Kasper Sage is Managing Partner at BMW i Ventures, a venture fund that invests in early- to mid-stage startups across automotive, sustainability, manufacturing, and supply chain. Kasper was born in West Berlin, in a time when the Wall still stood, separating the city into two cultural enclaves of east and west, communism versus capitalist democracy. The district in the American Sector where he grew up attracted a population of artists, entrepreneurs, and immigrants, who flocked to the site for its alternative scene and cheap housing. The son of two artists, Kasper was a product of the historical moment. When he was five years old, his family moved to Italy to live for three years in the countryside. Away in Italy, Kasper would miss the historic fall of the Berlin Wall but learn Italian, the language that one day would allow him to meet his Italian wife in the U.S. Kasper was rebellious by nature. His rebellion took the form of rejection of the artist's lifestyle set by his parents and the pursuit of a career in business. After graduating with a Diploma (M.A. equivalent) in Strategic Marketing from Universität der Künste Berlin, Kasper entered Berlin’s startup ecosystem, starting out as Head of Marketing for the early-stage startup aki-aki Networks and then at Sabienza Technologies. However, he soon became fed up with the Berlin startup scene, which was then dominated by incubator firms whose strategies centered on recreating copycats of American startups. He did not like that approach, so uninspiring in its derivativeness. He desired to go to Silicon Valley, the heart of innovation. When the management consulting firm Detecon (part of Deutsche Telekom Group / T-Mobile) offered him a role in its San Francisco office, Kasper did not hesitate and packed his bags, rolling the dice of fate in Silicon Valley like the thousands of dreamy-eyed immigrants before him.
A decade since arriving in Silicon Valley, Kasper is Managing Partner at BMW i Ventures. He joined as a Principal when the firm launched its first fund in late 2016 and, two years ago, oversaw the launch of the firm’s second fund as one of two Managing Partners. If you should ever meet him, you would find a man of intensity, sharp and concise with his words, the type of executor that gets things done with that world-renowned German precision. Get to know him a little better, perhaps over a good German beer, and you will see the other side of him: kind and empathetic, someone who for all his rebellion against his artist-parents, retained a lot of art in his soul. Kasper has an eye for good design and a love of building things with his hands. At social gatherings, he is that guy you see snapping pictures with his high-tech camera, professional grade only. Nowadays, as the father of a high-energy toddler, Kasper finds himself more and more relishing the simple pleasures of family life. He is far from slowing down, however. You can still find him darting from meeting to meeting atop his BMW motorcycle, a blur of kinetic energy amid Bay Area traffic, on the perpetual hunt to find the next big thing.
Sam: Could you share a little bit about the beginnings of your career?
Kasper: I grew up in Berlin, Germany. I went to school at Universität der Künste Berlin, graduating with a Diploma (M.A. equivalent degree) in strategic marketing. I began my career on the startup operations side. While I was in university, I joined a startup called aki-aki Networks, which was a mobile social network back in the day. I was Head of Marketing and responsible for customer acquisition. We quickly became Europe’s number-one mobile social network and raised funding from VCs as well as CVCs. We made a couple of mistakes in our execution though, and, after a couple years there, I decided to work for a second startup called Sabienzia Technologies. It was selling essentially a customer service operations platform that enabled agents to perform their work remotely at home. I led marketing for them, focused on customer acquisition.
After so many years working in startups, I was beginning to get fed up with the startup scene in Berlin. At the time, the Berlin startup scene was occupied by incubation shops whose business models were focused on developing copycats of venture-backed startups that were performing well in the U.S. These firms were essentially flying here to Silicon Valley and looking at what folks were working on over here. They would take those business innovations and rebuild them in Europe. Their model was based on the notion that it would be more compelling for an American company to buy out the local European player rather than outcompete them. This worked for some companies, but of course not for everything. I did not particularly like that style. I wanted to go to Silicon Valley, the source of real innovation. I quickly learned, however, that moving to the U.S. would be much more difficult than I had expected. Perhaps I was a little bit naïve in thinking it would be easy for me to immigrate because the U.S. and Germany were such close allies. Fortunately, a friend of mine with whom I went to university had just joined a management consulting firm called Detecon in San Francisco. He told me that they were still hiring and encouraged me to apply. I sent in my resume and went through multiple rounds of interviews. I was offered the job and there I went on my way to San Francisco, arriving with not much more than a suitcase and a backpack.
Sam: After landing in the U.S. by taking a management consulting role in San Francisco, how did you ultimately transition into venture capital?
Kasper: After working in management consulting at Detecon for a little over two years, I joined the Business Development and partnerships team at Deutsche Telekom, where I was focused on building out commercial partnerships with startups. I was responsible for conducting market research, developing use cases across the business, and negotiating commercial terms. During that time we had many touchpoints with our colleagues from T-Ventures (DT’s VC arm at the time). I did that for a year and a half until I decided to join the venture capital arm of ProsiebenSat1 Media SE, which is a large German media company. My role was as an early-stage investor. I got great exposure to top management, but I admit that we weren’t set up to perform properly. About a year into the role, Christian Noske, who was then a partner at BMW i Ventures, told me that they were launching a new fund. I did not have great experience working with large German corporates, so I was a little hesitant to be honest. However, he said that they were launching a separate fund and that they would have full autonomy, which was generally unheard of for CVCs. He convinced me to join, and that’s how I ended up here at BMW i Ventures. I started off as a principal and made partner two years after that. In 2021, with the launch of our Fund II, I became one of two Managing Partners of the firm.
Sam: You joined BMW i Ventures when it first launched its Fund I in 2017, and you are now officially operating out of Fund II. Could you share your perspective on the approach of BMW i Ventures and how it operates between the poles of CVC and VC?
Kasper: We like to do things a little differently here at BMW i Ventures in that we invest out of a separate fund while leveraging the brand and resources of BMW, our sole LP. Unlike many traditional CVCs, we are functionally independent from the corporation, requiring no corporate buy-in to make investments. This means we can make investment decisions fast, within a week if a round gets competitive, which was the case for one of our deals in the past. Like institutional VCs, we are financially driven in our investment approach. If a deal doesn’t make financial sense, we just won’t do it.
What allows us to stand apart from institutional VCs is all the value-add that comes with the backing of big corporation like BMW as our LP. At BMW i Ventures, our investment focus areas include automotive, sustainability, manufacturing, and supply chain. As you can imagine, it certainly helps to be able to tap into the minds of BMW’s engineers for evaluating, for example, the commercial viability of a given automotive battery technology. It makes our diligence that much stronger. Additionally, we do a lot of work to spark partnerships, customer relationships, and knowledge-sharing between our portfolio companies and BMW. We’ve helped enable some of our portfolio companies to secure BMW as a customer or joint development partner. All in all, we like to think that we are combining the best of both worlds here at BMW i Ventures. We’re an outfit that leverages the financial rigor and strategy of institutional VCs though with the value-add of a big corporation behind us.
Sam: What’s your favorite part of being a VC?
Kasper: This might sound a little cheesy, but I have certain meetings where I sit there and am thankful to be in the room meeting some of the brightest minds of the planet. It’s quite an honor to meet so many interesting people and be a part of this ecosystem.
One of my other favorite aspects of the role is that venture capital provides the opportunity to really change the status quo through investments. We get to fund interesting companies that hopefully can make peoples’ lives better and save this planet. The whole project of challenging the status quo by funding companies taking new ideas and technologies to commercial scale is something that keeps me excited.
Sam: What do you view as the hard part of VC?
Kasper: The hard part of VC is that our role is to try to triangulate and foresee the future. There is no crystal ball to see how the future will play out. While a company might have the best technology in the market, there might be certain developments in the market that you haven’t quite fully understood at the point at which you invest in a company. You might realize sometime later that certain other factors may prohibit a company from performing well. Venture capital is a marathon, not a sprint. You may invest in a company and expect to see a major inflection point tomorrow, but it might actually take a lot longer and a lot more effort to get there. That is a key piece of what makes venture capital so difficult.
Sam: What lessons have you learned from your career that you would like to impart to the next generation of VCs?
Kasper: It is important to continue to grow and work at things at which you might not be the strongest. Across my career and development, whenever I identified gaps in my experience or skill set, I have always made effort to address them. Drawing from a personal anecdote, when I was in Germany in my twenties, I realized that my English language skills were not where they needed to be for me to work internationally. I was good at English in school, but that did not translate to being fluent enough in English to operate in business. Accordingly, I started to take English classes and worked with an English teacher to the point where I could take a job interview in English and ultimately move to the U.S. I realize if I had not taken that class and improved my English, I likely wouldn’t be here in Silicon Valley and things would have been a lot different for me.
When it comes to learning and self-improvement, my approach is to draw inspiration from persons with skill sets that I admire. No one comes perfect. You have certain skill sets and characteristics that are awesome and others that are mediocre and could be improved. When I find somebody with a set of skills I really admire, I am inspired and try to extract those qualities to add into my own repertoire. The people that inspire me the most are not the figures in media or tech celebrities but the people around me and often with whom I work. I might find how they articulate a vision or structure a presentation in a compelling way, and I try to distill that essence into pieces that can work for me. The takeaway here is to be open to working on your weaknesses and to draw lessons from those you find inspiring around you.
Sam: Where do you see yourself in a decade or even two decades from now?
Kasper: We are at an exciting juncture in time where we are in the position to shape the future. There are several trends like automation through robotics and Generative AI that have the potential to disrupt the status quo in ways unseen before. As VCs, we can help structure that future through our investments. I personally hope to continue being a part of those cycles throughout my career, sparking the advent of new innovations through investments.