Tech entrepreneur: EU should focus innovation where it has a chance


Xavier Damman, founder of the successful online storytelling tool Storify, tried to launch his start-up in Europe, but moved to the United States to get it off the ground. “Could I have developed Storify here? No. Europe shouldn’t try to compete, but it can try to complete,” he told EURACTIV in an interview.

Xavier Damman is a technology entrepreneur and the founder of Storify, a journalistic web tool that is used by media organisations such as The New York Times and Al Jazeera to tell rolling stories using social media content. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Laurens Cerulus.

>> Read related article: EU and media in crisis look towards innovation for answers

Like many entrepreneurs in the technology sector, you moved to the US to start your company. How come you didn’t start in Europe?

People often ask me if I could have developed Storify in Europe. And the answer is: No. This couldn’t have worked here. I was trying to find money in Belgium at first, but it was close to impossible.

In Europe, you have to present a full business plan of the company would evolve. You don’t need to put that in front of investors in the US.

In the case of Storify, it also takes the same effort to create a product used by a Belgian and German newspaper, as it takes to develop it for CNN and The New York Times. But European media are going to follow what American media are doing, so if you convince The New York Times to use your thing, you get the whole European market for free.

That doesn’t apply the other way around. So it is way better to target the American media market, since that is what people are looking at.

Robert Madelin, director-general of EU digital agenda administration DG CONNECT, argued in the debate of Future Media Lab. that Europeans need to figure out what we’re good at first, and then policy makers can support this. Do you agree?

Yes, completely. In fact, my view is this: it is not about creating a European competing environment; it is about addressing the reality. In Europe, the best thing we can do is send our innovative, entrepreneurial talent to the US. That way, they can develop things.

It is like the Belgian soccer team: the team has never been better than now, while all its players play abroad.

Everyone benefits by sending your talent to a place where they need to be to develop their talent. This will than feed back into your own country’s economy, because it will inspire people to start doing things. Some might become successful and invest their money in European companies.

That is why we should stop trying to replicate Silicon Valley and start working with them in order to train the talent we have in Europe. We will never be the place where innovation happens in those fields that Silicon Valley is good at. But we can become the place that innovates in other fields and other industries.

So what are, in your opinion, technology industries in which Europe can lead the innovation and develop an expertise?

Well, take the music industry for example. We have Soundcloud [a social network for hosting audio] in Berlin. We have Spotify in Sweden [a service for streaming music] or Last FM in London [an online radio service].

Those are really strong players in the music industry, and that is one area where we should lay our focus. Don’t try to compete, but try to complete.

The news industry is struggling everywhere, and stakeholders have expressed their hopes that start-ups like yours will save the business. How confident are you that the European media industry will innovate its way out of this crisis?

I think the biggest problem is the legacy: people want to protect the past. It kind of worries me if someone like the CEO of Roularta today asked policy makers to make the rules so they can continue to do what they are used to. To me, that is like saying: “Please, shape the rules in a way that it is impossible to disrupt us”.

I like to express it in this way: if dinosaurs were European, human beings would have never happened. You need to be able to say goodbye to the past and welcome something new. Europeans are not good at that.

What do you see as the role of EU decision makers and regulators, for example in the media market, then?

There job should be not to protect this or that player, but to create the context for people to create value. That means governmental bodies should be building roads so people can meet and travel; create the infrastructure so everyone has access to internet; provide health care so people don’t easily suffer from illness, like they do in the US.

I was amazed by the people speaking on behalf of the European Commission who were discussing the future of content, while having no experience of working in the media industry whatsoever.

People in Europe like talking about stuff like innovation. We like to theorise about things, we like paying academics to analyse and study things. But it doesn’t match: the more we talk about it, the less we do it.

>>  EURACTIV uses Storify to keep a running blog on the European elections, and for live coverage and roundups of EU summits, (the last one is published here).

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