Conception X went to Slush 2019 this year in Helsinki, Finland. Slush is one of the world’s leading start-up conferences. It started in 2008 as a conference of 150 attendees. Today, it attracts 25,000 people from around the world, including 2,500 venture capital investors. It also showcases one of Europe’s greatest strengths, university research technology.
1. University students are at the heart of Europe’s technology industry.
2. The rise and rise of experiential education in universities and businesses.
3. Conception X is at the forefront of the future of work.
4. European VC investment grew 300% in the last five years.
5. There are more software developers in Europe than the United States.
6. That 3x more venture capital available to only 50% of Europe’s entrepreneurs. Women are almost entirely excluded.
7. Conception X shows early leadership moving women founders from STEM education into venture-backed start-ups. Early numbers show mixed-gender CX teams receive 2.4x more investment than the UK investment average.
8. Conception X is equally about university talent transfer into the digital workforce. UK and European corporates are fundamentally weakest in the most essential digital workforce requirement – identifying and recruiting qualified talent.
9. Deep-tech needs movements and networks. Give your audience a voice.
10. Augmented reality is already hear and sounds different than expected.
11. Rumours of cryptocurrency’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.
12. We’re having the wrong conversations about artificial intelligence.
13. European healthcare systems structurally superior for the adoption of med-tech.
14. Europe heavily investing to build globally competitive technology sector.
15. American technology corporates are near-sovereigns in economic power.
16. China expanded venture investment 10x in five years to match US funding and expunge US tech companies.
17. Aggressive development of independent technology industry key to Europe’s future.
18. University entrepreneurship education is key to European government policy.
19. Helsinki is one of the most liveable cities in the world.
1. University students are at the heart of Europe’s technology future
UNICORNER was an event run by The University of Helsinki, specifically looking at how universities can better translate student projects into new start-up companies. In the United States, the career guidance has often been to graduate, join Facebook or Google as a product manager, and start a side-hustle. What are students meant to do if there are no Facebooks or Google engineering offices in their city or country?
American venture capital eyes Europe’s emerging technology talent and capabilities, and also the continent’s history of underinvestment in the area. On a per capita basis, the United States deployed $300 per person in venture investment, while Europe deploys $38.
Without Silicon Valley style corporate technology pipelines or firewalled new markets like China to feed talent into Europe’s ambitious technology strategy, where does tech industry experience come from? The answer is a blend of the continent’s leading industrial conglomerates, its robust network of SMEs and cottage producers, and, most importantly, its universities.
While US higher education enrolment falls in the face of rising costs, European universities remain accessible and well-funded cornerstones of Europe’s technology industry.
2. The rise and rise of experiential education in universities and businesses
“Education is the only thing that cannot be taken away from you.” Two fundamental shifts in how both corporates and universities engage with student, employee, and customer stakeholders, respectively.
The first is a constitutional shift from taught education to experiential education. In universities, this is a shift from learning about building things, to building things. From learning about the concepts and processes of hardware and software development in laboratories, to building and launching user-facing MVPs.
That equally applies to launching businesses from academic work. The start-up trajectory used to pass students from universities to corporates for work experience. The PhD founder in the US launched a first start-up after nearly two decades of commercial experience.
Now, universities become venture labs, where coursework itself can be shaped as an economically productive product, or at least an attempt at one. Tomorrow, the path from university may equally be to venture-backed start-up, as corporate employer.
The difference is experience, and universities are increasingly looking at moving that experience from first corporate jobs, into the academic programmes themselves.
Slush itself is a student project run out of the Aalto University’s entrepreneurship society with 2,000 volunteers. A career path for the best university talent will be starting a company using university resources and going to a corporate when the start-up company is acquired.
Similarly, mentoring and coaching replaces management for start-up employees. Often more similar to university tutorials or athletic development, than traditional corporate management practices. Experiential learning also pervades customer-side applications and interfaces. Technology companies offer platforms, where users and customers experiment with and customise the product offer to fit existing use cases or create new use cases.
3. Conception X is at the forefront of structural changes in the technology and education sectors in London, in Europe, and around the world
Conception X occupies an increasingly unique and fortified position as we are one of the only programmes built to truly de-risk the entrepreneurship journey. We offer our incoming candidates a number of new career pathways – becoming founders or improving digital workforce competitiveness – without requiring they sacrifice academic momentum and related career opportunities.
4. The State of European Tech has made huge progress in the last five years
Venture capital firm Atomico (Graphcore, Klarna) uses Slush as the launchpad for its annual “The State of European Tech” report. Top-line numbers show strong growth over the last 10 years, with 3x more capital invested, a precursor to multi-billion exits and returns materialising.
5. There are more software developers in Europe than the United States, and the European population of software developers grows more quickly
Over the periods, US developer population expanded 4.9%, while Europe grew by 30%. Not only are there now 40% more developers in Europe than the United States, but those developers are substantially more diverse – distributed across countries, currencies, educational traditions, languages, and political systems.
6. European venture capital investment has increased 300% – but only for 50% of Europe’s entrepreneurs
Diversity remains a bleedingly obvious and painful weakness in Europe’s technology sector. As it reads, this is men celebrating the development of a male-dominated technology sector, footnoting at the bottom women are almost entirely excluded.
Check Warner, CEO of Diversity.VC, responded in an insightful piece on not only how this diversity gap manifests, but also why:
“The statistics are numerous and they tell the same dreary story; Europe is not making meaningful progress in building a technology industry where anyone, from any background, can succeed and thrive…
“So why isn’t progress faster? There are five key areas that come through from reading the report which highlight why things aren’t changing, or aren’t changing fast enough…”
7. Conception X shows early leadership moving female founders from STEM education into the digital workforce and venture backed start-ups
A key point Conception X CEO Riam Kanso reiterates to stakeholders is that the path of deep-tech start-up founder is a viable and powerful career option for today’s PhD student. Not only because of the financial returns and social cache afforded successful start-up founders, but also because of the education and personal development provided by developing and launching a new product or service.
Conception X is a rigorous nine-month programme. During this time, candidates are exposed to a number of stage-gates where their work is evaluated by diverse pools of academics, corporates, and venture capitalists. For every three founders, one becomes a finalist.
After two Cohorts, Conception X shows not only is it correcting the gender bias of the digital workforce back to the baseline of UK STEM HE students, but also building a track record of better diversity in venture capital funding.
Mixed-gender CX teams received 34p on the pound, 2.4x improvement over the UK investment average.
Looking at the full pipeline of UK STEM higher education students to VC-backed enterprise, Conception X is at the forefront of a £250 billion market opportunity in the UK alone of expanding women’s access to venture capital.
8. Conception X is not only about university tech transfer of IP into new companies, but equally about university talent transfer into the digital workforce
If being highly qualified for the digital workforce is a criterion for successful founders, then by selecting Conception X candidates who show potential as great founders, we are also selecting the best candidates for the digital workforce.
Women STEM students are as qualified as their male counterparts for roles as deep-tech start-up founders. The UK and European digital workforces are fundamentally weakest in one of their most essential roles – identifying and recruiting qualified talent.
On equal footing, women STEM PhDs compete evenly with male counterparts. Lack of diversity in technology companies begins in digital workforce corporates. Venture capital firms pour rocket fuel on that disparity.
We work with corporates, governments, and venture capitalists to truly show them “the best of the best”. As opposed to what they are seeing today, “the best of half”.
9. Deep-tech innovations need movements and networks. Build a brand, and an audience will gravitate toward you. Give your audience a voice.
Slush itself is built around university principles of community and open access. The formal event programme takes place in the cavernous Messukeskus convention centre. Itself a singular open space broken into a variety of individual stages and moments.
A strong thread ran through discussions and presentations about building community around products and services. Discord, for example, is inherently social and requires a community to operate. Current waves of products include community functionality as core features. From customer-facing social engagement tools, to back-end processing that helps identify relevant connections between users. Individual social engagement increases value of products and services for the community of users.
Brands and communities do not always have immediately obvious relevance for deep-tech products. However, part of the founder’s/founders’ and founding team’s journey is to understand early users. How those users are related. How they interact. How the product can build on top of real-world similarities, connections, and relationships. A key part of success is giving both the team and users a voice in product development early on, and then maintaining integrity of the brand’s community as the company grows.
10. Augmented reality is already hear and sounds different than expected
More subtly then as propagated by the XR industry. Suggestions of augmented reality often involves goggles or other visual accoutrement. Audio and proprioceptive augmented reality is already more widely distributed and making more progress. Expected leaders in this space are the recognised incumbents – Apple and Amazon hardware with a variety of SaaS software services. By revenue, Apple’s Wearables division is its own Fortune 200 company.
Alexa is augmented reality. As are Apple Airpods. To the latter point, the new Airpods’ ‘Transparency’ feature enables users to choose relationships to immediate auditory realities, either blending device-based overlays with them or ignoring them entirely. Similarly, the Apple Watch is a platform measuring individual human motion, whether that of the body or that of the blood. It provides data-driven feedback to modify user behaviour. Whether altering a training schedule or visiting the nearest hospital. These are new audio and movement platform plays. Screens used with mouths and ears, rather than eyes and fingers.
Substantial gains are being made in XR visual apparatus, software, and content. These will service broad markets, from B2B, to B2C, to education, to defence. However, the adoption rate will be slower compared with the formidable leads of audio and body platforms.
11. Rumours of cryptocurrency’s demise have been greatly exaggerated
One of the more informative stage sessions was Meltem Demirors speaking about the future of finance, immediately followed by Mikko Hypponen talking about machine-learning based agents and cyberattacks.
Cryptocurrencies and blockchain solutions compete with traditional financial services. The decentralised and transparent nature of the former forcing adoption of those principles by the latter. Rather than cryptocurrencies replacing traditional financial services, Demirrors exposited a relationship between those products not unlike the emerging dynamics between e-commerce and traditional retail.
As e-commerce attacks retail with unmatchable efficiency gains, traditional retail reinvents itself with experiential offers digital purchasing experiences cannot match. Cryptocurrencies force traditional financial services to the same. Re-evaluate fundamental propositions and incorporate greater transparency and user control.
Concurrently, personal digital agents are hatching for all areas of life. One of the most obvious is another wave of personal financial services. Both simple bank account products like Monzo or N26, and (much) more advanced offers in asset management, insurance, and healthcare. These products take advantage of API economies, open data and banking regulations, and SaaS-native consumers.
If the previous generation of consumers – e.g millennials – were digital natives in terms of information consumption, the next generation are natives in terms of digital payment platforms and personal management tools. Whereas the previous generation seamlessly traversed digital and offline brands, products, and services seamlessly, the next generation see only the integration of those worlds. Banks are databases. Databases are banks. Monzo is bank accessed via a database app and an orange unique ID card. Bitcoin is a distributed database that acts as a bank.
12. We’re having the wrong conversations about artificial intelligence
Immediately following Demirrors’ was Mikko Hypponen’s talk “Why AI will be inhuman”.
F-Secure launched one of the first virus scanners in 1991, and since has maintained a presence as one of the leading computer security firms in the world. I have had the opportunity to see Hypponen speak three times. Each previous engagement was fundamentally educational, and this year was no different.
Hypponen talked about the present and future of cybersecurity, specifically as F-Secure develops machine learning based algorithms to augment cybersecurity, attackers respond with equally, and sometimes more, sophisticated machine learning algorithms. The result is an arms race between cybersecurity professionals and attackers. No longer are humans performing the attacks, rather they write the agents that write the agents that attack.
This same sea change is happening in many other markets. Medical imaging, where AIs outperform doctors, and therefore the role of doctors is to develop and train AIs. Financial trading, where traders programme algorithms to execute trades, and increasingly develop algorithms to optimise those trading algorithms.
In 2012, Hypponen presented “Challenges of the Cyber Arms Race”, about the first computer virus to kill a human being. The attack on Iran’s centrifuges. Malicious code attacked the microcontroller of a centrifuge, accelerating it until structural failure. Flying objects hit and killed an Iranian nuclear scientist. A virus kills a human via shrapnel generated by modifying the code of an industrial device.
Seven years later, Hypponen talks about swarms of intelligent, independent, self-modifying code fragments. No longer are individual programmes designed to attack, rather targets are set, and the code designs itself to attack. Therefore, cyber-defense now means code that can detect intelligent, independent, self-modifying code fragments. The results more akin to biological immune responses than database-driven virus scanners.
Overall, Hypponen’s thesis was that emerging artificial intelligence will look very different from The Terminator, or other science fiction portrayals.
“Discussions about AI started in 1983. It will be nothing like what we’re talking about. We need better discussions…”
13. European healthcare systems structurally superior for adoption of medtech
Universities have traditionally been the incubators for challenging discussions. While universities remain key places for discussion and debate in society, they now take on a new role. Rather than generated knowledge, thought, and/or training, universities increasingly package those products into companies – legal entities that move intellectual production through the walls of academia, and into global business and consumer markets.
Veil.AI is a data anonymisation engine spun out of the University of Helsinki’s Institute for Molecular Medicine (FIMM). The company supports three levels of data anonymisation, from lightweight pseudo-anonymisation to the creation of synthetic data that cannot be traced back to its original source.
Founders Timo Miettinen from FIMM and serial entrepreneur Tuomo Pentikainen took a project developed internally for research at FIMM and are commercialising it as regulations like GDPR change data management policies. It is not unforeseeable that in the near future, personal data held by companies will be anonymised for even internal uses. Similar to the rise of VPNs as part of corporate infrastructure, services like Veil.ai will be part of core operations, making personal data unknowable to companies collecting and processing it.
While university spin-out of research is not new, what does appear to be advancing quickly is the volume of university content and experience now translating into new start-up companies. Not only is the opportunity to spin-out research, but also staff talent and supporting infrastructure.
14. Europe massively redoubling efforts to ensure technology sector becomes globally competitive
The European Innovation Council ran a workshop about new funding streams. The programme is currently running a €3 billion pilot investment programme, with the ambition to distribute €100 billion as part of the Horizon Europe budget. By comparison, total seed funding in the United States in 2019 was $5B.
15. American technology corporates have near-sovereign economic power
Today’s leading technology companies have employee populations of sovereign islands, user populations of the Eurasian continent, and resource footprints of the world’s largest individual countries. They collectively command attention greater than any other individual human activity except sleep.
Globally, 3.2 billion people a day spend 3.47 hours a day on average interacting with devices and online. Cumulatively, 7.2% of allhuman life is spent interacting with digital data. That count includes the lives of 50% of people in the world that are not yet online but will be soon.
The world produces 21,400TWh of electricity. Data centres consume 3% of that, 600TW, sitting between six-largest consumer Canada (543TWh) and fifth-largest India (940TWh).
Collectively, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, and NetFlix represent 1.2% of global GDP. Between them, they have acquired >834 companies, predominately also in the United States. They hold $453 billion of cash reserves, $64 per person on earth.
On average, these companies make $1.5M per employee, per year, and $340 per user, per year. Total market capitalisation is $5 trillion, a greater net worth than 93% of the world’s countries, and continentally sitting between Africa ($4T) and Australia ($7T).
16. China expanded venture investment 10x in five years to expunge US tech companies
In 2013, $50B in venture capital was deployed globally. 70% – $35B – was deployed in the United States, while Asia and Europe collectively invested $15B. Of the $35B deployed in the US, 40% was deployed in the San Francisco Bay area. The same as the entirety of Asia and Europe.
In 2018, $190B of venture capital was deployed globally, with $40B of that deployed in the San Francisco Bay Area – 20% of the total. While venture capital in the United States nearly tripled in the last five years, venture capital in Asia and Europe also grew. Europe doubled or tripled its spending, whilst Asia exploded and spent 10x in 2018 what it spent half a decade before.
Rather than the United States leading the world in technology investment, it looks like it is defending its position. Risk capital investment in technology is now a global game, with each geography adapting models to best deliver international competitiveness.
Today, when one visits China, the country is largely free from the full range of technology corporates that dominate life in the Western world. That has been true of social media, and now also in payments and financial services. A decade ago, Western companies like Mastercard and Visa were ubiquitous. Today, the country runs on homegrown payment networks. Western card services become increasingly scarce as China apparently has successfully wrestled control of its technology industry and related personal data away from American technology companies.
Massive acceleration in the country’s GDP growth coincides with the launch of the great firewall in 2005, as the GFW created a protected environment for Chinese entrepreneurs.
17. Aggressive development of Independent technology industry key to Europe’s future
By GDP, the European Union’s economic power is equal to that of the United States. Even after Britain’s potential withdrawal from the European Union, as a technology producer and consumer market, Europe’s future looks extraordinarily bright.
By 2050, 85% of 500M French speakers will live in Africa – a population that will dwarf the size of France itself. While Eastern Europe’s starting point was behind that of Western Europe, those economies continue to show impressive growth rates.
Starting with GDPR, Europe began a process of using policy to start managing American technology corporate influence and market power in European markets. The next iteration involves tax policy. These directives show Europe taking greater control of its technology future, and the American response has been predictable.
UK prime ministerial hopeful Johnson instantly reversed his position on progressing a UK tax on large US corporate technology companies when pressed. Johnson’s candidacy revolves around expeditiously executing new international trade deals, and technology policy appears to be at the forefront of that conversation with the United States.
The US administration will potentially implement a new salvo of tariffs on traditional European exports in retaliation for continued movement by Europe to tax American technology companies. However, simultaneously at home in the United States, lightly-favoured Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren floats aggressive retroactive anti-merger legislation specifically targeted at the American corporates.
Thus, while the executive branch of the American government seeks to heavily protect American technology companies abroad, at home the legislative branch has an active faction looking to curtail and potentially undo the power of those same companies.
Technology policy is now core to national policy around the world. And at the core of that policy are the people building technology products. Today’s technology employees, and tomorrow’s technology employees – predominately university students.
18. University entrepreneurship education is key to European government policy
In the last few years, university venture funds worldwide secured $2B in LP commitments for seed and early-stage investments that spin out research projects and university IP. In efforts already underway, over $1B of that was raised for venture investment by two UK universities – Cambridge and Oxford. The closest match in the US appears to be $200M raised by The Engine at MIT.
In terms of technology incubation, while Europe may not have the current technology behemoths of Silicon Valley, it has universities full of ambitious and talented students at every level, from apprentices to post-doctorate researchers. These universities are heavily invested into by European governments, and form cornerstones of European society.
With the addition of seed capital funding, these UVC programmes now formalise roles as precursors to founding start-up companies. Venture capital firms become mentors and coaches. Corporate employers now compete with these university-VC chimeras for access to the best new talent.
19. Helsinki is one of the most liveable cities in the world
As I was preparing this piece on Slush and the future of the European technology market, The New York Times ran an op-ed titled, “Finland is a capitalist paradise”. The story centres on a couple that moves from Brooklyn, New York to Helsinki, Finland.
I’ve been to Slush four years in a row, and Helsinki’s liveability certainly comes across. Over the past four years, one thing that gradually changed has been London’s magnetism to European graduates and nascent technology companies. The EU Referendum of 2016 saw attention shift primarily to Berlin, closely followed by Paris, Dublin, Lisbon, and Zurich.
The last two years, it’s been surprising to hear that moving to Silicon Valley is no longer a personal aspiration or goal, as much as a business opportunity or necessity. As transparency permeates global society, people become more aware of the difference between daily life and Instagram. At one point in time, there simply was no alternative to Silicon Valley to develop the world’s most advanced technologies and the related financial rewards for successfully doing that.
There’s a growing awareness not only of the opportunities in the United States, but also of the costs. The financial costs and also the social costs. One entrepreneur I spoke with in Helsinki moved his company and family to the Bay Area out of necessity. The company needed to grow. Far from enchanted, he spoke of his time there are waiting to exit and return to Europe.
A timely reminder, much like London, Silicon Valley’s brand and global position are dependant not solely on economic power, but also on being great places to live. As those two societies stack up democratic deficits and ride fevered waves of nationalism, when I go to Helsinki each year for Slush, I am reminded of one of the great non-financial drivers for Brussels’ commitment to a much more competitive European technology sector.
Northern Europe has eight cities in the Top 20 most liveable as rated by The Economist. The US has five in the Top 40. While America may remain the world’s predominant economic power for a long time, increasingly it is no longer one of the best places to actually live.
Slush reminds of how many different places there are in the world where technology is blossoming. Two promises of technology itself has always been both greater economic opportunity, and greater freedom. Cities like Helsinki work hard to take full advantage of those promises.
And showcase what’s possible at events like Slush. A global gathering run by 2,000 university students in one of the best cities in the world to live. Slush is also a start-up. European university experiential learning applied to the technology industry.
• Ateneum for Helene Schierfbeck and Finnish Artists in Ruovesi
• Boulevard Social for the tasting menu and Ixsir wines
• Bull & The Firm for salmon sashimi and natural wines
• Kiasma for contemporary exhibitions
• Liberty or Death for cocktails
• Old Market Hall for Finnish delicacies
• Pontus for the Porgonese pizza
• Storyville for live jazz music