Funders”, where we interview fund managers who are helping define the startup ecosystem. Hosted in partnership with Left Tackle Capital, an organization that 1) discovers 2) upskills and 3) curates a community for funds led by women and people of color + heart-aligned asset investors. We hope to amplify the funds and fund managers changing and investing in our future using this series as one of our platforms. Read on for highlights from our conversation with Maria Velissaris, Founding and Managing Partner at SteelSky Ventures. You can also watch the full interview here.

In the startup ecosystem, we know the “traditional way” doesn’t always mean it’s the best way. Challenging norms is part of what being an entrepreneur is all about. Similarly, fund managers with non-traditional investment strategies may face an uphill battle fundraising and beyond based on their theses. A good example is Maria Velissaris, of SteelSky Ventures, a women’s health tech fund. Women’s healthcare is stigmatized all over the world to varying degrees. SteelSky Ventures is investing in early stage companies who are changing the future of this industry, often driving innovation across a woman’s lifespan, from contraception to fertility to menopause. In this installation of “Fund Managers Shaping the Future”, Maria sits down with Grasshopper’s Denisha Kuhlor to discuss what it’s like to be a pioneer in your vertical, discusses SteelSky’s investing thesis, and offers advice to other innovators.

Maria began her professional investing journey as an angel investor, mainly focused on female led companies, then honing in on investing in the women’s healthcare space. She says, ”the pipeline of these women’s healthcare companies kept growing and growing and growing. I realized that my little angel checkbook was not going to enable me to fund these promising new innovations, so I decided to raise a $50M fund to invest in women’s healthcare”. Maria considers herself a ‘founder-first’ investor. Having been a founder, she can empathize with the difficult journeys they face and she makes a point to ensure she’s there to offer both professional and personal support as they navigate their paths. “It’s more than just the dollars that go in, the real value is the support that you provide,” she tells us.

Raising a fund in the women’s healthcare vertical can be particularly challenging. Many investors are not bullish on the women’s healthcare market. Maria shares:

“The biggest misconception (which we hear all the time) is that this is a small market… but since when is addressing the needs of 50% of the global population small?”.

Female bodily functions are also largely considered a taboo subject in many places, including the US. SteelSky Ventures isn’t just offering these entrepreneurs funding and guidance, but also a chance to speak openly about the problems they’re looking to solve. Often, these founders are former nurses, doctors, and other healthcare workers innovating to solve issues that exist around health care inequities. Maria says, “Founders can feel free to come to us with stigmatized products and solutions — where others wince, we see opportunity”. When speaking with other investors, it’s not always that easy. Maria tells us that founders often scale back on the passion that’s driving them when they are pitching to other investors. Instead, in order to secure funding, they choose to focus more on the technology, market opportunity, mechanics and logistics of their company and less on the impact it will have. Despite the challenges, Maria knows that not only can she help drive great returns for the companies in her portfolio, she’s also giving women access to the care they need, making people’s lives easier, and helping women get better medical treatment. She says, “It’s really motivating to wake up every day and realize that when I raise this fund, I can continue to meaningfully invest in founders that are creating solutions, treatments and cures that are going to better the lives of women around the world”.

SteelSky Ventures has a strong thesis and they want the founders they invest in to maintain their convictions too. Maria says,“We think it’s really important for these companies to not only take money from investors who are writing big checks, but for the investors to be aligned in what they are trying to uniquely build”. In fact, if there are other investors at the cap table who have a completely different mission for the company, SteelSky likely won’t move forward investing in the fund, she says. Why? Because those investors will “steer the ship” in a direction that is not akin to what the founder set out to build, and thus, not the company and mission that SteelSky had hoped to invest in either. Maria and her team also like to have fast impact. She points out that there are different timelines for different verticals in the healthcare space. For instance, it can take many years to see returns for a company in the biotech or life science verticals, while digital apps or health tech companies can see returns in three or four years. Their approach means the companies they invest in can deliver innovations to the market more quickly. Maria also tells us, “When we invest, we have a global mindset”. The founders SteelSky works with often design their products and companies differently as a result, continuously thinking about how their companies could function at lower costs, with different geographic restrictions, and in third world economies. Like these passionate founders pioneering innovation in women’s healthcare, Maria and her team are dedicated to helping entrepreneurs in their portfolio bring their solutions to the world at large.

Conviction and persistence are two things that Maria is a strong advocate for when it comes to entrepreneurship. She tells us that if she listened to all the data points telling her why not to pursue her vision, she wouldn’t have been able to have the impact on the world that she seeks. Maria also points out that if everyone becomes an outlier, the data starts to change, which can help to catalyze others and give them hope that they can succeed even when naysayers insist otherwise. To stay focused and stay the course, she suggests you surround yourself with supporters. “Get a personal board of directors and a professional board of directors in your life to help support you on both phases and that will help you be able to weather the storm and stay strong and move forward in your journey,” Maria suggests.

Innovation is at the core of the startup ecosystem and we love to see fund managers fostering it! We hope Maria’s story inspires you to become a pioneer in a vertical you’re passionate about, to not give up just to keep others comfortable, and to keep pushing forward with the help of your personal and professional support systems. Thanks to Maria Vessilarias of SteelSky Ventures for sitting down with Grasshopper and Left Tackle. Join us again soon for our next installment of “Fund Managers Shaping the Future”.

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