- By Michael Dempsey
- Business Technology Journalist
Why is Europe failing to replicate the dazzling achievements of Silicon Valley?
“We are not just a bunch of incompetent Europeans who are only good at going to the beach,” says Leo Apotheker.
Mr. Apotheker ran SAP, a German enterprise software company that became dominant in its field. He was also for a short period CEO of the American giant Hewlett-Packard.
He believes that Europe has a lot to offer.
Partially retired, the 69-year-old divides his time between Paris and London and has spent the last decade advising small software companies.
Now he’s in a new role, part of a team of tech veterans determined to end Europe’s disappointing record of producing giant tech companies.
Mr. Apotheker is part of Boardwave, the brainchild of Phill Robinson. Mr Robinson is a former British software boss who lived in Silicon Valley and retired after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.
Boardwave was born out of Mr. Robinson’s reflection on what he could do to elevate the European tech scene to California level.
Mr. Apotheker joined Boardwave the day after his website went live. As Mr Robinson says, “we are grateful for the careers we have had and for the opportunity to share what we know”.
Both are driven by a pressing sense of the passage of time and a desire to spare future generations of tech pioneers the suffering they have endured.
Mr. Apotheker points out that Europe does have some leaders. It highlights specialist areas such as industrial design programs and the UK’s lead in financial software. London’s financial technology (fintech) scene is getting its approval.
But why aren’t there more?
He rejects the traditional argument that finding money is much easier in the United States.
“I don’t think it’s about raising capital, Europe is full of venture capitalists.”
Investors will invest $50 billion in European tech companies in 2023, according to venture capital firm Atomico.
One of the problems for European tech entrepreneurs is the lack of peers.
“I lived in Silicon Valley and there is always a group of people around me who can give you advice. When I was using SAP and needed advice, I was talking to the wall!”, explains Mr. Apotheker.
“Boardwave tries to mentor other business leaders to help them grow. Being in charge can be a very lonely job. You worry about something in the middle of the night and it keeps eating at you. The importance of picking up the phone and talking to someone is huge.”
He sees the Boardwave team rescuing their young successors from those sleepless nights and guiding big ideas to fruition.
Mr. Apotheker always wished he had a friendly guide to share his concerns with while running SAP. “I struggled to make a lot of decisions at SAP and I wish I could speak with someone who had been there before me, someone I could brainstorm ideas with.”
Boardwave was also born out of the feeling that time is not on the side of the wise old men. “Of the few hairs I have left, a lot of it is gray, so I’m willing to spend my remaining time on that.”
This includes talking about decisions that didn’t work out.
“We talk about the mistakes we made. We made a lot of mistakes and achieved some things!”
European skepticism is often cited as a mediocre contrast to the overwhelming optimism of Silicon Valley.
Still, Apotheker appreciates the ability to ask probing questions in an industry that has its fair share of fraudulent companies like Theranos, the Silicon Valley start-up whose founder Elizabeth Holmes just started an eleven-year prison sentence for defrauding investors.
“I am of mixed German-French descent and I can be cynical and skeptical, but I take advantage of it.”
His colleague, Mr Robinson, 58, candidly explains how much he is motivated by Parkinson’s disease. “I have accumulated a lot of knowledge in the software industry and I want to share it with others before my brain gets mushy.”
He earned one of the first computer science degrees in the UK and worked in Silicon Valley at the age of 23, starting an impressive career in enterprise software.
“I think Europeans have a big pool of talent, but it’s fragmented. We have a distance of 1,000 miles while Silicon Valley is 40 miles.” He founded Boardwave on his kitchen table in 2022 and now has 800 members, managing directors and founders across Europe.
Startups registered with Boardwave can connect with these mentors. Boardwave aims to guide them to the critical milestone of £100m turnover, when they can spread their wings on the international stage.
Other established initiatives echo Boardwave’s desire to extend the cutting-edge level of technology in Europe. Finland hosts a huge annual gathering, Slush, where tech start-ups can meet potential investors.
The boss of the Finnish success story WithSecure, a cybersecurity company that faces the global threat of malware, hacking and ransom demands, is Juhani Hintikka.
He also does pro bono coaching for local start-ups and agrees with the concept behind Boardwave. “People ask for advice and I try to contribute.”
But he admits that innovators are being held back by the fragmentation of Europe, with multiple business cultures as opposed to the large internal market in which American companies can operate.
Always ambitious, Mr. Apotheker cites the aircraft manufacturer Airbus as a great European beacon. “European aircraft manufacturers have come together to take on Boeing and Airbus is now the biggest in the world.”