Startups in Europe lag behind the US

Marta Zadravec

Europe presents all the necessary elements to allow tech businesses to grow and scale. Startups in Europe have seen a surge in the number of unicorns and the pace at which they are created.  Of the 99 venture-capital-backed European unicorns, 14 were added in 2019 alone. These include Germany’s online bank N26, France’s healthcare scheduling service Doctolib, and Lithuania’s online used-clothing marketplace Vinted. However, European start-ups still lag in achieving successful late-stage outcomes when compared with other start-up ecosystems.

PitchBook’s European Venture Report Q1 2020 states VCs poured an impressive €8.2 billion into European companies during the first quarter of 2020. The report states that COVID-19 could threaten the flow of US capital into startups in Europe. European startups brought in a total of €8.58 billion across 40 deals of €100 million or more in 2019. The number of VC-backed transactions, however, has been on the decline—sliding from 5,929 deals in 2018 to 5,017 last year—showing that the ever-increasing pool of money is being distributed across fewer transactions.

Attracting and retaining talent is indeed challenging — both for companies in Europe and elsewhere — but hiring is typically cheaper outside the US. This, of course, is a double-edged sword in that European tech is at risk of brain drain — the mass exodus of talented, and experienced, individuals seeking higher salaries on the other side of the Atlantic. Even though European tech has overcome challenges before the pandemic, there’s very little doubt that it still lags behind the US and parts of Asia.

European Unicorns Analysis

While Europe generates 36 per cent of all formally funded start-ups, it creates only 14 per cent of the world’s unicorns. Adjusted for population and GDP, the number of seed-stage start-ups that Europe generates is only 40 per cent of that generated by the United States, reports McKinsey.

Europe’s ecosystem has been less effective than that of the United States at turning start-ups into late-stage successes.

To analyze the steps between the seed stage and success, McKinsey looks at start-ups that received seed or angel funding between 2009 and 2014. For example, European start-ups were 30 per cent less likely to progress from seed to a successful outcome, as compared to start-ups that raised seed funding during that time in the United States.

The analysis also showed that most European unicorns have had to expand not just beyond their individual countries but beyond Europe as well, whereas only half of US unicorns have expanded outside the continental United States. That said, European start-ups have to focus on wider internationalization earlier in their journey than do US start-ups.

There is also a cultural difference taken into the account as the reason why European startups should perform faster in early stage than the US startups. Cultural differences and language barriers keep Europe behind the US startups that grow on a much faster pace. However, an increasing number of recent European success stories, such as Delivery Hero, Auto1, or N26, that focused on hypergrowth at the expense of short-term profitability, has shifted cultural differences.

Meanwhile, the startup ecosystem in Southeast Europe (SEE) has startups, supporting institutions, interesting technology, and founders with an ambitious mindset. Globally successful companies can be created even in this part of Europe. That being said, unicorns potential exists in South East Europe as well. Outfit7, a family-entertainment company with Slovenian founders and pioneer in the field of digital entertainment, has been sold for 1 billion USD to a Chinese investor in January, thus becoming the first unicorn in the region.

Overcoming challenges

Europe could look at how to support the culture and capital needed to further grow its start-up ecosystem. Entrepreneurs could take advantage of the improving conditions for startups in Europe and aim for global leadership. Governments could further this through more risk-willing capital, and considering allocating more semi-public funds toward growing the ecosystem, as well as fostering collaboration between ventures, academia, and industry.