Earlier this month, we met with Willem Jonker during INNOVEIT 2019 in Budapest. As the organisation’s CEO, Willem leads EIT Digital with the goal to unleash Europe’s potential as a strong player in the global technology space. While talking about the current initiatives of EIT Digital, he also shared his thoughts on what Europe has on offer for founders, the main challenges he sees in accelerating innovation throughout Europe and his ambition of bringing entrepreneurship education to curriculums. Enjoy the interview:
For people who haven’t heard about it before, what is EIT Digital? What do you do?
EIT Digital exists to make sure that Europe gets a place at the digital table again – to build a stronger digital Europe. In order to build stronger digital companies in Europe we need the right people, the right technology and we need money. And we need to make sure that out of all the options that we have, we select a restricted number where we really put our effort behind them to make them grow. That is our mission: to make sure we get the right people, we help scale-ups to get access to capital and we help existing companies to make sure they remain very competitive. It’s all about growing the businesses and the digital ecosystem.
Can you share a couple of success stories from EIT Digital that you are proud of?
Our time is limited, so I can only mention a few examples. I’m very proud of the story of Xhuo because he embodies what our program is about. In a nutshell, it’s the story of a Chinese student, who decides to come to our masters school, then afterwards he is so infected with the entrepreneurship fire that he starts his own company. When approached to sell his small company to an American, he prefers to build it in Europe, so now he is with our accelerator to grow it. This is my dream. And like him, we have other stories such as Wilfried Dron, Security Matters and MatchX. In our portfolio now we have 6 Centauros (worth more than €100 million) like Navya, Konux, Metron. They are all on that portfolio. And that total portfolio is over €1.5 billion of value.
At EU-Startups we previously reported about your acceleration program – what can we expect for the future of the program?
Right now, EIT Digital is a story of growth. In the 9 years that we have been active, our organization has grown enormously: We started off in 5 locations, now we are in 18; we had 30 partners, now we have 250. We have built a machine that delivers, and we can clearly see the impact and the value of what we are doing. We are able to make our voices heard because of the kind of organization we have – people see what we are doing, start asking questions, start understanding. Now we are also starting to influence policy makers. There are challenges ahead but we are delivering talented students, as we are scaling up companies as we are attracting new partners to our ecosystem, I’m quite confident that one way or another we will be able to demonstrate very clearly our added value, based on facts not on nice stories.
What do you believe makes Europe attractive for founders today? What makes them stay?
In a short answer: Talent. We have a very good education system that delivers very good engineers as well as a good research environment. Apart from that, we provide talent at an affordable price – especially when you compare to Silicon Valley, for example. Prices there are sky high, renting is very expensive, companies have problems recruiting the right talent and their talents keep moving from one company to the other.
The quality of life is also better in Europe – it’s a better balance between work and family because our labour laws are better adjusted to that. I think there are a lot of advantages in deciding to grow your company in Europe.
When it is about regulation of privacy, Europe is seen being far ahead. At the same time, Europe is criticized that we are just trying to stop innovation, which is not the case. Our challenge now is to find a good balance between makers (the industry that makes the technologies) and shapers (the government, the policy makers) to bring laws that make sure this innovations benefit everyone and not just the winners.
You have been talking about education and how EIT Digital also focuses on teaching entrepreneurship in Europe. Are some people born to be a great entrepreneur and others are not? Or can entrepreneurship really be taught?
I think it’s a mix. Entrepreneurship is a mindset and it can definitely be developed. So, if it is already there and put some fertilizer, it grows. It is not for everyone, but what we see is that when we emphasize it and bring it to the students, the ones that have some feeling for it, they flourish and make it happen. In most cases, it would not have happened otherwise.
The main question I see is not if it can it be taught, but if it makes sense to put it in the curriculum – and then my answer is definitely yes.