Start-up: Europe must face its cultural baggage

Home Technologist 08 Start-up: Europe must face its cultural baggage

Don't ask, just do it!

Marcel Salathé

“European start-ups are finally getting traction, but progress overall is slow, and many still find it more attractive to go overseas.”

Information and communications technology is now the world’s dominant growth engine, but Europe unfortunately is not in the driver’s seat. It may not even be in the car: of the top 20 publicly listed Internet companies, not one is European. And among all public companies in the digital economy, 83 per cent are American and a mere 2 per cent European. European start-ups are finally getting traction, but progress overall is slow, and many still find it more attractive to go overseas.

Where is the problem? Some say it’s the lack of venture capital in Europe, others say it’s the continent’s stifling regulations. While both issues are real, I believe they are minor compared to the real one: our culture. What’s remarkable about the San Francisco Bay Area is not its laws or regulations or market or infrastructure. It’s that almost everyone there seems to be building a company in one way or another. Almost everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, or at least to support entrepreneurs. Almost everyone is busy building the future. Indeed, you can almost physically feel that the environment demands it of you. When someone asks you what you do for a living and you don’t respond by saying that you’re building a company, they look at you strangely, as if to say, “then what are you doing here”?

To get Europe out of its digital somnolence we need to create environments that demand digital innovation.

► How do we do this? Simple:

don’t accept the status quo. Continuously ask yourself, your collaborators, co-workers and leaders how you can do better. Put your wallet where your mouth is: stop buying products from companies that don’t innovate and support those that do. Embrace technology, adopt new tools quickly, buy from start-ups. Speak up on social media, on blogs or in person when you encounter conservative, backward, analogue thinking. It also means letting go, and disassociating from people who are not moving forward as fast as you’d like. It may sound harsh, but it really isn’t: it will allow others to fail fast instead of morphing into Zombie start-ups that end up going nowhere while sucking up all their founders’ energy and time. Time they could spend exploring the next idea. Time they could spend with family and friends.

The one thing we shouldn’t do is wait for politicians to step in. Let’s not believe that if only we had the right political conditions, we’d be the next Silicon Valley. Don’t get me wrong – there is much to improve. Politics can make things harder, but it can also make things easier. It can – and should – support innovators and their funders. But government cannot on its own create innovation. To those working in the political sphere, working to make life easier for start-ups and innovation I say: all power to you! I support you, I will vote for you. But to the rest of us I say: if you’re waiting for permission, you’ll be waiting 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.

By Marcel Salathé (@marcelsalathe), associate professor at EPFL and Head of the Digital Epidemiology Lab. He is the author of “Nature, in Code” and co-founder of PlantVillage, a knowledge exchange platform for plant diseases.

► Marcel Salathé’s citations

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