How Europe can work together to grow Unicorns

Europe is home to fewer than one in 13 of the world’s Unicorns, 7.2 percent. The bulk of the largest innovative companies are in the US and Asia. To push Europe into a leadership role in the coming decade of digital innovation, we need to change our approach.

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Tallinn, Estonia, where Digital Nomad visas have opened up access to the global talent pool. Source: Andrés García from Pexels

Europe is a culturally rich and diverse region with enormous potential to innovate. While there are challenges, I believe we can overcome them with some joined-up thinking, both on the part of the EU and its respective governments and by leaders in European industry. There are many steps the EU can take to enhance and foster a culture of innovation. By speeding up processes across the jurisdictions, we can facilitate start-ups and provide fertile ground for growth and development. The key to our success is vision and cooperation.

The good news is that an important initiative kicked off in the spring of 2021 led by a collaboration between Mariya Gabriel, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Education, Culture and Media and the EU Unicorns Group, comprising founders and CEOs of 35 ventures going global from Europe. Immedis, the leader in consolidated global payroll solutions, is honoured to be included among this impressive group of entrepreneurs and business leaders from fast-growth companies such as BlaBlaCar, Bolt, Cabify, Klarna, Zalando and In the inaugural meeting of the EU Unicorns Group, Mariya Gabriel succinctly encapsulated the main objective of the collaborative venture in the following comment, We need European Unicorns to pave the way towards Europe’s sustainable and resilient recovery, accelerate the green and digital transitions, and ensure Europe’s technological sovereignty.”

The EU Commissioner and the EU Unicorns Group outlined the challenges and opportunities in a report entitled “Next Innovation EU: EU Unicorns call on Europe and its Leaders.” The group has reconvened several times over the summer to discuss solutions for ensuring Europe’s technological sovereignty. Following are some of the key objectives and proposals covered in the report and in various stages of ideation and development to provide a roadmap for EU business leaders and policy makers to address these concerns.


Technology is the catalyst
Technology is entering a new accelerated phase in its development, and COVID-19 has highlighted some stark realities: Chiefly, the influx to the market of non-EU funded competition is endangering Europe’s global industrial position. Europe needs to dramatically push its digital innovation to compete and have a stake in the digital agenda globally. The current paradigm places inordinate technological and financial control on companies based in the US and Asia. Their deep pockets give them free rein to buy out start-ups and market disruptors before they properly emerge, thus squashing competitors on sight. To add to this powerful dynamic, those same interests have easy access to the global talent pool and can scale easily. Europe’s influence is waning, putting jobs and cyber-security at risk.


Europe working together is the best chance for success
To offset this imbalance, a strong Europe-wide shift is required. The EU needs to adopt a singular, unified approach to create an ecosystem that fosters unfettered innovation through inviting talent and investment without the red tape that has previously hindered progress. Europe-wide cooperation between public and private sectors is vital, as is an investment in research and development and education and skills to grow a new generation of innovators. Some countries are showing leadership: Estonia introduced Digital Nomad Visas, which speed up that country’s access to a global talent pool; Malta provides enlightened legal frameworks which facilitate distributed ledger technologies (DLTs), and Portugal’s universities are actively developing courses geared towards deep tech initiatives. But individual countries and companies cannot take on the challenges of growth and innovation alone. A Europe-wide level playing field is required, wherein networks and relationships are developed across jurisdictions, between start-ups, established companies, investors, the academy, policy and decision-makers, and the populace at large. This requires intervention from Europe. It will begin with vital policy changes and implementation, and if embraced by innovation economy leaders throughout Europe, it could truly alter the landscape for digital innovation.

At the EU level, leaders and policymakers need to deeply comprehend the possibilities of scientific, engineering, and technological innovation. To keep up with competitors in developing software, hardware, deep and green tech, Europe needs a dedicated EU ‘Sovereign Tech Fund’ to protect Europe’s economic and strategic interests. Currently, the typical funding models, while adequate in the initial stages, release capital too slowly at critical later stages of development. Reform is required to protect homegrown industries from stagnating at crucial growth periods or being bought up by competing non-EU companies. More effective public-private partnerships must be cultivated, with user-friendly public procurement processes which incentivise rather than stall start-ups.

Europe must invest in green transformation to achieve established climate and energy targets. The role of start-ups will be key to the transition to an environmentally sustainable economy. A ‘Green Tech Fund’ would draw substantial investment from public and private sectors to facilitate green tech innovation, which tends to be capital intensive and take longer to come to market or return a profit.

Important Projects of Common European Interest (IPCEI), such as the breakthrough BioNTech mRNA-based vaccine, illustrate the value of investment in deep tech. To take a leadership role, Europe needs to scale up the framework and funding for IPCEI. Tying in with this is the necessity to attract and maintain talented and highly skilled workers. To this end, the European Blue Card program was created over a decade ago, which facilitates a mobile labour force, but it needs reform, as some qualifying criteria are outdated and the speed of labour mobility requirements has shifted in the last decade. An ‘EU Blue Card 2.0’ would allow Europe to welcome top talent from a global pool expediently.

Finally, as Europe is a culturally and linguistically diverse region, creating a network of regional innovation hubs, or ‘Small Valleys,’ would contribute vitally to creating a unified and coherent innovative culture through the linking of universities, business, and the public sector. ‘Small Valleys’ would encourage the sharing of ideas across multiple disciplines, thus fostering continuous innovation. When it comes to product testing, the EU is a single market more in name than in practice. It is weighed down with restrictions and regulations in different countries, thus slowing down companies’ development from idea to market. The concept of Pan-EU Sandboxes would unify the EU by providing a framework for companies located in the EU to test products and ideas at greater speed. This would vastly improve the process of innovation, development of products or services, market testing, and production in game-changing ways.


What can you do?
It’s also important to remember that you don’t need to belong to the EU Unicorns group to support this effort. Companies of all types and sizes can commit to the EU vision of green tech by setting sustainability goals for their organisation. A commitment to sustainability presents so many opportunities for the future of our climate, global and local communities and for business growth across every industry. The path to sustainability can start small and grow from incremental changes.

At Immedis we know we have a lot to do, but we’ve started sustainability initiatives that are mapped closely to our company values. This year we are taking a hard look at the sustainability of our business operations. From this assessment we’ll produce a sustainability report which we’ll use for goal setting. These efforts will help us be a more efficient, effective and sustainable business which will also contribute to building a more sustainable future in the communities where we operate.

Immedis is part of CluneTech, a collection of global companies that deliver focus driven, digitized solutions to simplify the complexity of global business. Sustainability is a shared value among the companies within the Group. CluneTech recently acquired an emerging startup called Gradguide. The company pairs graduates with mentors and tech companies to help them make the transition from college into the tech industry. Gradguide’s continued growth and success will create opportunities for leading and emerging companies to find and acquire top talent coming right out of college. It’s yet another example of leaders and leading companies joining forces to create long term solutions to business problems and challenges, including the need to support emerging companies and business growth in the EU.

Much of it comes down to a well-worn but powerful statement that applies here and to many challenges – Think globally, act locally. That’s how the EU Unicorns group got its start. Government and business leaders gathered to discuss the global technology industry and the future prospects for the EU. Now we’re bringing our ideas to life to create positive change for the EU and in our own businesses and communities.

As leaders, we can all contribute to the culture of innovation through thought leadership, disseminating ideas, and demonstrating practical, detailed pathways to make a positive and lasting impact that’s beneficial to business while also fostering innovation and sustainable growth.

About Ruairi Kelleher

Ruairi Kelleher is CEO and a member of the Board of Directors of Immedis, the global leader in consolidated global payroll solutions. Ruairi is responsible for the corporate direction, strategy, and M&A activity at Immedis, enabling the senior leadership team to drive innovation in international payroll and tax services through Immedis’ cloud-based solution.