Unlocking Europe’s business potential

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

French company Blablacar was one of 13 European start-ups to become 'unicorns' in 2015. [OuiShare/Flickr]

With the Commission’s strong leadership on Capital Markets Union, Europe can give its dynamic businesses the tools they need to turn 2016 into the year of the unicorn, writes Michael Collins. 

Michael Collins is the deputy chief executive and public affairs director of Invest Europe (formerly called the European Private Equity and Venture Capital Association).

Next month’s Chinese New Year will celebrate the year of the monkey. It may be more apt that we celebrate the year of the unicorn, a term which we have increasingly heard used to describe those start-up companies that have grown to reach the once elusive $1 billion valuation. In Europe alone, 13 companies reached this impressive pinnacle in 2015, with a further 22 registered in the US. 

Yes, the US is ahead of Europe but the gap is closing and other important breakthroughs were made in 2015. Many of the entrepreneurs I speak to when travelling across Europe are more optimistic than ever, not least because they’re sensing a change of approach to the regulatory landscape just over the horizon.

At the centre of this shift is the European Commission’s Capital Markets Union Action Plan which seeks to increase funding options for Europe’s businesses and to break down cross-border barriers to the free movement of capital.

These proposals, being driven by Commissioner Jonathan Hill, strike me as being different to so many of the regulatory initiatives I’ve seen during my time in Brussels, mainly because the Action Plan sets clear priorities for early action. We have already seen the publication of the revised Prospectus Directive, which aims to alleviate the administrative burdens and costs for companies seeking to raise finance on Europe’s public markets.

This practical step will unlock capital for thousands of entrepreneurs and help reinvigorate capital markets across Europe. Critically, the Prospectus Directive revision serves to show that practicality is at the heart of the Commission’s proposals. This is something I witnessed first-hand when Commissioner Hill recently toured London’s Tech City to listen to the opinions of the founders and backers of three dynamic young UK businesses: Secret Escapes, iZettle and Algomi.

What is clear is that this principle of free movement of capital and the current sense of momentum must not die. The last year has demonstrated beyond all doubt that European entrepreneurs can build and scale up companies.

So what could this coming year hold to help unlock Europe’s untapped potential?

A fully functioning venture capital market is crucial in helping small and medium sized enterprises become global champions and increase the dynamism of our economy. If European venture capital markets were as mature as those in the US, Jonathan Hill said in his speech to launch the Capital Markets Union Action Plan, companies would have raised an extra €90 billion over the last five years.

The proposals to create a pan-European venture capital ‘fund-of-funds’ – on which the Commission is set to provide further details later this year – will be critical. At around €60 million, the average European venture capital fund is only half the size of that in the US. Given large institutional investors, including pension funds and insurers, are often unable to commit less than €20 million to make their asset allocation efficient and effective, many who may otherwise want to commit to a venture fall at the first hurdle.

I’m hoping 2016 will be the year a model that encourages more institutional investor participation in the asset class is introduced. Let me be clear, this is not about putting ever more public money into the asset class: 35% of capital currently committed to European ventures already comes from national and regional governments in Europe and the European Investment Fund. This is about leveraging these funds, increasing the scale of venture capital funds and using them as a catalyst for private sector investment.

Fund-of-funds managers have experience of working and attracting mainstream investors, which could include Canadian pension funds, Asian sovereign wealth funds and European insurers. They also possess the skills required to identify and invest in managers capable of consistently delivering the best returns. Not all companies have this ability or can point to a sufficiently long track record to attract the financial support they need to evolve.

This year, I’m more optimistic than ever. We have strong European Commission leadership in Brussels committed to implementing practical reform, an ever-growing number of truly scalable European companies and talented entrepreneurs who prove it can be done. Let’s not waste this opportunity. With these new proposals, Europe’s capital markets can evolve to ensure the unicorns of the future have access to a wide range of funding and reach their full potential.

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