Cyril Lutterodt's path to launching venture capital fund and community project Black Seed is impressive. Cyril went to school in south London before getting a scholarship to study in the US at 18. He had a ‘natural knack’ for math and physics, but studied arts and photography at Richmond College in south-west London for a year before heading to the University of Texas. ‘My dad wanted me to focus on math and said, “You're not Pablo Picasso, so stick to it!”’ he says.
As a teenager, Cyril set up a YouTube channel that platformed up-and-coming artists, including then little-known rapper Stormzy. The videos garnered millions of views and gave him a taste of what creating something successful would take. At college in the US, he dabbled in coding – building programs, databases and apps. Then he joined a fraternity. ‘I'd been watching [1999 comedy film] American Pie and I needed to get involved,’ he says. He found, though, that his grades soon ‘tanked’.
Working hard to get his grades back on track, Cyril discovered a passion for robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. ‘There was an opportunity to join a research lab, build robots and work with the National Institutes of Health, NASA and the US government, so I applied for another scholarship,’ he says.
After two years, he was offered a bachelor's-to-PhD program, which fast-tracked him in seven years. From there, Cyril started working in health startups, doing 3D mapping for people with disabilities in physical rehab and building drones in the garage of his fraternity. Yet, even with such an impressive CV and track record, Cyril struggled to get funding for his healthcare startup ZOI when he moved back to the UK. He pitched for funding and says he found a massive bias in the UK's system. ‘The US has a system of meritocracy, whereas the UK is about social class,’ he says. ‘The US isn't perfect, but here [in the UK] the barriers to business are high.’
Searching for funding
When speaking to his future Black Seed co-founder Karl Lokko, a former gang member turned activist, Cyril realized that he wasn't the only black business owner in the UK struggling to get funding. Karl, who was already making connections in the finance world, introduced Cyril to people like British billionaire Richard Branson and other angel investors, but he saw that they were addressing the problem only on a micro scale. At that time, Karl was taking the lead on a 20-storey building bringing affordable workspaces to the south-London neighborhood of Brixton.
Of the businesses in that building, 40% would be black-owned. ‘We were trying to figure out how we could converge our efforts, so I had the idea of finding black investors and getting them each to give £10,000 to invest in 10 companies a year,’ Cyril says.
The pair figured that they could sell Richard Branson and other ultra-high-net-worth people on their compelling story. ‘This was post-George Floyd [who was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis in 2020], so we thought: the time is now,’ he says. They found that the key to raising money was warm intros. ‘We started leveraging Karl's network and I helped close. We got big names, from Stormzy and filmmaker Sam Branson to big angel investors,’ he says. At the same time, they planned to start running community events, giving up-and-coming business owners the opportunity to meet with people from companies like Google and AI firm DeepMind.
Today, Black Seed offers support with raising funds, making pitch decks, marketing, sales and all the other elements needed to grow a business. It also runs workshops, meetup weekends and pitch events. Cyril says it's all about changing pre-existing narratives. ‘As migrants, you're supposed to get your head down and work – be a doctor, be a lawyer, get a professional qualification. I wanted to be bigger, I looked up to [Apple's] Steve Jobs and [Microsoft's] Bill Gates. There's a chance for us to change the narrative and have role models that don't look like those people.’
Inspiring the next generation
Black Seed, Cyril says, is a way of building that kind of legacy in the UK. ‘We want to have people that look like you and sound like you to inspire the younger generation. We want to offer support to people who're trying to seed,’ he says. ‘If you want to succeed, you have to take some risks.’
A key requirement of the Black Seed program is that one or more of the founding members of any participating company's management team needs to be black. ‘If there's diversity on the top, it has to trickle down,’ he says. Cyril's intention is to build something that's both racially and gender diverse, and 80% of his own team are women. He's mindful of not just building capital, but creating a hub for black businesses in the UK and in the rapidly gentrifying Brixton area. ‘It's a home, the Mecca, the HQ – it's Silicon Valley. You want to have space and hold space,’ he says. A space that provides the opportunity to bump into like-minded people and ask for help. ‘We offer genuine connection and value,’ he says. ‘We want to future-proof the black economy.’