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Main article: Cambridge Associates

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Atomico Partner Tom Wehmeier reviews ‘The State of European Tech’ 2019 report

01:33 | 3 December

Atomico, the European venture capital firm founded by Skype’s Niklas Zennström, has released its latest annual The State of European Tech report, published in partnership with Slush and Orrick.

As part of the report, the authors surveyed 5,000 members of the ecosystem — including 1,000 founders — as well as pulling in robust data from other sources, such as Dealroom and the London Stock Exchange .

This year, the report reveals that the European tech ecosystem continues to mature and shows no sign of slowing — particularly highlighting the contrast from five years ago when the The State of European Tech report made its debut. Almost every key indicator is up and to the right, except, rather depressingly, diversity.

The data shows, for example, that competition for talent and access to the best founders has increased ferociously. And from a funding perspective, European founders have more choice than ever, especially with U.S. and Asian VC firms investing more and more in the region. Progress with gender diversity stalled, however, such as 92% of funding going to all-male teams.

I caught up with the report’s author Tom Wehmeier, Partner and Head of Insights at Atomico (also sometimes jokingly referred to as the “Mary Meeker of Europe”), where we discuss in more detail some of the key findings and why, it seems, that the rest of the world has finally woken up to Europe’s tech potential.

But first, a few headlines from the report:

  • European technology companies are on track to raise a record 30$B+ in funding in 2019, up from $25B the year before. (Source: Dealroom)
  • Despite failing to match the level of venture-backed exits of 2018, there was a record number of 40 $100M-plus deals as of September 2019, a size that many European tech sceptics did not believe was possible. (Source: Dealroom)
  • A number of multi-billion-dollar non-venture backed companies like Nexi and Trainline made their debut on the public markets.
  • European tech policymaking remains a mystery to many European founders.
  • When asked to describe the top priority of the European Commission in terms of tech policy, 40% of founders and startup employees say they don’t feel informed enough to comment. (Source: survey)
  • Despite this reported lack of awareness on policy issues, all respondents voted EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager as the person who had the most influence on European tech in 2019, good or bad. (Source: survey)
  • European parliamentarians aren’t talking about fintech and digital health, two sectors which investors poured a combined $12.7bn into last year (Source: Politico and Dealroom)
  • Europe’s diversity figures are still grim reading.
  • In 2019, 92% of funding went to all-male teams, a similar level to 2018. (Source: Dealroom)
  • There is still only one woman CTO in the 119 companies (<1%) based on a sample of executives in CxO positions at 251 European VC-backed tech companies that raised a Series A or B round between 1 October 2018 and 30 September 2019 with more than $10M funding, even though 7.5% of software engineers are women. (Source: Stack Overflow, Craft, Dealroom)
  • Looking beyond gender diversity, ethnic minorities in tech experienced discrimination at a much high rate than white peers. (Source: survey)
  • At least 80% of Black/African/Caribbean respondents who reported experiencing discrimination linked it to their ethnicity. (Source: survey)
  • 63% of women VCs reported increased focus on attending events with stronger participation from diverse founders. The corresponding number for men VCs was only 33% of female respondents suggested that their male counterparts are leaving female VCs to fix Europe’s diversity problem. (Source: survey)
  • European founders aren’t just aiming for commercial success — they are trying to solve some of the world’s largest problems.
  • One in five European founders states that their company is already measuring its societal and/or environmental impact. (Source: survey)
  • Only 14% of founders don’t believe it’s relevant for their company. Founders that are women are much more likely to be advanced in their approach to measuring impact. (Source: survey)
  • Employees are placing a greater emphasis on corporate social responsibility, with 57% citing its importance in the State of European Tech survey. (Source: survey)

Extra Crunch: It is 5 years since Atomico published the first The State of European Tech report, which really attempted to capture a data-driven snapshot of the entire ecosystem. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen within European tech in the intertwining years or in this year in particular?

Tom Wehmeier: If I think back to when we did the first report, people who believe that Europe could actually be an interesting player in global technology, were largely limited to people who were in the tech industry in Europe itself. If you then fast forward to today, what has clearly happened — and I think 2019 was the year where this really materialized and became part of the narrative — was that belief translating from people on the inside to a bunch of people that were on the outside.

Most obviously has been the strength of interest from from the U.S. and the number of top-tier U.S. funds that are not just increasing their level of investment activity but committing to spending more and more time here on the ground, hiring people, building teams, building a network, and getting to know companies. I think it probably surprises people to know that 19% of all rounds this year will involve at least one U.S. investor in Europe, which is more than double since since the first year we did the report.

I think the other thing, where I come back to this idea that now we have finally convinced a certain group of people about the role that Europe can play, is mainstream institutional investors. I know it is not going to be lost on you, [but] this is going to be another record year for VC fund raising from Europe. And whilst the headline numbers might not be a surprise, I think what should catch people’s attention is that the composition of the LP base here in Europe is now shifting. And finally, there’s an unlocking of institutional investors, [by which] I mean pension funds, funds of funds, insurance companies, sovereign wealth funds, who are committing to European VC at levels that are significantly increased and elevated from where they had been in the past. So, if you just take pension funds, we’re going to see close to a billion dollars invested which is up nearly three fold.

It’s a validation of what’s happening around European tech to see that now coming through and I think is ultimately something that helps to build a foundation for the next five years of success. As much as this is a report that’s looking back, it’s also about trying to understand where things go from here.

With regards to the pension funds, do you think that is driven by the general bullishness towards European tech, or do you think it’s more the macro economic reality that maybe other places where they could put their money aren’t very attractive at the moment?

I think it’s really a reflection that there’s a strong level of belief that European venture as an asset class is an attractive investment opportunity. And that is reflected by the numbers. One of the charts that we’ve got in the report is from Cambridge Associates who do the benchmarking for the VC indices… And when you look back over a 1, 3, 5, or even a 10 year horizon, the performance from European VC is demonstrating that this is a place where for anyone building a diversified portfolio, they should have some allocation. I think it’s fundamentally the strength of the investment opportunity. That is the single biggest driver for why you’re seeing this happen.

I think the biggest thing that Europe has been able to prove is that it can take a great idea and turn it into a great company and that company can scale to not just a billion dollar outcome but to a multi-billion dollar outcome and go all the way through into an IPO or into a large scale acquisition. What you’ve seen happen in 2019 is in part A reflection of what happened last year where it was obviously this record year with Spotify, Adyen, Farfetch, Elastic and others that really showed you can go full cycle from start all the way to finish. And that the magnitude of those outcomes can be at a scale that makes them globally relevant.

Are the pension funds shifting their allocation of VC away from other geographies or are they just doing more VC as a whole?

 


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Congressional testimony reveals some faults in Facebook’s digital currency plans

09:54 | 18 July

As Facebook continues to lay the foundation for getting some of the world’s largest payment processing and technology companies a seat at the global monetary policy table, the company faces significant obstacles to enacting its plans from both sides of the Congressional aisle.

In the second of what’s sure to be many (many many many) hearings in front of Congressional committees, David Marcus, the chief executive of Facebook’s new digital payments subsidiary, Calibra, faced hours of questions from Representatives on the House Financial Services Committee about the how and why of Facebook’s digital currency plans.

Facebook’s critics had questions about both sides of the company’s two-pronged approach to transforming the global financial services industry.

Marcus was able to avoid answering some of his toughest questioning by taking advantage of the grey area between Facebook’s role as the chief architect behind Libra (a financial instrument that uses blockchain technology to enable transactions using a digital currency managed by a consortium of private companies) and Calibra (the payments subsidiary that Facebook owns).

Marcus stated in his testimony, Facebook’s plans for Libra are entirely about getting the digital currency that the company is creating recognized by international financial bodies — skirting the oversight of U.S. banking and financial services regulators in favor of Switzerland’s “neutral” approach.

Representatives, rightly, have concerns about each step of the process, so it’s probably best to examine the currency that Facebook is hoping to create with its partners in the Libra Association and the Calibra subsidiary separately.

First, there are significant questions around the Libra Association that Facebook assembled itself, and the regulatory responsibility that Congress and various Federal agencies have to oversee the digital currency that it’s hoping to create.

The structural problems of the Libra Association and its currency

Concerns begin with the independence of the association Facebook selected to be its partners in the cryptocurrency. There are any number of ties between the corporations and investors that are on Libra’s existing governing body and Facebook. The fact that Facebook selected the initial charter members that paid $10 million for the privilege of being co-founders of the currency was not lost on Representatives like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, the first term representative from New York.

“The membership is open, based on certain criteria,” Marcus said in his testimony responding to a question from Representative Ocasio Cortez about the membership of the Libra Association. “The first 27 members that have joined are companies that have shared that desire to build this network and solve problems.”

Representative Ocasio Cortez responded, “So, we are discussing a currently controlled by an undemocratically selection of largely massive corporations.”

The New York representative wasn’t alone in her criticism of the composition of the Libra Association, questioning whether Facebook would have undue influence over the organization.

Setting aside the independence of the Libra Association, Representatives also had some pertinent questions about the ways in which the currency is structured.

Libra’s currency is set up as a stablecoin whose value is set by the Association and is pegged to a basket of global currencies that provide a hedge against the the currency fluctuating in value as a result of speculative investment. Users pay in a certain amount of currency and receive an amount of Libra that they can spend at participating merchants or companies (a vast network considering that Mastercard, PayPal, and Visa are all participating in the Association).

Given the size of Facebook’s user base (which numbers in the billions), if every user put an average of $100 into the network, the Libra Association would vault into the ranks of the top 20 largest banks in America (assuming $100 billion in assets). That alone would warrant regulatory oversight by any number of Federal agencies, some representatives argued.

They also expressed concern about how the Libra Association and its membership could manipulate currencies and potentially displace the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency.

“Sovereign currencies should remain sovereign and we do not want to challenge sovereign currencies,” said Marcus in response to a particularly sharp line of questioning. “We just want to augment their capabilities in the way they can be used.”

It’s an engineer’s answer to a question about the social function of currencies. Facebook can use the basket of currency structure to argue that Libra isn’t actually a currency, but instead rests atop of several currencies to provide more stability and access for its users — and make the system function more effectively. But should Libra’s adoption begin to accelerate, the organization behind it would be able to pick currency winners and losers and begin to leverage its holdings to potentially manipulate markets, some representatives feared.

Facebook could destabilize currencies and governments,” said California Rep. Maxine Waters. “Facebook’s entry is troubling because it has already harmed vast numbers of people.”

For some members of the Finance Committee, the structure of the asset-backed currency itself makes it resemble a financial instrument that also demands regulation from government agencies. At varying times they compared the proposed currency to an Exchange Traded Fund (because it relies on a basket of currencies to create value) or an alternative fiat currency itself.

“What exactly is this? Is it fish or fowl? And it seems to me that it’s more of a platypus and it evolves in its different parts,” said Rep. Bill Huizenga, of Michigan.

For Connecticut Rep. Jim Himes, the foreign currency risk that users could be exposed to presents an opportunity for the government to exercise oversight under investment laws passed in 1940. “They will have some degree of volatility,” said Marcus in his testimony.

“This looks to me exactly like an exchange traded fund. Backed by a series of short term instruments in foreign currency… it even has a creation and remittance mechanism,”  says Himes. If that’s true, then the Libra Association would be subject to regulations under the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Marcus says that the instrument behind Libra isn’t an exchange traded fund, because the users that will transact using the cryptocurrency through services like Facebook’s Calibra, aren’t going to be speculating on the currency’s rise in value. However, that logic seems to be slightly faulty given that all of the members of the Libra Association are expected to generate returns from the assets that are held in Libra and invested in the short term basket of currencies.

What’s the matter with Calibra?

If the Libra Association and its mechanism for establishing a stablecoin creates one knot for regulators to untie, then the actual transaction mechanism that Facebook is proposing in the form of the Calibra subsidiary is yet another.

Here again a host of issues raise their head for members of Congress… Some are associated with Facebook’s perennial privacy problems and the history of predatory behavior that reared its head yet again with the company’s $5 billion fine for continuing violations.

MROthers are related to the company’s policy of what conservative critics called “social engineering” which saw Facebook boot some controversial users from its platforms (potentially denying them access to the benefits of Libra). Still another batch of concerns rests on Facebook’s ability to properly implement the know your customer (KYC) regulations that are required of banks and other financial services institutions.

The concern about Facebook’s propensity for de-platforming was topmost in the mind of Wisconsin’s Republican Representative Duffy

“Can Milo Yiannopoulos or Louis Farrakhan use Libra?” Duffy asked. “I bring that up because both of those two individuals have been banned from Facebook.”

Marcus could only respond “I don’t know yet.”

Rep. Duffy compared the potential for Facebook to engage in the same kind of social engineering to grant access to its new payment network as the experiments that China is conducting with its social credit scoring.

“For this system, I think you’re going to see a lot of pushback from both sides,” said Duffy. “I’m also concerned about the data privacy and how we’re going to use that data… How we spend our money is really powerful information and you have access to that too.”

Calibra may face anticompetitive challenges too. Facebook has said that its payment processing app will be the only one that’s directly integrated with the company’s other social networking and communication tools, but that other potential wallets would be interoperable. The exclusive access to Facebook gives Calibra an automatic advantage over other potential payment tools and opens the company up to receive a whole host of transaction information that it would otherwise not be privy to.

And while Facebook is restricting wallet access on its platform to its own digital payments service, it’s giving free rein to developers to build other apps for Libra’s payment platform without vetting them at all.

It’s a situation that could lead to another Cambridge Analytica-style scandal for Facebook and is yet another hole in the company’s oversight.

The appropriate response 

The Libra project is hugely ambitious and its critics have several valid concerns about its execution. Some of the concerns about the risk that it poses are justified and it could, indeed, become a systemic player in the global financial system more quickly than its proponents are willing to accept. All of that doesn’t mean that it should necessarily be thrown out or dismissed because of the potential dangers it poses, some economists argued.

The hard work of governing demands appropriate oversight (which Facebook has been calling out for — although it’s arguably doing it in the jurisdictions that will have the lightest touch over its activities).

No less an expert than the acting International Monetary Fund chair, David Lipton, has said as much in recent discussions over the role that Libra should play (or could play) in the global monetary system.

“Risks include the potential emergence of new monopolies, with implications for how personal data is monetized; the impact on weaker currencies and the expansion of dollarization; the opportunities for illicit activities; threats to financial stability; and the challenges of corporates issuing and thus earning large sums of money — previously the realm of central banks,” Lipton said of Facebook’s proposed digital currency, according to Bloomberg. “So, regulators — and the IMF — will need to step up”

But stepping up does not mean regulating Facebook’s currency out of existence.

“We look back at the the history of technology and innovation, and a conclusion is you never know at the beginning how valuable a technology will be,” Lipton said. “It requires experimentation and adaptation over years and often decades.”

 


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The real risk of Facebook’s Libra coin is crooked developers

02:31 | 19 June

 

Everyone’s worred about Mark Zuckerberg controlling the next currency, but I’m more concerned about a crypto Cambridge Analytica.

Today Facebook announced Libra, its forthcoming stablecoin designed to let you shop and send money overseas with almost zero transaction fees. Immediately, critics started harping about the dangers of centralizing control of tomorrow’s money in the hands of a company with a poor track record of privacy and security.

Facebook anticipated this, though, and created a subsidiary called Calibra to run its crypto dealings and keep all transaction data separate from your social data. Facebook shares control of Libra with 27 other Libra Association founding members and as many as 100 total when the token launches in the first half of 2020. Each member gets just one vote on the Libra council, so Facebook can’t hijack the token’s governance even though it invented it.

With privacy fears and centralized control issues at least somewhat addressed, there’s always the issue of security. Facebook naturally has a huge target on its back for hackers. Not just because Libra could hold so much value to steal, but because plenty of trolls would get off on screwing up Facebook’s currency. That’s why Facebook open sourced the Libra blockchain and is offering a prototype in a pre-launch testnet. This developer beta plus a bug bounty program run in partnership with HackerOne is meant to surface all the flaws and vulnerabilities before Libra goes live with real money connected.

Yet that leaves one giant vector for abuse of Libra: the developer platform.

“Essential to the spirit of Libra . . . the Libra Blockchain will be open to everyone: any consumer, developer, or business can use the Libra network, build products on top of it, and add value through their services. Open access ensures low barriers to entry and innovation and encourages healthy competition that benefits consumers” Facebook explained in its white paper and Libra launch documents. It’s even building a whole coding language called Move for making Libra apps.

Apparently Facebook has already forgotten how allowing anyone to build on the Facebook app platform and its low barriers to ‘innovation’ are exactly what opened the door for Cambridge Analytica to hijack 87 million people’s personal data and use it for political ad targeting.

But in this case, it won’t be users’ interests and birthdays that get grabbed. It could be hundreds or thousands of dollars-worth of Libra currency that’s stolen. A shady developer could build a wallet that just cleans out a user’s account or funnels their coins to the wrong recipient, mines their purchase history for marketing data, or uses them to launder money. Digital risks become a lot less abstract when real-world assets are at stake.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook raced to lock down its app platform, restrict APIs, more heavily vet new developers, and audit ones that look shady. So you’d imagine the Libra Association would be planning to thoroughly scrutinize any developer trying to build a Libra wallet, exchange, or other related app, right? “There are no plans for the Libra association to take a role in actively vetting [developers]” Calibra’s head of product Kevin Weil surprisingly told me.  “The minute that you start limiting it is the minute you start walking back to the system you have today with a closed ecosystem and a smaller number of competitors, and you start to see fees rise.”

That translates to ‘the minute we start responsibly verifying Libra app developers, things start to get expensive, complicated, or agitating to cryptocurrency purists. That might hurt growth and adoption.’ You know what will hurt growth of Libra a lot worse? A sob story about some migrant family or a small business getting all their Libra stolen. And that blame is going to land squarely on Facebook, not some amorphous Libra Association.

Image via Getty Images / alashi

Inevitably, some unsavvy users won’t understand the difference between Facebook’s own wallet app Calibra and any other app built for the currency. ‘Libra is Facebook’s cryptocurrency. They wouldn’t let me get robbed’ some will surely say. And on Calibra they’d be right. It’s a custodial wallet that will refund you if your Libra are stolen and it offers 24/7 customer support via chat to help you regain access to your account.

Yet the Libra Blockchain itself is irreversible. Outside of custodial wallets like Calibra, there’s no getting your stolen or mis-sent money back. There’s likely no customer support. And there are plenty of crooked crypto developers happy to prey on the inexperienced. $1.7 billion in cryptocurrency was stolen last year alone, according to CypherTrace via CNBC. “As with anything, there’s fraud and there are scams in the existing financial ecosystem today . . .  that’s going to be true of Libra too. There’s nothing special or magical that prevents that” says Weil, who concluded “I think those pros massively outweigh the cons.”

Until now, the blockchain world was mostly inhabited by technologosts, except for when skyrocketing values convinced average citizens to invest in Bitcoin just before prices crashed. Now Facebook wants to bring its family of apps’ 2.7 billion users into the world of cryptocurrency. That’s deeply worrisome.

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing about Facebook on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, April 10, 2018. (Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Regulators are already bristling, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. Democrat Senator Sherrod Brown

that “We cannot allow Facebook to run a risky new cryptocurrency out of a Swiss bank account without oversight.” And French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told Europe 1 radio that Libra can’t be allowed to “become a sovereign currency”.

Most harshly, Rep. Maxine Waters issued a statement saying “Given the company’s troubled past, I am requesting that Facebook agree to a moratorium on any movement forward on developing a cryptocurrency until Congress and regulators have the opportunity to examine these issues and take action.”

Yet Facebook has just one vote in controlling the currency, and the Libra Association preempted these criticisms, writing “We welcome public inquiry and accountability. We are committed to a dialogue with regulators and policymakers. We share policymakers’ interest in the ongoing stability of national currencies.”

That’s why as lawmakers confer about how to regulate Libra, I hope they remember what triggered the last round of Facebook execs having to appear before congress and parliament. A totally open, unvetted Libra developer platform in the name of “innovation” over safety is a ticking time bomb. Governments should insist the Libra Association thoroughly audit developers and maintain the power to ban bad actors. In this strange new crypto world, the public can’t be expected to perfectly protect itself from Cambridge Analytica 2.$

Get up to speed on Facebook’s Libra with this handy guide:

 


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