European VC investments outperform U.S. ones—and have over the past two decades

December 7, 2021, 12:10 PM UTC

Silicon Valley immediately springs to mind when people think about the heart of technology innovation.

But it turns out that investors looking for returns from fast-growing tech startups might be wiser to start hunting for those in London, Berlin, Stockholm, or Madrid. The returns from European venture capital investments have exceeded those from similar investments in the U.S. in every time period for the past two decades.

That’s according to data from investment firm Cambridge Associates, published in a new report on the state of Europe’s tech sector created by European-focused venture capital firm Atomico. The firm was founded by billionaire Skype cofounder Niklas Zennström, and has more than $2.7 billion in assets under management.

Tom Wehmeier, a partner at Atomico, said that it was only when one looked back 25 years—when the impact of the initial dotcom boom in the U.S. had boosted American venture capital returns—that the U.S. venture capital index was ahead of the European one.

In more recent eras, there has been no contest: European venture has done better on average. In the year to June 2021, a normalized index of pooled European venture capital fund returns outperformed its U.S. counterpart by about two points. Over both three-year and five-year time periods, Europe was ahead by about five points. And over a decade, Europe was still ahead by three points.

The word seems to have gotten out, and money from all over the world is pouring into European tech firms. Atomico said that 2,826 institutions participated in at least one European technology funding deal in 2021, up from 2,044 two years ago. “The size of the European market is far more mature and larger than it was pre-pandemic,” said Sonya Iovieno, head of venture and growth for the U.K. branch of Silicon Valley Bank. She said this meant Europe was attracting “a new set of investors as potential returns from VC-backed businesses become more attractive.”

As a result, European startups are on track to exceed $100 billion in total venture capital investment this year, more than double the total such companies raised in 2020, according to Atomico. In fact, the venture firm estimates that when the final figure is known, which may not occur until well into the first quarter of next year, as much as $121 billion will have been pumped into Europe’s startups.

The Continent is producing a record number of unicorns, startups that grow to be worth more than $1 billion. It created 98 in 2021, according to Atomico, and now has 321 in total. Europe also now has 26 so-called decacorns—tech companies worth more than $10 billion—including perhaps the best known, Spotify. But the music streaming service is not Europe’s most valuable venture-backed tech company. That would be Adyen, the fast-growing payments technology company that is now publicly traded on the Euronext stock exchange and is likely to hit the $100 billion valuation mark within the next year, becoming the fourth European technology company to exceed that milestone.

The overall value of Europe’s technology ecosystem is soaring, too, according to the venture firm. It estimates the total ecosystem value—including both publicly listed and private companies—now exceeds $3 trillion, three times its estimate in 2018 when Europe crossed the $1 trillion valuation mark for the first time. “Europe is creating value from tech faster than ever,” Wehmeier said. He noted that some of the increase in value—the leap from $2 trillion to $3 trillion—has come in just the first eight months of 2021 and has been driven, in part, by European startups choosing to go public through mergers with special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) listed on U.S. stock exchanges. Surging equity markets have also helped.

In total, $275 billion in value was realized so far in 2021 when European startups went public, either through an IPO or a SPAC, or sold out to another company. Of this, $140 billion came from companies that had been venture capital–funded prior to exiting.

Europe’s share of early-stage venture capital funding is coming at the expense of the U.S., Atomico said in its report. Over the past five years, European startups have captured 13% more of the money available for funding deals under $5 million, while U.S. startups have seen that figure decline 20%.

One group of investors that Wehmeier said he wished would show more interest in Europe’s fast-growing tech startups are the Continent’s own pension funds. While U.S. pension funds are active backers of venture capital, both in the U.S. and in Europe, their counterparts across the Atlantic have been reluctant to put much money into the asset class and, in some cases, are prohibited from doing so by their bylaws or by government regulations. European pension funds currently devote just .018% of their $3 trillion in total assets to venture capital. Wehmeier says that if the funds raised that to just 1%, which is still below the commitment that many U.S. pension funds make to the sector, it would have a seismic impact on the market.

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