In the string of bad news coming out of Europe lately, it’s easy to miss that the region has become a great opportunity for venture investors.
Lost amid stories of Greek debt and the fate of the Euro are those of startups that are creating leading cyber security, cloud, and mobile technologies; delivering solid returns; and staging strong and successful exists.
All at valuations that are far more reasonable that the United States.
It’s easy to forget that companies like Skype and Spotify got started in Europe. Or that the gross domestic product of the EU is greater than that of the United States.
But the reality is that Europe has become highly entrepreneurial. Most EU countries offer research and development (R&D) tax credits to spur business growth. Many are producing a highly skilled workforce through their sustained investments in education. And almost all of Western Europe has adopted legal frameworks that provide protection for venture capitalists similar to those in Silicon Valley.
In other words, Europe is a good place to do business.
Does that mean investing in the region is an easy ride? No – but who says the ride to a great return is supposed to be easy?
At the end of the day, Europe offers access to leading-edge technologies, the potential for solid returns, and far more reasonable valuations than those in the United States. There are even a few hidden gems in unexpected places. You just have to know where to look.
Changed Entrepreneurial Aspirations
At the turn of the century, the average European entrepreneur thought small. The goal was often to be the biggest company in a country – or maybe in a small region. Those aspirations have changed drastically and for the better.
Today, most European companies want to be full-scale, worldwide enterprises and operate using standard global business practices. This change in mindset is luring ex-pats back to lead companies, bringing with them the experience to grow the business further.
It’s also driving a lot of deals.
Consider two of our portfolio companies. We took a stake in the Belgian cloud storage firm Amplidata in 2011; in May, industry leader Western Digital acquired the company. In 2013 we invested in FeedHenry, an Ireland-based provider of mobile application-development tools; the open-source giant Red Hat acquired it last fall.
In both of these cases, we made solid returns based on strong fundamentals – all while helping to build the next generation in cloud and mobile technologies.
Sustained Government Investment
Like most investors, we don’t get too exited about government intervention. But in Europe we make an exception for two specific forms of investment.
The first is R&D tax credits. One of the five priorities the European Commission laid out for growth, these credits help support startups and large-scale operations and have played an important role creating technology clusters such as those in France, Germany, and the UK.
The second form of government investment we applaud is in education. Many European countries have a long history of funding engineering and science programs. Companies in those areas reap the indirect, but substantial, benefit of a steady supply of young, high-tech talent that can help them grow rapidly.
These government investments have spawned a surge of high-growth potential companies, many of which we’ve backed.
For example, Sweden is home to the leading eye-tracking software company (Tobii) and Europe’s largest mobile payment processor (Izettle). And Apple recently acquired the German augmented-reality firm Metaio.
As more investors are exposed to the breadth of available opportunities – especially in a region where there is such little venture capital competition compared to the United States – we expect to see more of these companies emerge in the years to come.
When I tell people there are hidden investment gems in Europe, they always want to know where to look. The answer I give often surprises them: France.
Perhaps more than any other country, France has a reputation for being unfriendly to doing business globally. Its frustrating labor regulations and legal structures are legend among investors and entrepreneurs.
The truth about France, however, is that it has fundamentally changed. Its labor rules are less complicated and costly than other countries, especially for technology startups. It’s also made revisions to its legal system to make it easier for companies to do business on an international scale.
Are there are still legal complexities to working in France? Yes. But if you go in understanding things will be different, and that you’ll need to seek local professional advice, the payoff can be significant.
That’s because the country has one of the most aggressive and generous grant-making programs for R&D in all of Europe. And its engineering schools, including Ecole Politechnique and Ecole Central are first rate and well funded.
The result is a clutch of companies poised for high worldwide growth and solid returns.
Consider Sigfox, a company in our portfolio based in Toulouse. It builds low-energy, low-cost wireless networks that are critical for Internet of Things devices. With deployments that cover most EU countries, it has secured two rounds in funding from more than a dozen firms. The latest round will let it expand into the United States, Latin America, Japan, and South Korea.
These kinds of companies and their successes give us the confidence that France is much more open for business than people might think.
Venture funding has always been a two-way street: We make capital available, but only if a company, or in this case a region, is ready.
Traditionally, U.S. buyers worried about integration concerns when investing in or acquiring a European company, including culture, time zone, and compliance issues.
That’s changing radically. Today the integration is easier, the returns are good, and, absent the intense competition of other markets such as the U.S., the valuations remain reasonable.
As an investor, you can’t ask for much more.
Marcos Battisti is the Managing Director for Intel Capital in Western Europe and Israel. He leads the investment activity of Intel Capital in his region and is one of the voting members of Intel Capital’s investment committee.