Venture investors in the U.S. are finding it attractive — and cheaper — to invest in or acquire startups in Europe.
For years, the venture-capital industry has lavished money on markets in the U.S. and Asia. Now, Europe is getting some love.
Salesforce.com, Microsoft, Intel and Google are all scouring Western Europe for promising tech outfits — from data-mappers and mobile payment firms to game and cloud software makers. Traditional venture-capital shops such as Sequoia Capital have an appetite for European startups, too.
Why the sudden interest in a region not exactly known for game-changing innovation? For one thing, startups in Berlin, London, Paris and Stockholm are typically much cheaper than in the U.S., so big companies like Microsoft and Salesforce can win access to well-educated technical talent and new ideas for much less than comparable deals at home.
What’s more, venture capital remains relatively scarce in Europe 15 years after the dot-com bust so startups are hungry for American money to help them scale up and go global.
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“I’ve never seen a time when there’s more innovation coming out of Europe,” said John Somorjai, who runs Salesforce Ventures and in October announced a $100 million commitment to the region. “Every time I go to Europe my calendar is full with interesting companies to meet, and that used to be harder.”
For years, European startups were content to serve local or regional markets, scaling up slowly and taking several years to hit 100 million euros in sales — a process VCs believe should take five years. A good example is Xing, the German version of LinkedIn, which never got traction. Xing still exists, but most professional Germans in fields like tech, banking and journalism use LinkedIn.
The European startup scene is still suffering growing pains. Music streamer Deezer and Rocket Internet’s HelloFresh food-delivery service both postponed initial public offerings in recent weeks owing to market volatility.
But much has changed in recent years. VCs have started making money in London, Stockholm and Berlin. Job cuts at large firms prompted a flow of employees from banks, corporations and consulting firms into the tech industry. Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, has encouraged entrepreneurship and the creation of digital services by German industry.
“Europe is now systematically creating billion-dollar companies,” said Ciaran O’Leary, a Berlin venture capitalist who’s invested alongside Salesforce and helped sell to-do list maker 6Wunderkinder to Microsoft. “There used to be two or three and there are now over 30.”
Many of these firms are starved for capital. While VCs pumped $10 billion into European startups in the first three quarters of this year, U.S. firms received almost six times as much in the same period, according to researcher Preqin. As a result, U.S. companies consider European startups very affordable.
“In the majority of cases buying a company in Western Europe would be cheaper than doing it in the Bay Area,” said Yair Snir, Microsoft’s director of M&A and business development for Europe.
Besides acquiring the 6Wunderkinder to-do app in June, Microsoft is expanding its Ventures Accelerator program in Berlin and striking partnerships with established German companies including Siemens in the automotive and industrial sectors.
Google Ventures, which has earmarked $125 million for European acquisitions, has invested in various firms, including Kobalt, a music-publishing company, and Oxford Sciences Innovation, a subsidiary of the British university. Intel Capital has put money in MariaDB, an open-source database in Finland, and mobile payments firm iZettle of Stockholm.
Sequoia has invested in startups including Scottish travel search engine Skyscanner and Swedish payments company Klarna.
Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers this month led an $11 million funding round in Relayr, a Berlin maker of sensors and software for industrial Internet applications.
In May, Salesforce Ventures’ chief Somorjai hired the fund’s first venture investor, Alex Kayyal, who previously worked at the London-based private equity firm Hermes Growth Partners. Since then, Salesforce Ventures has taken part in a fundraising round for CartoDB, a Madrid data-mapping developer whose customers include Twitter. It’s also invested in Cloud 9, an Amsterdam outfit that helps software developers collaborate in the cloud, and Stockholm’s Universal Avenue, which provides “brand ambassadors” to companies seeking a global presence.
Berlin has been a particular magnet for investment, and by some measures has already eclipsed London in venture funding. VCs invested 1.93 billion euros ($2.07 billion) in German startups the first half of this year, triple their 2013 level, according to Ernst & Young. Berlin startups attracted 1.4 billion euros, compared with 1.1 billion euros for London companies.
“I love buying companies in Europe,” Somorjai said. “We’ve had tremendous success with every company we’ve bought in Europe.”