Here’s an entertaining and informative exercise: Google “europe+silicon valley.”
Your search will yield millions of posts, with candidates for Europe’s long sought Silicon Valley ranging from “Silicon Docks” in Dublin to “Silicon Allee” in Berlin. The reality is, it’s still much easier for super talented engineers and entrepreneurs to leave Europe for The Valley and get rich quick than it is to replicate Silicon Valley in Europe. And 50 years into the digital age, Europe still hasn’t produced a world-changing tech firm such as Apple, Google or even an Uber.
As Spotify founder Daniel Ek so famously noted, whenever European companies are on the brink of success, an American company acquires them.
“The US has (310 million) people and has produced Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft,” he said, adding that it is “insane” that Europe has a population almost twice as large and doesn’t have one of these companies. “Statistically, that’s an anomaly.”
As long as that’s true, Europe will never produce a talent cluster that rivals The Valley.
BUT, if European policymakers are serious – and we believe they are – about opening borders to allow the freeflow of information products and services between EU nations, you’ll start to see talent head to the Continent … and Europe will emerge as a challenger to the U.S. digital hegemony.
One of the most cogent arguments for Europe achieving its goal comes from former Skype executive Stem Tamkivi – who’s now in The Valley – in TechCrunch:
Why be the 3,481st guy in Facebook, when during a three-year stint in a cool European city you can be No.1 in the entire country in what you do? Yes, moving American hotshots to Europe can be a tough sell, but we did it successfully at Skype, and companies like Soundcloud are doing it again.
In fact, that’s what we we were counting on when we launched Dispatches. And as I wrote earlier, experience tells us that with Skypes, Adyens, Spotifys, Rocket Internets and SuperCells popping up all across Europe, sooner or later a dominant innovation center is likely to coalesce somewhere … somewhere at an intersection of talent and capital.
Every country in the world, not just Europe, wants to capture Silicon Valley’s lightning in a bottle. And why wouldn’t they? Back in 2013, the 150 largest tech companies in the Bay Area earned more than $100 billion in net income, according to the San Jose Mercury News.
When Dispatches was still in beta, we looked at why Silicon Valley is so successful and Stanford University’s huge contribution to that success. In fact, after reading “Secrets of Silicon Valley” and other books, we’ve concluded that creating Silicon Valley wasn’t all that complicated.
All that needed to happen was:
• Post-World War II tech innovators such as Hewlett-Packard had to lay the foundation.
• Stanford had to be there to contribute talent.
• Revolutionary integrated circuitry companies such as Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel had to follow.
• All those ingredients – along with a risk-capital culture – had to ferment for 40 years or so and voila! The digital age was born, and we have companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google and Netflix clustered all within a few miles of Stanford. Of the 20 largest publicly traded tech companies in 2022, 16 are U.S.-based and two are in China, one is in Japan and one is in Taiwan.
(Europe’s total is easy to remember: One, ASML at No. 13.) Sadly, if we did the Top 100, the European percentage wouldn’t change dramatically, though No. 53 and No. 54 (Adyen and NXP respectively) are Netherlands-based, and there are companies sprinkled in from Sweden, Switzerland and Germany.
In the second part of our little exercise, we’re going to look at European innovation centers with the ingredients – a top university, a tradition of cutting-edge companies , a startup ecosystem complete with risk capital and an entrepreneurial culture – to someday rival Silicon Valley.
But before we launch into our list, let’s talk about comparative advantage, a basic law of economics and trade. It’s why Norway doesn’t export bananas, and North Korea has so few social media successes. It’s also why some European countries will never attract Silicon Valley-level talent and investment for obvious reasons including extreme climate (the Scandinavian countries and the Baltics) and corruption and lack of governmental transparency (the Balkans and Eastern Europe.)
Even Paris will have a difficult time evolving as Europe’s dominant tech center, mostly because of the grande école mentality and the fact it’s already branded as the capital of fashion, culture, tourism and taste. One of the elements of strong innovation centers – whether you’re talking about Mountain View or Eindhoven – is there are fewer distractions to take people’s focus off business.
All these places will continue to produce incredible tech and entrepreneurial talent … for other places.
Here’s our list:
Yes, Berlin and Amsterdam get a lot of pub, and spend a lot of time praising themselves. But London is, for us, an obvious candidate to (some day) rival San Francisco. Why? Easy. London has universities with talent equal to Stanford either in the city, or a few miles outside including the London School of Economics, Oxford and Cambridge.
Every major tech firm on the planet already has operations there.
The money is also there. The European Digital City Index ranks London No. 1 in part because “not only is London’s venture capital industry the most developed in Europe, but the presence of many financial services firms helps promote a growing number of fintech and crowdfunding startup ….”
So, what does London have to show for all this so far? A lot, as of 2022: The short list includes Checkout.com, Transferwise, Deliveroo, Revolut, Zynga and DeepMind Technologies, which was acquired by Google.
Since 2017, many of the largest venture capital firms from Sand Hill Road have set up in London.
All that said, London is insanely expensive, even compared to San Francisco. Living in a closet and slaving away in co-working space is a real disincentive to young super star coders, developers, programmers and engineers. Unless they’re in Silicon Valley.
Why it might never happen: With Brexit, the United Kingdom is not now, and never will be, part of the euro community. Add to that how difficult it is for talent to get a visa. Finally, the economy is going the wrong direction.
London’s ecosystem valued at $314 billion, according to Startup Gnome.
Silicon Allee already has attracted a lot of tech talent from all over the world to the point freebie weekly tech and startup community newspapers are lying around in pubs and coffee shops everywhere, though mostly in German. Founders create a new startup every 20 minutes in Berlin. Rocket Internet and subsidiary e-tailer Zalando already have thousands and thousands of employees there.
In 2015, Google opened a 16,000-square-foot incubator known as “Factory Berlin” where mentors from Silicon Valley companies work with startups. Microsoft has its own rival incubator. Berlin startups raised about $2.2 billion from VCs last year compared with $1.5 billion in London.
It has a tech university, Free University of Berlin, and plenty of capital. Berlin, like the original Silicon Valley, is built on a firm foundation of technological innovation. Now, Peter Thiel, Goldman Sachs and other U.S. investors are funding more and more Berlin-based startups
The bottom line – it’s a rockin’ town if you’re 25 years old, and hugely affordable compared to London. This is where young talent is going to feel the most at home whether they’re coming from Frankfurt or Frankfort.
It’s already happening: But Berlin ranks behind London on most startup hub rankings largely due German bureaucratic rigidity and high labor costs.
Berlin’s ecosystem valued at $94 billion, according to Startup Gnome.
Paris has Station F, the huge startup accelerator, which is a big deal. But in the past few months, Paris has seen the beginning of a run of Unicorns. Digital music company Believe’s 2021 IPO was valued at 1.9 billion euros. Talentsoft was acquired for 450 million euros. So, yeah, Paris is for real.
It’s not just Paris. French startups raised $5.4 billion in VC funding in Q1, 2022, more than double the $2 billion for the same quarter last year, according to Dealroom data. Nearby Lille also has a startup scene around EuraTechnologies, which has had several exits.
But it’s Paris with the Stanford-level universities to drive innovation including the University of Paris-Saclay, ranked in the top 20 of global engineering schools.
Why it’s never going to happen: Though the startup scene is in English, overall, the French still haven’t figured out that English is the lingua franca of business. Also, the French, like the Dutch, Spanish and other Europeans, like to take off summers. NOT how they do it in The Valley.
Paris’ ecosystem valued at $89 billion, according to Startup Gnome.
Stockholm, like a great thoroughbred, has a competitive track record. A Telegraph post from 2015 calls Stockholm “the second most prolific tech hub in the world on a per capita basis, behind Silicon Valley.” Which is kind of misleading, because Stockholm’s entire population is maybe 800,000, about the size of Dayton, Ohio. But, that relatively small city (compared to San Francisco or New York) has produced Skype (though it was founded in Estonia), Spotify and a bunch of digital game makers.
University? Check … KTH Royal Institute of Technology and the Karolinska Institutet.
Long tradition of producing innovative tech? Check … Volvo, pharmaceuticals giant AstraZeneca and many others.
Startup ecosystem: Check … Stockholm is chockablock with incubators and accelerators.
Capital? Check … Atomico is there.
What could possibly go wrong? Sweden is cold, relatively dull and in the middle of freakin’ nowhere. That makes attracting young talent difficult when you’re competing against California, New York or even Switzerland.
There’s a reason Hollywood is in LA, not Fargo.
Stockholm’s ecosystem valued at $63 billion, according to Startup Gnome.
Like Stockholm, Amsterdam has a remarkable digital track record. It’s starting to look like it could become at least the innovation center for fintech, with the success of Adyen, now at No. 59 on the list of the most valuable tech companies, ranked by market cap. Priceline acquired Booking.com way back in 2012.
Amsterdam does have all the Silicon Valley ingredients. Well, most of the ingredients. But, because the country is so small, we conclude you have to look at the Netherlands holistically. The Netherlands’ decades old technological evolution parallels The Valley, led by electronic giant Philips instead of Hewlett-Packard and GE, and aviation pioneer Fokker instead of Lockheed.
In addition to the University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands has multiple technical universities including in Eindhoven and Delft. TU/Delft has courses in engineering, computer science, mathematics and applied sciences. TU/Eindhoven is especially intriguing because of the cross pollination with Philips and chip maker ASML. Again, echoes of The Valley and Intel.
One important advantage the Netherlands has is that everyone – and we mean everyone – speaks English better than Americans, and English is the lingua franca of the digital world. That’s not the case in other cities touted as future Silicon Valleys such as Barcelona or Paris. More than half of startup founders in Amsterdam are foreign-born.
Finally, Dutch society has been global and entrepreneurial since the 16th Century. As in the U.S., the annual list of the Netherlands’ wealthiest has a healthy number of Nouveau Riche along with Old Money. (A tip – don’t fall for their tulip investment startups.) The Netherlands also is a fun place to live, and close to everything – just a few hours from Paris, London and Berlin.
So, maybe Europe’s Silicon Valley will turn out to be an entire country; a cluster of collaborative hubs from Eindhoven to Groningen.
Why it might never happen: The obvious disincentive to entrepreneurs is the punitive personal income tax rate, as well as the 30 percent tax on the sale of a substantial interest in a company versus the 15 percent capital gains rate in the U.S. Oh, and the regulatory hurdles and the fact that most Dutch people only want to work part-time and go on vacation all summer. But that’s true for almost all of Europe.
Amsterdam’s ecosystem valued at $54 billion, according to Startup Gnome.
In the six years since we started Dispatches, Eindhoven has emerged as a deep-tech powerhouse. Semiconductor giant ASML employs 30,000-plus people world-wide and adds to that payroll at a rate of about 300 people per month, according to insiders. Chipmaker NXP is also here, based on High Tech Campus Eindhoven.
And speaking of High Tech Campus, it now was the largest startup complex in the Netherlands, which includes a new AI Innovation Center, a 5G hub and two venture-builders, accelerators. Technical University of Eindhoven is strong in many areas and photonics is emerging as the next big thing, powered by PhotonDelta’s 1.1 billion euros in funding, something no other city on this list can match.
DeepTechXL, founded by serial entrepreneur Guus Frericks, just raised a 100 million euro fund.
Are there still challenges?
Yes. Lack of early stage risk capital and a university system completely funded by the government. Oh, and a Dutch mindset that makes a prince – not an entrepreneur – the face of the tech effort. Both of those things are changing as the accomplishments of Dutch innovators such as Adyen founder Pieter van der Does and others start to seep into the Dutch psyche.
We believe Eindhoven is one big exit away, an exit that will come sooner rather than later.
As we’ve pointed out before, the Dutch rule the world … the rest of us only live in it. Increasingly, that includes tech.
Eindhoven’s ecosystem value: NA, but Eindhoven is ranked No. 193 on the 2020 Startup Gnomes’ list of the world’s Top 300 tech ecosystems.
This is really an exciting time to be in Lisbon. Since the relocation of Web Summit from Dublin back in 2016, Lisbon’s trajectory has been straight up.
As Dispatches’ Sarah Nagaty reported earlier this year, Lisbon’s Unicorn Factory is scheduled to open in November. Lisbon Mayor Carlos Moedas announced the project, which is meant to nurture startups from team-building in the earliest stage to billion-euro exits.
Unfortunately, Lisbon doesn’t have a marquee exit. (Farfetch was actually founded in Porto, not Lisbon, and relocated to London.)
The missing piece is a world-class engineering school: Or is it? The University of Lisbon ranks No. 72 on the U.S. News & World Report list of best engineering programs in the world.
The value of Lisbon’s ecosystem is TBD.
As we’ve reported before, Switzerland is focused more on high-tech manufacturing, pharma and bio-science and medtech startups. But Switzerland as a whole – and particularly Zurich – has mega-capital, tech innovation and great universities.
In fact, Switzerland is the only country other than the U.S. or the U.K. to place a university in the world’s Top 10. ETH Zurich – the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology – is ranked No. 9 in the world; No. 5 in Europe.
Let’s face it … the Swiss are never going to hawk stuff on the Internet, or create social media sensations because, well, they’re above it. BUT, something like the Blue Brain Project could spin off AI startups, consumer behavior companies and a whole New Wave of advanced, emerging technology businesses that make everyone forget about Silicon Valley.
Zurich might not be an exact equivalent of Silicon Valley, but rather Silicon Valley 3.0. Or not.
Here’s something else to think about … in Switzerland, immigrants are 20 percent of the population, including corporate expats. And they bring a lot of perspiration, inspiration and new, culture-changing ways of looking at problems.
Why it will never happen: Switzerland ain’t California. The Swiss are rigid, secretive and insular by nature (sort of like coders, programmers and engineers), and they already make a ton of money off just looking out for other peoples’ money. Does that sound like a put-it-all-on-red culture that’s going to give birth to a Silicon Valley? With economic engines such as Zurich, Basel and Geneva, do they even need another economic engine