Japanese AI investors coming to Europe

February 15, 2018

Our VC friends behind Japan’s AI Tech Leaders Summit will return next week for another mini-European scouting tour. They’re looking for investment opportunities in advanced technology areas such as deep learning, machine learning, robotics, and RPA in particular.

There remains some space open at the informal meetups as follows [updated]:

  • London: fully booked
  • Berlin: fully booked
  • Paris: Thursday 22-Feb 18.00. 2 spots left.

Any startups working on AI projects are free to join these meetups, space-permitting. If interested, send an email to aitl@rude.vc with a short description of your venture.

Prospective investments are also invited to the semi-annual AI Summit in Tokyo where they will have an opportunity to mingle with world-renowned AI researchers and corporate innovation departments looking for partners or acquisitions. Corporates include: Denso, IBM, Line, Lite-On, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Persol, Rakuten, Razer, Samsung, Tencent, Tepco, and Yahoo among others. These summits are privileged opportunities for startups interested in developing relationships with potential future acquirers in Asia.

 

The samurai that doesn’t die

February 10, 2018

People who know me well know that I am a bit of a stickler for unnecessary waste. It’s one of the character traits that helps me to consistently resist the temptation of upgrading my smartphone until the utility value surpasses the envy value (often to the bemusement of my friends).

I fall on the end of the spectrum of people who view smartphones as a tool, in contrast with those who see them as fashion accessories (not making a judgment here, to each his own).

Still, rapid advances in technology, suspiciously built-in obsolescence, and a relentless pace of new features requiring more powerful processing forces us all into upgrade cycles of these personal devices which we carry with us daily. Incidentally, it was due precisely to these breakneck upgrade cycles we experience in developed countries that inspired us to launch AfriqueConnect, a project in which we collect and donate used mobile phones to improving lives in the developing world.

Thirty months with the same smartphone

Well, I’m proud to celebrate this month as the 2 1/2 year mark that I’ve used the same smartphone: the Freetel Samurai Miyabi. Thirty months with the same smartphone, which I understand is five times the national average, at least among my peers in venture capital.

The Samurai Miyabi surpassed even my wildest expectations in terms of longevity. Perhaps most significantly, I have not witnessed any tangible performance degradation over this 30-month period. The only exception I’ve identified is the phone’s incompatibility with certain advertising features of Facebook Messenger’s Instant Games platform. Since I have a horse in the race on Facebook’s Instant Games platform, I’m very curious to understand the monetization mechanics of each game from an investor perspective. This limitation stems from the Samurai Miyabi’s rarity more than anything else though.

Other than this single drawback however, I cannot recall ever encountering any other limitation with this phone since I bought it in 2016.

Freetel was a Japanese company which originally offered MVNO services as well as constructing their own phones. Unfortunately, Freetel was forced into bankruptcy after selling off its phone production to Rakuten.

It’s too bad that a challenger like Freetel couldn’t make it work; it was good while it lasted. Despite the critics, I find your Samurai to be the most honorable phone I’ve ever used.

 

There’s only one market

February 3, 2018

There’s only one market.
–Oki Matsumoto
CEO of Monex Group

I was speaking with a startup CEO the other day about a fresh new entrant company in his space that had just raised an ICO. This first CEO’s startup was kicking it old school, i.e. they had launched long before ICOs became a thing, had raised some angel and VC money, and were now plugging away on a gradual grind toward profitability.

Unsurprisingly, it was easy to disparage the new entrant, who was flush with new ICO cash but only just starting now. How could their young team possibly excel in this new market for them without the benefit of battle scars ? Furthermore, the shoehorning of their business premise into a token model smacked of ICO opportunism. For these and other reasons, the startup CEO was understandably dismissive.

ICO opportunism or not (and in this particular case I agreed that it smelled as such), my retort was that this does indeed matter.

When Oki-san made his one-market observation, he was speaking in the context of how some financial institutions treat cryptocurrencies. Those who dismiss crypto as a fringe market are missing the big picture: that crypto will have an impact on their traditional markets whether they want to acknowledge it or not. For instance, just as capital flows to find its optimal risk/return point, rampant speculation in the bitcoin market may make equity markets calmer.

Back to why I told the startup CEO that it matters…

I would submit that we’re starting to witness Oki-san’s same astute logic bear out among early-stage tech startups. Startups flush with ICO cash (or coin) impact their non-ICO counterparts in at least three potentially adverse ways:

The obvious one is that ICO-rich startups will have more funds to spend on talent, equipment, customer acquisition, paying off channel partners, etc.

A new competitor straight off an ICO also raises the noise level in the space, perhaps adding to confusion in a market which now encompasses both relatively mature product offerings on one end with hype machines on the other.

A third more subtle impact is on human capital. Granted, labor is not as liquid as money, but even beyond the attraction to potentially high salaries, workers gravitate to where the excitement is.

All this being said, I would contend that we’re currently undergoing a transition period, not a steady state. Any conclusions drawn based on current market dynamics may not be so relevant over a longer time horizon. To ICO or not to ICO is a legitimate question many tech entrepreneurs may be asking themselves these days (and I’ll explore this further in a future post). It’s tempting to become caught up in the current ICO euphoria, but it’s important to not lose sight of the long term goal.

Tochinoshin on top

January 29, 2018

It’s hard not to like Tochinoshin. The Maegashira #3 sumo wrestler from Georgia often played the role of spoiler to aspiring champions in past tournaments. Moreover, in contrast with some other foreign wrestlers, Tochinoshin has worked doggedly to integrate into Japanese culture, gaining him strong domestic support and respect.

What a delight to see rank-and-filer Tochinoshin win the 2018 hatsu basho championship.

 

Coincheck hack

January 27, 2018

I was in the middle of a meeting yesterday evening when my colleague and co-author Annie alerted me to some erratic activity on cryptocurrency exchange Coincheck. The exchange was freezing transfers, and a gaggle of reporters were gathering in front of Coincheck’s Tokyo headquarters.

Apparently, one of Japan’s largest cryptocurrency exchanges has been hacked. The situation is still evolving in real-time with the local Japanese press providing play by play coverage, so I refer you to them for the latest updates.

This incident reinforces what many experienced crypto traders have been cautioning for a while: don’t keep your crypto assets on the exchanges. Or at least not the bulk of them. Store them safely in a hardware, software, or even paper wallet.

Furthermore, this hack underscores how nascent the blockchain infrastructure still is. Centralized exchanges possess vulnerabilities inherent in the architecture of single choke points and opacity. It is my expectation, and I’m aware of a handful of projects working on this, that we will soon evolve to an Exchange 2.0 model which provides greater transparency, accountability, and safety guarantees.

Why Europe should be on Japan’s corporate innovation agendas

January 21, 2018

[This post paraphrases an interview I gave last week to Japan’s ITmedia group. The original interview is here.]

Over the past decade Europe has witnessed such a dramatic transformation in innovation and entrepreneurship that I submit that the region now represents one of the most compelling areas of the world for investment from Japan.

This was not always the case. European countries faced many of the same hurdles and cultural inertia which are familiar in Japan. It was only following a convergence of efforts from multiple stakeholders that things begin to evolve, including European government policies, the evolving cultural mindset of the European populace, the European educational systems, and the incentive structures in the private sector.

At the macro level Europe, represents a large market with a collective population of over 500 million. Disposable income per capita of Western European countries is comparable or even higher than that in Japan ranging from $24k in Spain to $36k in Germany.

Similar to Japan, and thanks to concerted government initiatives and fiscal stimulus, many European countries have built up extensive infrastructure to foster innovation. This includes of course physical infrastructure, such as high-speed train systems linking almost every European capital’s city center, expensive yet extremely transformative projects like the Channel Tunnel and Eurostar train system, and elaborate public transportation networks in most cities. Yet it also includes communications infrastructure. Nearly every European urban area offers high-speed fiber-optic internet access to the home. Mobile 4G networks are ubiquitous and priced competitively. Europe leads the world in information privacy and data protection regulation.

Also similar to Japan, many European countries possess elite educational institutions with a strong emphasis on science and technology. I can think of over 60 advanced universities specializing in deep technology curricula in Western Europe (see infographic). Traditionally, graduates of these elite institutions would either apply for cushy government posts or pursue private sector careers practically mapped out in advance for them, often with promises of lifetime employment. I understand this phenomenon may also be similar in Japan historically. However a sea change in Europe over the past 15 years or so has ushered in a new mindset where even the smartest new graduates consider joining risky tech startups or even starting their own companies upon graduation.

The advanced educational institutions have seeded the market with a proliferation of talented individuals in deep technology areas of innovation, such as blockchain and artificial intelligence. Some of these talented individuals join multinational corporations —  for example, the AI heads of 10 of Silicon Valley’s most reputable technology firms come from France. Many others launch startups. Almost 300 startup companies focused on AI exist in France alone by last count.

Perhaps in stark contrast with Japan, unemployment levels of educated workers are stratospheric. Specifically, unemployment rates of college-educated youth exceeded 20% in many European countries a few years ago. These rates are starting to come down in light of the increased attention and investment in Europe; however they still remain in the teens in most countries.

The result of these two drivers i) high unemployment rates among workers with advanced degrees, and ii) the depth of advanced educational institutions, have created conditions where talented human capital is both abundant and available.

Furthermore, perhaps for historical and cultural reasons, European workers tend to hold much greater loyalty to their employers (in contrast for example with their American counterparts).  Professional loyalty and labor regulations in Europe make the labor market slightly less fluid then say in the United States. However, I would suggest that startups feel freer to innovate within a longer time horizon if they can count on continuity among their talent base. For instance, the risk of having one’s top developers solicited every month by a another local technology company offering higher compensation is relatively non-existent in Europe, compared to Silicon Valley.

As a matter of fact, one of the growing practices increasingly adopted by European entrepreneurs is a structure which maintains their engineering and development resources in their local European country while shifting their sales and marketing activities to a larger single market, such as the U.S., or branching out in a distributed fashion in a pan-European conquest.

For although Europe represents one of the largest developed markets in the world, it is not homogeneous. Rather it is a diverse collection of small, distinct countries, markets, and cultures. In order to grow to a significant scale, European startups have finally figured out the importance of expanding beyond their home countries’ borders. This represented an evolution in the mindset of innovators that took place only over the past 10 to 15 years. Some figured it out quite early — such as the Dutch, the Belgians, the Scandinavians — whereas others took longer to acknowledge it but finally came around, such as France and Germany.

On the funding side, governments historically filled the void left by the absence of university endowments and pension funds (which are more prevalent in the U.S.) to support innovation financially. Many European countries offer some form of startup financing and subsidies for innovation. Governments offer tax incentives to companies who invest abundantly in R&D. This system undoubtedly produced a bit of waste and abuse to some extent, but it also helped encourage risk-taking and innovation, particularly the kind of disruptive innovation that can only come from outside incumbent corporations.

Historically, large corporations in Europe excelled at incremental innovation, conceived and performed internally, yet corporate inertia and the dilemma of cannibalizing existing revenue lines prevented them from embracing the radical innovations which threatened to disrupt the very foundations of their businesses.

Europe’s relatively small venture capital industry has flourished and matured over the past 10 years. Government-backed funds and captive investment subsidiaries of banks and corporations gave way to a vibrant collection of independent VC funds laser-focused on generating outsized financial returns, typically by scaling innovative startups globally. Total VC funding in Europe in 2017 reached a new record of $6.5 billion, which represents a 50% increase in just two years (total was $4.3 billion in 2015). Maturing fintech startups accounted for $1.8 billion of this total. Some of this was contributed by foreign investors, especially many noteworthy American VC funds, who have recognized the appeal of Europe and the relative attractiveness of valuations and deal parameters compared to the U.S.

Startup valuations in Europe are lower than in the U.S.: 60% lower at Seed stage and 40% lower at the Series A stage. I expect that this pricing gap will continue to narrow over time as more investors wake up to the value Europe holds in innovative sectors like fintech, AI, blockchain, and IoT. America’’s tier-1 VC firms such as Union Square Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz, Insight Venture Partners, and Sequoia Capital are increasingly investing in European tech companies, as are a few Chinese investors. VC funding from foreign investors (mostly U.S. but some Chinese) into European companies has more than doubled over the past 5 years, from $210M to $425M.

All of these above factors combined over the past decade have produced fertile grounds for widespread innovation across Europe. Europe now counts approximately 30 technology unicorns, as well as hundreds of “centaurs” (startups that have surpassed the $100 million valuation threshold). The percentage of fintech unicorns in Europe is more than double that in the U.S.

We are only now just beginning to witness the fruits of a two decade-long effort. I submit that Europe should be on the agenda of every global corporation’s innovation strategy.

VC’s squirrels this year

January 16, 2018

The Chairman of one my portfolio companies shared this with me the other day. The best jokes are those that touch closest to the truth, and this one is no exception.

2018 will be the Year of the Regulator

January 11, 2018

Almost exactly two years I proclaimed that 2016 would be the Year of the European Entrepreneur.

At least two other geopolitical earthquakes — in the UK and the US of course — garnered most of the attention in 2016, and understandably so. Still, I submit that a case could be made that several European startups demonstrated domain leadership on the global stage, notably in the areas of fintech, e-commerce, and health care. Moreover, now with a bit of distance it looks as though the aforementioned geopolitical shockers are further uniting continental Europe.

It is in continuing the spirit of making audacious proclamations that I’d like to suggest that 2018 will be the Year of the Regulator.

What a great time to be a regulator

“What a great time to be a regulator,” my friend exclaimed to me the other day. The friend in question happens to be an experienced operator in the tech sector, not a dyed-in-the-wool socialist by any stretch. His enthusiasm reminded me of author Robert Stanek’s description of living in Germany during the fall of the Berlin wall, “So much potential unrest yet everywhere everyone was so excited. What a great time to be alive.”

Never before in my lifetime have the societal challenges brought forth by technology ever felt so daunting.

Increasingly powerful tech giants like Facebook and Google appear to have found a way to cheat the Innovator’s Dilemma. They simply deploy their vast war chests to stifle, copy, or acquire any whiff of disruptive innovation on the horizon. Facebook’s dominance of our social graphs merits a reconsideration of antitrust regulations in my opinion. Whereas back in the day it was the disruption of the O/S by the web browser — not antitrust lawsuits — which curtailed Microsoft, Facebook can clone Snapchat’s Stories and leverage their heft in user base to quickly eclipse it. I’ve said many times (with the benefit of hindsight) that Facebook should have not been allowed to acquire Instagram. Absent legislation requiring some kind of unbundling or portability of the social graphs, fresh innovation and hence power shifts in this space seem impossible. Scary stuff for a company whose influence over our thought processes has demonstrated a real-world impact on democracy.

The current debate over whether Facebook should play a more active role in censoring advertisers on its network is intellectually stimulating. I mean that sincerely. There are well-reasoned and thoughtful arguments on both sides. Vetting terrorists and nefarious advertisers sounds obvious, but could there be unintended consequences of granting Facebook a pass to start taking sides ? Next week more Senate Commerce Committee hearings take place with Facebook (alongside Google and Twitter). I wish officials all the best in judgement and wisdom on these complicated questions.

The era of decentralization ?

I had concluded my 2016 piece in stating that, “Companies are no longer defined by national boundaries.” If 2017 was the year that the masses woke up to blockchain, it also gave us a glimpse into the fragility of national governments. I’m not referring to the rise of populism in many so-called “Western” countries — which is a different cause for alarm — but rather to the fundamental notion of the nation-state. Are we heading into a world in which citizens become sovereign individuals who cherry-pick à la carte the government services they require based on the most competitive jurisdiction for each ?

Then we have the question of cryptocurrencies, their regulation and their taxation. Many governments are sending mixed messages, some are criminalizing them, while others are leading the way (notably in this last category: Japan, as I’ve explained in my book, Japan Bitcoin #1).

Data protection

The European Union appears to be leading the way when it comes to data protection. In May of this year the EU GDPR directive takes effect. The General Data Protection Regulation is designed to enable individuals to better control their personal data. It will hopefully provide some harmonization of data rules and provide substantially-reinforced guarantees over the usage of consumer data. The legislation encompasses requirements regarding consent, notification of breaches, data portability, profiling, and the right to be forgotten.

(As a side note: I’m fascinated with the conundrum of reconciling the right to be forgotten with the fundamental immutability principle of blockchain technology).

While the regulation is European, it’s remit will be far-reaching. Organizations outside the EU that collect data concerning an EU resident are subject to the jurisdiction. Penalties could reach up to 4% of the violator’s global gross revenue. The implementation and enforcement will present interesting challenges, but it would be hard for any reasonable person to disagree that something needs to be done.

Machines as arbiters

Of course no regulator’s checklist of items requiring urgent attention would be complete without the topic of artificial intelligence. Machine learning algorithms can score a borrower’s credit worthiness, evaluate a candidate’s job eligibility, or diagnose a patient’s risk of prostate cancer far more efficiently than a human process. However, sometimes these algorithms are so effective on such complex problems that their very inventors cannot re-engineer or troubleshoot them. Fail-safes need to be constructed to detect and handle the occasions that technology makes the wrong call. Establishing the mechanisms for recourse when the machine gets it wrong will require a thoughtful regulatory framework. Could an AI ultimately replace the regulator as final arbiter ?

Hope to see ya later, regulator !

You’ve probably figured out by now that my point of this piece is not to criticize regulators’ actions (admittedly I often do that), but rather to suggest that the job of regulators has never felt as important as it does now.

2018 predictions from insightful international investors

December 21, 2017

Years ago I started publishing an annual list of technology predictions from global venture capitalists. By design, I deliberately chose VCs beyond the usual American household names, whose voices were not necessarily heard on the world stage.

Last year all of the tech prognostications came from women VCs. Even (especially?) by Silicon Valley standards, this felt quite unique and I’m proud of that.

For this season’s set of predictions, I am again pleased to be able to give the floor to an all-female cast of investors, this time a collection of insightful VCs from Asia. I’ve had the honour of interacting with each of these individuals and encourage all readers to take note of them. Their already noteworthy accomplishments will likely continue to grow.

May 2018 bring us further enlightenment.

 

Kanako Honda — DCM Ventures, Japan

From a high-level perspective, data analytics combined with delivering value proposition that will ultimately result in monetization will become even more important in 2018. In the recent 1-2 years, startups were able to gather large funds from VCs and concentrated on growing the user base by putting short term economics aside. As these startups, such as Uber, LimeBike, Wework etc, successfully built sizable audience and became a platform, there will be companies that will utilize big startup’s network effect and deliver various values to each touchpoint and create monetization model that doesn’t require large funding.

From a geopolitical view, edtech in Japan will start to rise as education is becoming one of the hottest topic of national policy. Although edtech has been considered as a niche, slow and unprofitable market for startups to jump in for quite a while, companies are starting to learn from the past and coming up with ways to build sustainable business within this sector. I hope 2018 will be the dawn of edtech era in Japan.

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Vorawan “Michelle” Wangpanitkul — Digital Ventures, Thailand

I recall 2016 being at the height of the blockchain buzz. Blockchain pretty much intercepted every use case in and out of fintech. While I am a big believer in blockchain, I believe there will only be a few blockchain-powered use cases that survive to commercialization, ones that require an immutable distributed ledger to tackle its pain point (and there aren’t many!). Beyond payments & remittance, the next one should be KYC. Identity is at the foundation of banking, and getting it right is crucial and win-win for everyone. I personally think blockchain-powered KYC is an agenda that regulators need to push forward, and with Singapore and India’s regulators already testing this, 2018 might be the year blockchain-KYC gets adopted mainstream, and other regulators follow in.

Geographically speaking, I think there will be a lot of interesting things coming out of India. RBI has pushed forward e-KYC and successfully captured biometrics data in 99% of its adult population. With a 1.3billion population, fragmented market, huge engineering talent pool, and a lot of financial & infrastructural barriers being tackled at a state level, India is the country ripe for innovation and transformation. My 2018 prediction – lots of capital flooding into India.

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Joanna Cheung, HBCC Investment and TUS International, China

The paradigm will continue to shift from ‘made in China’ to ‘created in China’. The giants of innovative technology that are emerging today are original Chinese innovations. Increasingly, we will see these original and successful companies expand abroad, notably to the U.S., Europe, and Japan. Innovations in deep tech, such as artificial intelligence, clean technology, robotics, RPA, are areas we’re particularly excited about.

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Mayu Morishima, Beyond Next Ventures, Japan

In Japan, tech startups, especially from universities, are receiving increasing attention partly due to government initiatives, and biotech/medical companies occupy the majority of this space. The trend of precision medicine is also a major target for the development of startups, which typically have smaller-scale R&D capability. Large companies from other fields are also increasingly entering the healthcare sector, and M&A activity by these companies to secure innovative technology is becoming popular. Therefore, it is clear that biotech, healthcare, and medical startups will be hot in 2018.

Attractive fields include 1) regenerative medicine driven by induced pluripotent stem cell biology as well as a favorable regulatory environment; 2) digital heath, with the first smartphone application to be registered as a medical device and validated by clinical evidence about to launch; and 3) telemedicine, which is expected to be boosted by the medical fee structure revision coming in 2018. In addition to these attractive fields; however, I believe that a crucial part of VC investment should also include envisioning and creating new fields by investing in promising technologies that fall outside of established trends. I will keep looking for such pioneering innovations in 2018 as well!

 

Bitcoin forecasting

December 15, 2017

Would somebody please build a blockchain which immutably tracks the forecasts for the year-end bitcoin price from all these self-annointed pundits ?

2017 Startup holiday gift guide

December 11, 2017

Back by popular request, I’ve compiled a holiday gift guide featuring companies and projects in which I’ve invested or have been involved in some form.

  1. La Belle Assiette. Host your family and/or friends to a delicious dinner party prepared by a professional chef at your home with La Belle Assiette. Here are some free credit vouchers for France, Belgium, and the UK.
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  2. Ledger wallet. Now that your cryptocurrency has appreciated into more than pocket money, be sure to store it securely. Ledger offers one of the most elegant hardware cryptowallets on the market. You can order a Ledger wallet online or directly in person at La Maison du Bitcoin if you’re in Paris.
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  3. Revolut. Speaking of cryptocurrency, London-based fintech startup Revolut has recently introduced simple transactions in bitcoin, ether, and litecoin. Join the beta with this referral link.
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  4. TransferWise. For those with a need to send or receive international money transfers in fiat currency, I cannot praise enough TransferWise‘s new Borderless Account. Here’s a referral link for a free transfer.
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  5. CurrencyFair. Aside from its sole blemish of not supporting JPY, CurrencyFair is my favorite service for foreign exchange. Interbank exchange rates and the ability to place limit orders makes them a winner. Here’s a referral link for some free credit.
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  6. Keyyo. The Keyyo Smartstation (designed by Invoxia) is a sleek IP phone console whose user experience exceeds every other desk phone I’ve ever tried. It also doubles as a high-fidelity bluetooth speaker.
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  7. Kang. Give someone the gift of a logo, website, custom video, or other creative digital arts service from the Kang marketplace.
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  8. Japan: Bitcoin #1. Last but not least, help me surpass 1000 copies sold by purchasing my book about cryptocurrency in Japan. You might be surprised to discover how Japan has become the bitcoin leader. At minimum, you’ll support a good cause, as profits are directed to Japan’s Tohoku region.

I wish everyone an enjoyable holiday season !

State of European Tech 2017 (spoiler: it’s male)

December 5, 2017

If you haven’t had an opportunity to review Atomico’s annual report on the State of European Tech, I encourage you to take a look. The brief is loaded with valuable insight into Europe’s innovation ecosystem, a sector no longer overlooked by entrepreneurs and investors globally.

Two incontrovertible conclusions leapt out at me from this analysis:

  1. Europe’s innovation ecosystem is booming. This has not been a secret among European insiders, but now global investors from the U.S., China, and even Japan are waking up to this opportunity.
  2. Europe’s innovation ecosystem is mostly male.

I’ll circle back to elaborate more on point 1 later. However, it is the second point which I suggest warrants more immediate attention.

Frankly, gender diversity in Europe’s tech startups and VC funds is abysmal. Furthermore, the perception and the reality around gender diversity in European tech are not aligned. Props to Chris O’Brien for pointing out this disparity among European startups.

I submit that the gender gap in European startups correlates closely with the gender gap within European VC funds. Atomico’s report depicts the under-representation of women in the UK’s venture capital industry, indicating that a mere 13% of VC decision-makers are women.

The situation in France’s VC sector is similarly depressing, and readers of my blog know that I’ve been railing about this problem for a while now. Here’s a reprint of an infographic on the topic I had published in 2016 (granted this needs an update but not much has changed).

In a separate section on macro events, the Atomico report observes how French insecurity seemingly vanished overnight into a “burst of positivity” upon President Macron’s election. People resist change yet are also capable of changing quickly when it matters. Gender diversity in innovation matters.