Monday, July 17, 2006

Vive la France

For some time I have been involved with an EU project that wrapped up last week in Brussels. With the unpromising name Sun&Sup it tried to identify the issues that hold back hi-tech start-ups in Europe, and to make recommendations that could improve the current situation. The project invited periodic input from selected hi-tech start-up companies across the EU (along with various service providers to start-ups) and I represented the UK on this project.

Make no mistake that there is a problem: once you get beyond SAP, Business Objects and Sage you will be hard pressed to name a large European software company. Israel has done a better job than the combined resources of Europe, with companies like Check Point Software, Amdocs, Mercury Interactive and many others. Israel has the second highest ranking for VC investment, and even in absolute terms has the second highest number of start-ups after the USA, yet it has a population of just over 6 million. There are many reasons for Europe’s hi-tech malaise, and few easy answers. The Sun&Sup project tried to deliver some very low-key, pragmatic services in pilot form, such as a self-help network of companies wishing to expand across borders, an expert system to help companies assess their business plans, a mentoring program to provide non-executive directors for start-ups, amongst others. Its most ambitious recommendation was to lobby to replicate the US system in government procurement, which sets aside USD 100 billion of government spending for small companies. European government procurement favour large companies: 50% of economic activity in Europe is from SMEs, yet only 30% of government spending is with SMEs. Of course opening up more government business to SMEs would not be a panacea, but it would help, as the successful federal Small Business Act has demonstrated for many years.

The highlight of the wrap-up session of the project in Brussels was to hear the French Trade minister Christine Lagarde making an eloquent case for the need for change in public procurement. It was indeed refreshing to an Anglo-Saxon ear to hear a small business initiative being championed by a French minister. Ms Lagarde was an extremely impressive speaker, yet clearly faced entrenched opposition from the Commission and indeed from several member countries in trying to open up public procurement. Indeed, from the way that several of the modest Sun&Sup initiatives ended up being buried or transferred to other EU projects, it seemed clear that the lack of high-tech competitiveness in Europe is something that will remain the subject of much hand-wringing for a long time to come.

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