Last week I participated in the EU’s Digital Agenda Assembly 2012 (“DAA12”), a speaker in the plenary session titled: “Delivering Internet-based innovation as a way out of the crisis: the role of Horizon 2020” and as a participant in the workshop on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. One of the things that struck me the most is how the narrative is changing from ‘Austerity’ to ‘Growth’. There’s real hunger to support European growth, in the form of new startups, funding, improved education and skills, connectivity, and general policy changes that would remove obstacles from the innovation process.
Without getting too much into the feedback on the event itself, which was well organized and well represented in my opinion – including VCs, entrepreneurs, community leaders and well-known angel investors, I thought it would be good to share some of the recurring themes that came up in various discussions, and also a few important links that would otherwise remain buried on a government site. (disclaimer; all opinions are my own).
- “Digital Economy” – the term is being used widely, and it according to Wikipedia “A digital economy is an economy that is based on electronic goods and services produced by an electronic business and traded through electronic commerce.” For example, companies like TaskRabbit or Zaarly, help hundreds/thousands of people that were otherwise unemployed, get jobs/income thanks to the impact of the Internet. But the point is bigger – digital economy is key for growth, and the Internet is transforming multiple sectors creating a much broader impact than the startups themselves.
- “Changing the mindset” – “Stop Bit**ing, start pitching” should be the new bumper sticker in Europe. In other words, European entrepreneurs ought to be more ambitious, visionary and frankly, a bit more agressive. In the Innovation and Entrepreneurship workshop, there was a mindmap on what can really make the most difference now for web entrepreneurship in Europe, and the mindset issue received a lot of votes. there is a general agreement that European Entrepreneurs have everything they need to succeed, including talent, ideas and access to capital (albeit with higher public sector support than in the US). Rather than debating on the chances of success in Europe vs the US, there’s an opportunity to strengthen the startup ecosystem in Europe, but it requires us to ‘just get on with it’.
Education – lots of talk about the gap in skills that are required for fueling the growth of tech startups, and those that graduates are getting out of universities. There was genuine interest in what specifically needs to change in education to improve skills. Do we need more coders? lots of talk about initiatives like Codeacademy.com, which is already teaching over one million people to code in Europe alone, remote learning to facilitate people from rural areas with access to information, and more practical experience – i.e. Hackathons, competitions etc while at university.
- Research – as one participant put it, we need to learn how to transform Research into Euros, and not just Euros into Research. One example that strikes me here is Stanford University. Did you know that Professors and Faculty at Stanford get to keep the IP (intellectual property) or their inventions? They found that contrary to the popular belief, they make more money by incentivizing faculty to commercialize their ideas, rather than owning all the IP and let it sit of the shelf. How do they make the money back? from donations, which is something you can do when you attract the founders of Google, Reid Hoffman, Peter Thiel, Steve Ballmer, etc who are all alumni of the school.
- Celebrating Entrepreneurship – I think that this particular topic has to do with Role Models, something I addressed in a previous post on
the UK startup ecosystem. Most people think that Skype is an American company (technically, now that it was bought by MSFT it is), but readers of this blog probably know it was started in Estonia and that Niklas went on to start his own VC fund. If we want to inspire young people to get into startups, they need to have good role models to aspire to.
- “The Digital Innovation Charter“– this is a crowdsourcing initiative to set a a new framework programme for research and innovation in the EU. It’s done through a shared doc, where anyone engaged in Innovation in the EU is welcome to comment. The pillars of the Charter so far are:
1. Invest in Europe
2. Exploit research results in Europe
3. Provide solutions which address the societal challenges
4. Open innovation with new innovation models
5. Help creating skilled workforce
- Cloud and fiber Internet – for Europe to remain competitive, it’s crucial to enable fast Internet connections. Cloud computing, represents a huge opportunity in improving both government and industry efficiency. Nelly Kroes, the Vice President of the European Commission understands this and said it’s a high priority for Horizon 2020.
- “Creating the right policy environment” – funding is not enough to support innovation and it’s crucial to have the right policies in place to prevent situations where policy/regulation hinders growth. An example of where policy can be a catalyst for growth can be found in Israel with the Yozma program, which matched funding for VC funds and kickstarted the VC (and as a result the high-tech) industry. An example where policy can hurt innovation is copyright. Most VCs (and to a certain extent, entrepreneurs) would prefer to stay away from business that require data licensing/copyright material across 27 markets in Europe. Each country has it’s own regulation which creates a logistical nightmare for a startup with limited legal resources. (That said, Spotify did an amazing job with licensing content in the US… from Sweden!). Other policies that are hurting entrepreneurs are around payments (accepting cross border payments in particular), and SOPA-like initiatives such as ACTA, which are sparking lots of resistance, such as this site.
- Think regional – there’s a huge priority to include rural areas and regional growth, vs investing in the big hubs only. This creates a debate on the role of the EU – Should hundreds of clusters be supported, or should investment be focused on selected areas of excellence across country? see this PDF report on Innovation Clusters.
- “More action, less talk” – The results of this conference will hopefully be felt in the next 6-12 months, but generally speaking, it seems like the EU is definitely listening. The impact of this digital agenda and the Horizon 2020 plan depends solely on the actions taken.
It’s hard to compress two days of discussions into a short post, but hopefully this provided a flavor of what the vibe is like in Brussels. What is clear is that every startup in Europe should care, and ideally take part in the discussion, to help make Europe a great base for technology startups and fuel the economic growth the continent desperately needs to grow. Want to get involved? for example, help design the crowdsourced EU strategy for web entrepreneurs doc or attend one of the many events organized by COADEC at Campus.