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Estonia, the unicorn factory, awarded one of its very first unicorn builders a state decoration

Niklas Mårten Zennström, Skype co-founder and Pipedrive investor, is one of the 152 people whose dedication to their work and community have made life better in Estonia and who were presented with the Estonian state decorations this year.

Zennström’s connections with Estonia date back to the late 90’s. He is one of the first unicorn builders of Estonia - a country that has become a unicorn factory having most unicorns per capita.

Zennström was awarded the Order of the Cross of Terra Mariana III class by the President of Estonia Kersti Kaljulaid. His tight cooperation with Estonians started off with a file sharing application Kazaa and continued with a telecommunications company Skype. He is also one of the lead investors of Pipedrive, Estonia’s fifth startup that reached a unicorn status in 2020 meaning that its valuation is now over a billion dollars.

Zennström kickstarted the development of Skype

Taavi Linnamäe, the Public Relations Adviser to the President said that Mrs. Kaljulaid has not met Zennström yet but plans to give the decoration over in person as soon as possible. The Office of the President of the Republic of Estonia intends to organise a ceremonial event as soon as the virus crisis recedes.

Linnamäe added that Zennström was awarded the decoration for his persistance in his activities and loyalty to the contemporary Estonian values of openness and democracy, knowledge and entrepreneurship, caring and noticing. Therefore, the decoration was presented for his actions combined.

Entrepreneur Sten Tamkivi describes his first encounter with Zennström at a meeting that took place in 1999. Tamkivi was running his first startup back then and one of their clients was that belonged to the Swedish telecommunications company Tele2 where Zennström was working. At the same meeting there were also Ahti Heinla, Priit Kasesalu, Jaan Tallinn and Toivo Annus (1972-2020) together with whom Zennström later co-founded Skype (alongside with Dane Janus Friis). Tamkivi himself joined Skype in 2005 as the head of Skype Estonia. At the moment Tamkivi and Zennström are partners in a European venture capital firm Atomico which was founded by Zennström.

“Zennström has a funny background – in terms of education he is both a physicist and a businessman. He is very analytical and even a bit nerdy but at the same time able to make big and complex business decisions,” described Tamkivi.

Zennström is focused on the cleanliness of the Baltic Sea

Tamkivi describes Zennström as a person who wants to stay in the background and as a great friend of Estonia. The investor also has a charity organisation which is closely connected to Estonia.

“One of his major focuses is the cleanliness of the Baltic Sea. As an avid sailor he is interested in reducing the pollution affecting the sea that connects his native Sweden to other countries around it,” said Tamkivi.

The last time that Tamkivi spoke with Zennström was on the day he was awarded the decoration. It seemed to Tamkivi that the decoration came as a surprise and that Zennström was very humbled by it. By coincidence just hours before the news broke about the decoration Atomico announced series A funding in the amount of 9 million euros for an Estonian startup called Katana.

Almost all of Zennström’s investments in Estonia have been in startups in the tech field. Entrepreneur Indrek Kasela, who is mostly active in more traditional forms of entrepreneurship, has also had contact with Zennström over the years starting from early 2000’s when Kasela’s and Skype’s offices were in the same building.

“Back then he was completely unknown to me, he was a tall Swede who merged with the wall. But it was our common acquaintance Linnar Viik who told me that a Swedish genius with a super business instinct is roaming around Estonia,” said Kasela.

Kasela noticed that Zennström used every opportunity to lift the Estonian Skype founders onto the pedestal at various international events. To this day Kasela has been in contact with the investor regarding the Zennström Philanthropies organisation. Because one of Kasela’s ventures, a production company called PRFoods, is also interested in the sustainable future of the Baltic Sea, Kasela has discussed potential opportunities for cooperation with Zennström’s organisation. He has also involved the Baltic Sea Action Group and John Nurminen Foundation in the ongoing talks. “It is crucial to bring in private initiatives for the future of the Baltic Sea that go beyond conventional politics and bureaucracy,” sees Kasela.

Zennström’s impact on Estonia is also visible in the co-working Hub in Tallinn LIFT99 that has a whole room named after the investor and has his mural on one of its walls.

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