Tag Archives: Europe

Marcel Salathé’s Creating a European Culture of Innovation

Regularly but not often enough I read about people calling Europe to wake up and react. Recently it was Nicolas Colin’s What makes an entrepreneurial ecosystem. But now I also remember Risto Siilasmaa’s Entrepreneurship should be cherished” and I had my own Europe, Wake Up!. The latest of these is Marcel Salathé’s Creating a European Culture of Innovation. Another must read. Thanks Marcel! So let me just quote him.


At stake is the future of Europe. And we, the innovators, entrepreneurs, scientists, activists, and artists, need to step up and take ownership of this future. Because if we don’t, Europe will continue its downward trajectory that it’s currently on, and become what it many places it already has transformed into – a museum of history.
The information and communication technology sector is now the dominant economic driver of growth. Think Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber. Noticed something? Not a single European company. Only 1 out of 4 dollars in this sector are made by European companies, and all the indicators for the future are pointing down. Some numbers are even more dire: when you list the top 20 global leaders of internet companies that are public, you know how many are European? Zero. And among all publicly listed companies in the digital economy, 83% are American, and a mere 2% are European. 2%!
So where’s the problem? Some say it’s VC funding, which is only partially true. Yes, the culture of VC funding is probably less mature in Europe than it is in the US, especially for stage A, B and C funding. But money will find its way into good ideas and market opportunities one way or another. Others say it’s simply the European market, and European regulation. I think that is an illusion. Look at AirBnB, the US startup that now has a valuation of over 25 Billion dollars. It was started as a three person startup in California’s Y Combinator, but it now gets over half(!) of its revenues from within Europe. And by the way, San Francisco is probably one of the worst regulatory environments you can find yourself in. AirBnB is currently facing huge battles in San Francisco, and a Californian judge recently ruled Uber drivers employees, causing a minor earthquake in the booming sharing economy. Indeed, California is probably one of the most regulated of the American States, and yet it does exceedingly well.
I think that the problem is actually quite simple. But it’s harder to fix. It’s simply us. We, the people. We, the entrepreneurs. We, the consumers. I have lived in the San Francisco Bay area for more than three years. What’s remarkable about the area is not its laws, or its regulations, or its market, or its infrastructure. What’s truly remarkable is that almost everyone is building a company in one way or another. Almost everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, or supports them. Almost everyone is busy building the future. Indeed, you can almost physically feel that the environment demands it from you. When someone asks you about what it is you are doing professionally, and you don’t respond by saying that you’re building a company, they look at you funny, as if to say, “then what the hell are you doing here”?

It’s not a trivial point I think. The other day, I was in Turin in Italy, and I desperately needed a coffee. I walked into the next random coffeeshop, where I was served a heavenly cappuccino, with a chocolate croissant that still makes my mouth wet when I just think about it. Was I just lucky? No – all the coffee shops there are that good. Because the environment demands it. Sure, you can open a low-quality coffee shop in Turin if you want to, but you’ll probably have to file for bankruptcy before you have the time to say buongiorno. The environment will simply not accept bad quality. In another domain, I had the same personal experience when I was a postdoc at Stanford. Looking back, all of my best and most cited papers I wrote there. I don’t think it’s coincidence. Every morning, as I was walking across campus to my office, I could sense the environment demanding that I do the most innovative work – if I didn’t, then what the hell was I doing there?
So this is my message to you. I’m asking you to create those environments, both by doing the best and most innovative you can, but also by demanding the same from everyone else around you. These two things go together; they create a virtuous circle.

Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness if necessary. If you are waiting for permission, you will wait for the rest of your life. Most rules exist for a simple reason: to protect incumbents. Don’t ask for permission, just go and do it.
Orson Welles was best at describing why asking for permission is deadly…

So please, let us all live in the future and build what’s missing – here in Europe. I am worried sick that the easiest way for me to live in the future is to buy a ticket to San Francisco. Just like the easiest way for Americans to relive the past is to buy a ticket to Europe, rich in history. I’m asking you to become even more ambitious, more daring, and more demanding, both of yourself, but most importantly also of your environment.

Salathe talks also about role models. His was the founder of Day Interactive, a Swiss start-up which went public in 2000 before being acquired by Adobe for $250M in 2010. So coming next… its cap. table..


FT’s Top European Tech. Entrepreneurs

Following my article posted on June 25, entitled Europe and Start-ups : should we worry? Or is there hope? Here is a more detailed analysis of the FT’s Top 50 tech. entrepreneurs. First, you may want to do a quiz: do you know them from their pictures?

FT Top 50 Europe

Before I give you the full list (ranking is from left to right and top to bottom), here are some interesting statistics (I think).

FT Top 50 Europe Stats

The countries are not really surprising whereas the huge presence of Index Ventures, compared to Atomico or even Accel was. American funds, including the best ones, are all around. Interesting too. So how many entrepreneurs did you know…

FT Top 50 Europe List
(click on picture to enlarge – additional sources : Crunchbase and SEC)

Biocartis, the (could have been) Swiss success story

Biocartis might have been a Swiss success story but most of the company is now based in Belgium. Probably not a decision of investors (as people think when company move) but from management! One of the founders is from Belgium and an impressive serial entrepreneur: Rudi Pauwels. Here is what you could read in the IPO document:


Still the numbers are interesting. The company has raised more than €200M before its €100M IPO this week. Despite such huge amounts the founders have kept about 5% of the company. Its IPO prospectus is available on the company web site. It has signed deals with Philips, Hitachi, Biomérieux, Abbott, Janssen and Johnson & Johnson and counts Swiss-based Debiopharm among its mains shareholders. Here is my usual cap. table:

(click on image to enlarge)

We must create a Google in Europe

The self-citation is a delicate exercise but as it does not happen often that I give my point of view in the media, I guess this is acceptable… Newspaper Le Temps asked for my point of view related to the recent acquisitions of EPFL spin-offs. I extract some messages.


What worries me is that in Europe, I have never seen the birth of technology companies like Google, Apple or Cisco.

– Yet there is SAP in Germany or Internet service Skype…

– Yes, but [forgetting SAP] there was no big success in Europe in technology in the last fifty years. Microsoft has bought Skype for $8.5 billion and Logitech is worth $2B on the stock market with 6,000 employees. But in the United States, industry heavyweights are valued at over $170 billion and have more than 50,000 employees. There is a difference of a factor ten between the two continents and this has been disturbing me for over twenty-five years. I have doubts and fears about the future of Europe.

– How do you explain this difference?

– I think this is essentially cultural. A young engineer who listens to her parents will work with Nestlé and Novartis, and then remains there. Americans have parents or grandparents who were immigrants. The tradition of moving is digested and failure is accepted.

– What are the risks of such a situation?

– If it does not renew, it is the death of Europe. We are almost there, look at France. This is a concern I have for my two children. We must create a Google in Europe for the economy to evolve. Without the presence of a major technology group, innovative start-ups will be systematically acquired by American groups. Yahoo! bought French start-up Kelkoo, Danish Navision now belongs to Microsoft, the Swedish MySQL to Oracle and French ILOG to IBM.

For the spin-offs of EPFL, it is the same. Medical imaging company Aïmago was acquired by Novadaq Technologies for $10 million. Sensima Technology, active in the production of magnetic sensors, has been integrated in Monolithic Power Systems (MPS) based in San Jose, California. Only Jilion was bought by the French Dailymotion, which integrated their video technology on their site. And now it’s Intel. And when these companies are acquired, it’s expertise and jobs that may disappear. There is a risk of loss of wealth.

The rest of the article is available on Le Temps website.

Zalando files to go public

Zalando, one of the very visible European start-up should become a public company on October 1st in Germany. It’s not so much the numbers which I found of interest, but how difficult it was to get them. As usual, Europe is showing less transparency. Finding the prospectus was not easy, and I am not sure I could have found it without claiming I live in Berlin. And still, I have no clue how much the company has raised, at which price and when. This is not in the prospectus – I just have all capital increases dates and shares number, it does not help much.

Rubin Ritter, David Schneider and Robert Gentz

I could still build my usual cap. table and here is what it gives. Revenues are impressive, as well as losses. Founders have been diluted, btu given the capital increases and losses it is not so surprising…



Europe, wake up!

This is a short text I wrote in 2012, and my friend Will from Finland had made comments about it which I added. Thanks! I read it again this morning and thought it might be worth publishing it now…

Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, Genentech, Cisco, Google, Facebook, Skype. You probably know these companies. They were at the origin of major innovations for our societies. Maybe you are less aware of Niklas Zennström and Janus Friis, Mark Zuckerberg and Dustin Moskovitz, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Leonard Bosack and Sandy Lerner, Bob Swanson and Herb Boyer, or Larry Ellison but you know much better Bill Gates and Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and Stephen Wozniak, Bob Noyce and Gordon Moore. They are entrepreneurs; the founders of companies that were all start-ups one day in the not-so-distant past, but are global titans today. Europe does not seem to understand the importance of high-tech innovation produced by these young entrepreneurs. Skype is the exception in the list and the Americans were able to produce hundreds of such success stories. Why have we failed and what can we do to change the course of history?

Innovation is a culture where trial-and-error and uncertainty have huge roles. Failure, unfortunately or maybe fortunately. Just as life! The European culture in all its diversity has provided welfare to its citizens since the end of World War II. Ironically, the comfort-level we all appreciate will actually accelerate its end. A culture can only live with creativity and renewal. As a recent article in The Economist illustrated it well [1], we Europeans are no longer able to innovate, our businesses are too old, at least in technological innovation (e.g. Nokia or Alcatel) and we do not create enough innovations. The causes are probably numerous, but fear of trying is the most serious. And I’m not sure that we are aware of it. Do many Europeans understand that innovation through high-tech entrepreneurship is critical? I fear that we would rather have well-educated children to enter the large established firms than creative individuals willing to try their luck. Worse, what models do we have?

Bob Noyce was a model and a mentor for Steve Jobs.

In this unique place, Silicon Valley, thousands of entrepreneurs try each year. “The difference is in psychology: everybody in Silicon Valley knows somebody that is doing very well in high-tech small companies, start-ups; so they say to themselves “I am smarter than Joe. If he could make millions, I can make a billion”. So they do and they think they will succeed and by thinking they can succeed, they have a good shot at succeeding. That psychology does not exist so much elsewhere” wrote Tom Perkins, co-founder of the legendary Kleiner Perkins fund.

Europe is not fully unconscious of the problem. In 2000, the Lisbon agenda proposed by theEuropean Union had the ambition to make of Europe in 2010 “the most competitive knowledge-based economy”. This has been a total failure. A variety of support mechanisms were created, but the Europeans seem to have forgotten that innovation is primarily a question of adventurers, pioneers – these types of people by definition are not looking for safety and support. Entrepreneurs live on their passion. “Launching a start-up is not a rational act. Success only comes from those who are foolish enough to think unreasonably. Entrepreneurs need to stretch themselves beyond convention and constraint to reach something extraordinary” says Vinod Khosla, another Silicon Valley icon. A start-up is a baby whose founders are its parents. Not surprisingly, founders often start the adventure as a couple, because they have the intuition it will be difficult and they need more than one mind and body. They are often migrants. Probably because migrants do not have any existing network or “right” connections in the new places where they have settled, they simply work passionately on their innovation, again raising the probability of success. Half of the entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are not Americans. Why are we afraid of that opportunity in Europe? Silicon Valley is an open culture where even competitors like Apple, Google or Facebook talk and cooperate. This is REAL open innovation, not high-level top down roadmaps, but grassroots, bottom up collaboration. Interestingly, entrepreneurs are often young. While this is not always the case, youth does not give up on creativity easily, largely because they have not lived through the many failures that the rest of us have. Silicon Valley is a unique place in the United States that no one could replicate. And yet every state, every region of Europe is desperately trying to create its own! Let’s work together. By no longer seeking to create the Holy Grail, one unified “European technology cluster”, and by instead deciding to cooperate on a practical level to enable innovators rather than trying to do the work for them. While our egos are still too large to give up our dreams of global domination, at least let us work together without unnecessary waste! In a recent talk [2], Risto Siilasmaa, the young chairman of Nokia, called for a similar reaction and added that “entrepreneurship is a state of mind, which implies pragmatism, ambition, dreams, perseverance, optimism and give-up-&-start-again attitude”. Without a large ambition, it is not worth trying.

One concrete area to focus on is creating an infrastructure where risk-taking investors can thrive. Entrepreneurs cannot succeed alone. Very early in the innovation process they need investors to enable them to embark on the adventure. America has created the best tool out there so far, venture capital: former entrepreneurs who become the supporters of the next generation once they have already succeeded, financiers who have “been there and done that” [3]. These VCs know the start-up culture because they have been there! This experience complements the expertise provided by others who have spent years in large corporations; a perfect storm of competence and culture is needed. It also requires employees who also digested this culture, employees who can take a stake of the future success of the company through stock options. I said stock option, the word that became a bad word, the tool to fatten those who do not deserve it. Stock options should go to those who try. No doubt it will also require some labor flexibility for start-ups as they face uncertainty and rapid cycles. But it should not be assumed that the absence of these mechanisms is the cause of our failures. It is the absence of this culture of innovation that hurts us. Do not be afraid of failure. Failure is the mother of success, says the Chinese saying. Does the child successfully ride the bicycle on her first attempt?

Failure will always be part of innovation. This is why we need a critical mass. In one single place or not, in Europe. And failure should not be stigmatized. I think everyone interested in innovation needs to experience the Silicon Valley culture, to spend time to understand. Weeks or even months. Without fearing that our children will not come back. It is better to try out there than be safe back here. They will return to teach us, at worst, and at best return to set up Europe’s future growth companies! We also need to support high energy mobility among entrepreneurs across European hotspots, as we have done very well for our students. Universities are still critical once the students have left to provide landing zones for mobile entrepreneurs. You may criticize me for being too fascinated by the American culture and technological innovation. “Europe has other ways to innovate,” I am often told. It innovates with large corporations such as Airbus or with German- or Swiss-like SMEs, or in services. And you believe that US companies do not?! I am told that venture capital is in crisis, that Silicon Valley innovates less, and that may well be true – outside of the web, creativity seems to slow down. Schumpeter, the great economist, has built a theory where large established firms die and are replaced by new entrants when they do not innovate anymore. Why would the twenty-first century be different from the previous one? Maybe … but our energy, aging, health problems are not going to require new innovations and new entrepreneurs? I do think so. Europe needs a new ambition, a new enthusiasm and we Europeans are aging. We owe this to our children, to our youth. From primary school onwards, let us our children express their creativity, let us teach them to say no, and tell them that this is positive. A career is meaningless unless it includes passion and ambition. Let us not encourage them to follow the paths of certainty that may be deadly. Steve Jobs in a wonderful speech in 2005 [4], indicated that we were all going to die one day, and before that day, we needed to stay hungry, to day foolish. Let us follow his advice. Let us help our children!

Hervé Lebret supports high-tech entrepreneurship at EPFL. He is the author of the blog Start-Up, www.startup-book.com.

[1] Les Misérables – Europe not only has a euro crisis, it also has a growth crisis. That is because of its chronic failure to encourage ambitious entrepreneurs. The Economist, July 2012. www.economist.com/node/21559618.
[2] Risto Siilasmaa at the REE conference. Helsinki, Sept. 7, 2012.
[3] Do not miss the movie SomethingVentured which describes wonderfully and humorously the early days do venture capital, www.somethingventuredthemovie.com.
[4] Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish. ‘You’ve got to find what you love.’ http://news.stanford.edu/news/2005/june15/jobs-061505.html.

Again a few key points:
• Europe is behind USA and Asia in innovation.
• Entrepreneurs are not considered heroes in Europe.
• Trial and error, uncertainty, and failure are integral parts of innovation
• Our high level of comfort will accelerate its own end (again creative destruction).
• Fear of trying is the most serious problem with innovation.
• Europe’s 2000 mandate to become the world’s leading knowledge based economy has failed.
• Open Innovation is bottom up, not top down.
• Youth are creative because they have yet to experience failure.
• We must create an infrastructure where risk-taking investors can thrive.
• All students that show interest and ability in innovation should experience the Silicon Valley Culture. We should not worry that they will no come back.
• Europe’s leading universities can be the game changers, the catalysts, by agreeing on what is important (what innovation, what education, what tech. transfer) and investing in it.

The Immigrant, Factor of Creation

Here was my last column in 2013 for Entreprise Romande, with a subject that is dear to me, the importance of migrants.


The paths of innovation and entrepreneurship are paved with a myriad of dilemmas. Clayton Christensen a few years ago had explored the first topic in his Innovator’s Dilemma and last year Noam Wasserman has published the interesting Founder’s Dillemmas. The uncertainty of the market, youth vs. experience, disruptive vs. incremental innovation, the new vs. the established are just a few examples of these difficult choices. A more controversial and politically sensitive subject is the contribution of migrants and foreigners in the field of creation.

Just when he debate is growing in Europe as well as in Switzerland about the threat that would represent those who are different and come from elsewhere, it is perhaps worth remembering more positive elements about the importance of openness to outsiders. The Swiss history [1] reminds us that the watch industry is linked to the arrival of the Huguenots in the sixteenth century; a part of the textile industry in St. Gallen has its origin in England. There is also a French origin in the Basel chemical industry. Perhaps it interesting to recall that Christoph Blocher has distant German roots. But what about Nicolas Hayek, the savior of the watch industry, rocked by his Lebanese and French cultures.

Much further, Silicon Valley, the world champion of innovation and entrepreneurship, owes much to its migrants. Of course America is a land of pioneers, but the San Francisco area pushed the logic to an extreme. More than half of the entrepreneurs in this region are of foreign origin and for example Google, Yahoo, Intel had founders with foreign roots.

While Europe has a temptation of closing its doors due to its economic difficulties, in the United States, the Start-up Act 2.0 intends to streamline visas for foreigners and to regularize children of migrants to enable them to enter higher education. Japan was another major country for innovation a few decades ago nut it may have suffered from its low level of migration; the country is aging and has not really reinvented itself.

Switzerland is a land of migration, let us not forget it. This is one of its strengths. Today, the campus of EPFL and ETHZ have a great deal of students but also of researchers and teachers with foreign origin. The proportion increases much more if you focus on those who create businesses. For those who have received an entrepreneurial scholarship to EPFL, the proportion rises to 75% including 25 % of non-Europeans.

Would foreigners be more talented and creative? The answer is rather a larger experience of what is unknown and uncertain. Migrants have agreed to leave their homeland, sometimes leaving everything behind. And they know by experience that we can recover from this loss. They know well that it is always possible to start again and the fear of failure is reduced. He also learned to domesticate novelty. It should be added that a migrant has less access to established circles and is stuck by “glass ceilings”. They must often build they destiny. From this point of view, they do not take the jobs of anyone, they create new opportunities, that will become beneficial to others!

[1] http://histoire-suisse.geschichte-schweiz.ch/industrialisation-suisse.html

A beautiful thriller in the world of start-ups

Today, Peter Harboe-Schmidt presents L’HOMME QUI NE CROYAIT PAS AU HASARD the French translation of his thriller The Ultimate Cure. I had at the time said how much I liked this novel. Do not hesitate to join him on the EPFL campus this afternoon.

Here is a short piece again:

“Take your start-up as an example. Why did you do it? If you analyzed the pros and cons for doing a start-up, you’d probably never do it. But your gut feeling pushed you on, knowing that you would get something very valuable out of it. Am I right?”
Martin speculated on why he was so drawn to a world that at times could appear to be no more than sheer madness. Like a world parallel to real life with many of the same attributes, just much more intense and fast-moving. People trying to realize a dream in a world of unpredictability and unknowns, working crazy hours, sacrificing their personal lives, rushing along with all those other technology based start-ups. Medical devices, Internet search engines, telecommunications, nanotechnologies and all the rest competing for the same thing: Money. To make the realization clock tick a little faster.
“Funny you should say that,” Martin finally said. “I’ve always thought of this start-up as a no-brainer.I never tried to justify it in any way.”

A Quiz to New 2012 EPFL Students

Each year, I have a small tradition of giving a start-up-related quiz to new EPFL students. Here it was:

I was in Helsinki last week and there, the chairman of Nokia gave a talk. “The world is in crisis and the only way we will solve our challenges is with creative people and entrepreneurs. […] Therefore entrepreneurship should be cherished, it is not a profession, it is a state of mind. […] Again it is a state of mind.”

EPFL 1st mission is teaching, its 2nd mission is research. Its maybe-lesser-known 3rd mission is innovation and technology transfer, which includes entrepreneurship. If you have creative ideas, we are here to support you. More on http://vpiv.epfl.ch/innogrants

To show you that that has been understood at the top of the best universities, both the President of Stanford University and the President of EPFL have been entrepreneurs, they have been the founders of 3 start-ups each. I will offer a bottle of champagne to the first student who sends me via email the names of these 6 companies. I am Herve Lebret and I support entrepreneurs at EPFL.

The answer may be found here, and more importantly, I will come back on Risto Siilasmaa’s talk – the chairman of Nokia.

The State of Innovation

After my summer break, I received mails from friends and colleagues, all related somewhat to new (in fact old) trends in innovation. Thanks to Jean-Jacques, Andrea, Will and Martin :-). The four articles I read are:
Les Misérables – Europe not only has a Euro crisis, it also has a growth crisis. That is because of its chronic failure to encourage ambitious entrepreneurs from the Economist (July 2012).
Small is not beautiful from the Economist again (March 2012).
In bid for start-ups, venture capitalists elbow their way into the spotlight from the International Herald tribune, (not freely available online).
In Silicon Valley, Chieftains Hold Sway With Few Checks and Balances from the New York Times (July 2012)

The second one is probably the easiest to summarize and it is such an important message, that it needs to be hammered again: Innovation is not about large or small companies (SMEs), it is about fast growth (gazelles, start-ups). And let me add, it is also about a culture of trying and risk taking. “Rather than focusing on size, policymakers should look at growth.” […] “In a healthy economy, entrepreneurs with ideas can easily start companies, the best of which grow fast and the worst of which are quickly swept aside. Size doesn’t matter. Growth does.”

The first article is more complex to describe and I really liked only the first half. The second half explains that Europe struggles because of bad laws on bankruptcy, bad access to finance and bad labor laws. I am not sure these are the causes of our innovation crisis. I preferred the first part such as: “Europe’s culture is deeply inhospitable to entrepreneurs; wanting to grow a start-up into a behemoth is quite as countercultural as piercings and performance art.” […] “They will struggle to hire professional managers to help their firms grow, because European executives are extremely risk-averse. Their young firms will quickly find that established European companies tend not to like dealing with tiny ones.” And as a consequence, “the giants are all ageing”.

“Europe gave birth to just 12 new big companies between 1950 and 2007. America produced 52 in the same period (see chart above).” […] “Many aspiring entrepreneurs simply leave. There are about 50,000 Germans in Silicon Valley, and an estimated 500 start-ups in the San Francisco Bay area with French founders. One of the things they find there is a freedom to fail.” The answer is not simple, but there is hope: “There are schemes […] to get academics to hate business less, to expose schoolchildren to entrepreneurial notions.”

The last two articles are probably less important but give interesting new trends in Silicon Valley. One shows that the venture capitalists are becoming more visible (in order to court entrepreneurs) and mostly thanks to or because of new fund Andreessen Horowitz. But there is also debate (and I agree with the following comment): ‘‘I don’t quite understand the venture capital celebrity. We should be supporting actors. The entrepreneurs do the work and deserve the credit.’’ But Andreessen adds an interesting comment about the dynamics of venture capital: “Each year 15 deals account for 97 percent of all venture capital profits. To be successful, they would have to pursue those 15 companies. And they would do it by aggressively marketing their expertise to the reporters and bloggers who follow start-ups.” The final paper complains about the dangers of too much control to founders and managers vs. board or shareholders: “Since Google went public in 2004 in a way that maintained control for its founders, the leaders of Silicon Valley have been chary about shareholder voting rights.” […] “Directors are meant to act as a check on executives or at least add their expertise and advice to big decisions. In the Valley, however, the idea of the visionary chief executive dominates, and there may be little room for input from directors.” […] “So the new thing in Silicon Valley appears to be for public companies to be run as private ones without significant input from boards and shareholders. This leaves the wunderkinder of the Internet free to run their companies without interference. The question is whether this is merely a bubble in corporate governance or a trend that will spread to the rest of corporate America.”