European innovation

I will not comment specifically on the healthcare systems, because I have never been exposed to them. All I know (and understand) is that I have had a string of failures to get a scholarship, or the ideas of “distant land” never inspired me enough to venture out for “higher studies”. Despite the free higher education in some countries (not specifically talking about the EU bloc, but the continent), the overwhelming response to any cold email or idea proposal was zero. I am sure the esteemed professors get a “lot of email”, but an acknowledgement counts towards professional courtesies.

Nevertheless, the EU has distinguished itself as a regulation continent. I haven’t seen any meaningful product from there; Proton Mail or Tutanota perhaps, and Proton VPN was just a rebranded existing service (mired in controversy), though I am using the latter. I did make a two year commitment to Proton VPN, but will be shifting to Mullvad later this year. Telecom equipment comes to mind, though most of their “innovation hubs” are shifting outwards and only gained prominence because of geopolitical concerns. Besides, some “innovation” in agriculture or AI but I don’t see the impact that US companies have across the continents. EU is an “also-ran”; they don’t have a search engine that counts itself as relevant by any stretch of imagination, and WhatsApp dominates the landscape for “immediate communication”.

Is Europe Just Not Good at Innovating? – Bert Hubert’s writings

That our current enterprises are not very innovative is a big problem in itself, but it is not a particularly European problem. A more unique problem here is that we’ve comparably seen very little innovation coming from academia or startups. Maybe we are just weak, have no skills and lack ambition?

In this piece, I’m assuming that large staid corporations are unlikely to come up with really new things. That does not however mean that such corporations are useless – inventions which require large well funded organizations to execute can’t be bootstrapped by startups. And in fact, European large companies aren’t doing too badly.

Airbus still makes very good airplanes, ASML makes the best wafer steppers, Volkswagen AG cranks out credible electrical vehicles (I drive one) and there are many more companies that are innovating incrementally. In addition, our scientific institutes are still among the world’s best in fundamental research. But on this page the focus is on how Europe has problems doing truly new things quickly.

The last, I agree completely; it is not doom. Fundamental research and “pushing barriers” of science are happening there, but combine this with poor marketing and a classic bureaucratic overreach for funding is choking the innovation pipelines.

In the entire list of reasons for failure, this one stood out:

Europe is not an attractive destination for ambitious immigrants, we do not have major companies with immigrant CEOs (compare Microsoft and Google).

There are some practical ideas, and those should be widely adopted:

  • Calibrate funding plans so that they take actual risks. So do not hand out subsidies that are guaranteed to get a specific deliverable. If a government is an at-risk funder of an initiative, others will follow. This is not ‘Horizon Europe’, by the way, although it is a valuable effort.
  • Getting universities and institutes to actually let go of the fruits of their research instead of tying down startups/spinouts with onerous rules.

The innovation hubs happen in clusters and ecosystems.

I spoke to an entrepreneur who has just branched out in Biotechnology (and spoke about CAR-T cells). We were having a freewheeling discussion around the problems faced by people; policy, regulation, lack of ecosystems, and dealing with the “incubators”. Problem lies in lack of niche domain experts in policy structures, without little migration of personnel and profit as a “dirty word”. His innovation would require significant investments in time, money and clusters to wrest high value manufacturing at the “cutting edge” of healthcare. I am not debating the utility or the societal cost, but the ideas operating at these fringes will eventually attract others to “set up shop”. Take the example of an “anchor tenant” in a new mall, and others congregate to take advantage of the “footfalls”. The linked write up extolls the cultural differences between EU and the US; so nothing much there.

However, policy and futures direction is difficult to predict. Innovative companies have to deal with clueless “regulators”. We could possibly look at the “overhaul” of the regulatory regime itself; however, those decisions are often mired in futile political debates and short-term agendas. As part of the complex landscape of “long-termism” (a term I relish for a decadal approach to thinking), we need to clear roadblocks to allow innovation to flourish.

This “chart” explains it well:

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