Europe’s unicorn technology businesses riding strong

In a year when so many exciting company's raised big sums of money, and were sold for eye-watering sums, deciding which were the best was hard work.

In times gone by it was normally pretty easy to decide which the best venture capital firm, exit or entrepreneur of the last 12 months was. A big-ticket exit or substantial fundraising was often enough to stand head and shoulders above the competition.

Now however, the unprecedented advance of European technology companies has made our job of selecting the winners of Investor Allstars pretty difficult, something that should be celebrated.

To get a better understanding of just how far the sector has come in recent years, GP Bullhound, the technology investment bank that GrowthBusiness hosts Investor Allstars with, conducted a piece of research. The title: Can Europe create billion-dollar tech companies.

The answer was an overwhelming yes, as evidenced by the fact that since 2000 30 companies have been founded in Europe and gone on to achieve a valuation of $1 billion or more. The fact is made even more impressive when it is noted that traditional technology heavyweight the US has only had a shade more (39 between 2003 and 2013).

So who are these so-called ‘unicorn’ businesses? Looking down the list is like a who’s who of the leading entrepreneurs from the last decade. Included are Niklas Zennstrom at Skype, Nick Robertson at ASOS, Daniel Elk at Spotify and Alex Chesterman at Zoopla. There is a strong bias towards consumer-type businesses rather than enterprise, the opposite of the US, and six are valued at $5 billion or more.

The most impressive part of the research is that, of the 30 $1 billion-plus companies identified, 11 can be found within the UK. Russia has produced five, Sweden four and Finland two. GP Bullhound suggests that the abundance of UK unicorns is down to there being a sizeable domestic market and technology adoption being high.

Only half of the unicorns have reached a liquidity event, such as a flotation or exit deal – with the two major transactions of Skype’s sale to Microsoft for $8.5 billion in 2011 and Supercell’s acquisition by Softbank for $3 billion in 2013 dominating.

So what can we draw from this, and what does this mean for the future? Well, as evidenced by our latest Investor Allstars winners, there has never before been such an impressive list of investors and entrepreneurs. It seems now that European businesses are finally being given the financial firepower and access to markets needed to achieve exponential growth – rather than selling out early and never reaching potential.

We in Europe also now seem to have a community of serial entrepreneurs who have the knowledge and fortitude needed to not only build and sell a big company, but come back and do it again or help others do it themselves.

Commentators have forever and a day debated whether this side of the Atlantic can truly rival the other when it comes to creating businesses which will go down in history. Well, while it’s safe to say that while unicorns are still mythical creatures, multi-billion dollar tech companies headquartered in Europe are anything but.

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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