3 lessons from an aerospace engineer turned entrepreneur

Nuno Sebastião on entrepreneurial lessons and tackling fraud with machine learning


In 2011, Netscape co-founder Marc Andreessen wrote that “software is eating the world”. Now aerospace engineer and London Business School (LBS) alumnus Nuno Sebastião says “AI is eating software”.

Built on his work at the European Space Agency (ESA), Nuno co-founded Feedzai, a data science company that’s keeping some of the world’s leading banks and retailers safe, in 2009. Take a quick tour of the firm’s corporate story and you’ll read that “Feedzai is AI”.

“We’re at the forefront of an incredible opportunity with AI,” says Nuno. “We’re working toward developing game-changing technologies.” His company uses real-time, machine-based learning to identify fraud and is fast becoming a legend in the fintech Silicon Valley scene.

Today Feedzai is one of Europe’s top-50 fastest growing start-ups according to Tech Tour, the independent firm committed to helping emerging tech companies in Europe. Nuno and his team of top data scientists and engineers have secured more than US$32 million (£25 million) in venture funding and are now on a mission to recruit more than 300 staff by the end of 2017.

One cushy job, one big risk

The engineer-turned-entrepreneur and CEO honed his business idea while studying an Executive MBA at LBS (from 2007 to 2009), and he learnt key lessons along the way.

Prior to LBS Nuno had already co-founded his first software consulting business in Portugal before joining the European Space Agency (ESA) as its youngest ever product manager. While there, he spearheaded the development of the ESA Satellite Simulation Infrastructure, helping to advance the history-making Rosetta comet chaser space probe.

Nuno admits that leaving one of the most secure jobs in Europe was a risk. “The challenge came when I told my family I was going to quit my cushy job at the ESA to pursue a wild idea. Everyone told me I was crazy, but I said I was doing it anyway.”

When Nuno graduated from LBS he had no firm plans. He knew he wanted to shake up an industry but didn’t know exactly how. In 2010, Nuno left ESA and, determined, went in search of funding.

Walking away from his job with the space agency was the moment Nuno says he became an entrepreneur. It also taught him his first lesson: if you’ve got to do something, give it everything you’ve got. Just do it.

Nuno convinced investors over the course of a year to plunge more than US$1 million (£790,000) into his embryonic venture – at this stage, they were investing in his reputation and a technology that could spot anomalies in large datasets.

"It also taught him his first lesson: if you’ve got to do something, give it everything you’ve got. Just do it."

Nuno says: “I went from being a hotshot at a huge organisation to being alone in a dingy office that I was renting from someone else. I had to overcome loneliness and doubt because the only thing I had to sell was my vision.”

His second takeaway is therefore to have passion that cuts through doubt. “I had to demonstrate confidence to everyone I was asking for money, to everyone I was trying to recruit.”

Fast forward to 2013 and Nuno and his team netted US$2.5 million (almost £2 million) with Sapphire Ventures, a US venture capital firm for tech start-ups. The deal came with a proviso that Feedzai must relocate to the US – so today you’ll find its offices in Silicon Valley, New York and Atlanta as well as an ever-expanding footprint across the globe.

"I had to demonstrate confidence to everyone I was asking for money, to everyone I was trying to recruit"

“Feedzai was founded in Lisbon,” says Nuno, “but to build world-class technology, we needed to assemble world-class talent. We needed to put down roots in Silicon Valley.” He soon realised that relocating and building a network was far from easy. The third key lesson is, therefore, to employ true grit when you’re growing a business.

Nuno and his team won a deal with Capital One in 2014, the biggest yet. A flurry of high-calibre clients – from Morgan Chase and Santander to Nike and Vodafone – followed suit.

Now the company could be on track to becoming a legendary fintech unicorn: tomorrow’s buyers and sellers of commerce want safe, reliable and speedy payments so there’s no real limit to the firm’s growth.

"The third key lesson is, therefore, to employ true grit when you’re growing a business"

Fighting fraud with AI

If the increase in cybercrime around the world in recent years has proven anything, it’s that our data isn’t safely locked away behind impenetrable walls. Our global financial system is vulnerable.

Feedzai is making a significant contribution to the war on crime by delivering data-backed decisions and transactions made in real time to some of the greatest organisations on earth.

“Every day, we’re reimagining financial technology and making it better for everyone,” says Nuno. “We’re seeing something I’m calling the AI convergence. It’s a perfect storm where multiple distinct threads of technology are coming together in a moment that’s about to change everything.”

And Nuno has placed Feedzai right in the eye of that storm.

Nuno is one of the winners of this years’ Accomplished Entrepreneur Awards run by the Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at LBS.


Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital

This article was provided by the Institute of Entrepreneurship and Private Capital whose aim is to inspire entrepreneurs and investors to pursue impactful innovation by equipping them with the tools, expertise and insights to drive growth.


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