Venture capital firm Fort Ross aims to bring more U.S. startups to Russia

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A venture capital firm aiming to bring more U.S. startups to Russia has raised a $200 million fund, hoping to use the fresh pool of money to help Silicon Valley companies deliver their services to Russia’s biggest corporations and its millions of internet-connected consumers.

People take pictures next to St. Basil's Cathedral at Red Square in Moscow, Russia March 19, 2018. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili/File Photo

Fort Ross Ventures announced its new venture fund on Thursday. It will provide checks of $5 million to $10 million to fast-growing startups working on financial services technology, artificial intelligence, cloud computing and on-demand services, the firm said.

Fort Ross has offices in Silicon Valley, Israel and Moscow, and is led by Victor Orlovski, a former technology executive at Russian state-owned bank Sberbank, which is also an investor in the fund.

Orlovski is part of a community of Russian nationals who have set up shop in Silicon Valley to get better access to promising startups, as tech investment opportunities are quite limited in Russia.

Fort Ross closed the new fund, double its previous $100 million fund, as fraught relations between the United States and Russia grow increasingly toxic, and as foreign investments of all types into U.S. technology companies receive more scrutiny from the Trump administration.

Political tensions have not yet derailed startup deals, according to Orlovski. He said the new fund had closed two investment deals so far and had two more in the works, although he declined to name the companies because the deals have not yet been made public.

“So far, so good,” Orlovski said. “We haven’t had any struggles with portfolio companies or with new companies. Perception is not working against us.”

Investments from Fort Ross’s previous fund include ride service Uber Technologies Inc [UBER.UL] and computing service GridGain Systems Inc, deals that were joined by the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund and Sberbank, among other investors.

Orlovski’s fund shows how geographically complex Silicon Valley’s financing engine has become. About 60 percent of Fort Ross’s fund comes from Russian investors, and the other 40 percent was raised primarily from investors in China and the Middle East, Orlovski said.

Orlovski said Russia offers startups a market of more than 100 million internet users, little competition from local tech companies and a skilled workforce that costs a fraction of what Silicon Valley employees command. GridGain and trading marketplace eToro, which Fort Ross backed in 2014, do business in Russia.

It is not always easy going when U.S. companies do get to operate in Russia. In 2017, a year after Fort Ross's investment, Uber agreed to sell its operations to the local competitor, Yandex YNDX.O.

Reporting by Heather Somerville; Editing by Tom Brown