“Startups are key to the twin digital and green transition”: Interview with Helen Kopman, Deputy Head of Unit for Digital Innovation & Blockchain, European Commission

Have you ever wondered what the European Commission is doing for startups and entrepreneurs? What are their priorities, what funding opportunities do they offer, what initiatives are there for women in tech?

In order to de-jargon the issue and jump into what practical help the European Commission is offering startups, we had the opportunity to sit down with Helen KopmanDeputy Head of Unit for Digital Innovation & Blockchain. Helen’s work comes under the umbrella of the DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology at the European Commission in Brussels.

We spoke about the Startup Europe initiative, the possibility of a digital euro and the trending topic of more regulation for tech giants. So without further ado, let’s jump in!

Hello Helen! Thank you for joining us. Could you briefly tell us what your role is?

I’m Deputy Head of Unit for Digital Innovation & Blockchain, at DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology at the European Commission in Brussels. The unit elaborates policy initiatives under the Single Market to support digital innovation, blockchain and growth of startups. Initiatives include Startup Europe, Innovation Radar, Innovation Procurement and the European Blockchain Partnership.

On a grand scale, what are the overarching wider EC priorities for European startups in 2021 and the next few years? 

Startup Europe is fully aligned with the small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) strategy of the European Commission. The EU ‘SME Strategy for a sustainable and digital Europe’ sets out the main priorities for the EC and Member states in support of European startups and SMEs. This strategy was adopted in March last year just before the pandemic directly struck Europe. The priorities that were identified have however remained valid and become even more urgent in the current phase of recovery. The strategy focuses on actions to strengthen SMEs capacities to adapt to climate neutrality challenges, help them to reap the benefits of digitalisation, reduce the regulatory burden, and improve opportunities to access finance.

Startup Europe is the flagship initiative for startups in Europe. Could you tell us a bit about what startups can get from this initiative and how they can take part?

Startup Europe works on both policy and programme level to strengthen opportunities for deep tech scaleups and startup ecosystem builders to accelerate growth. On policy level it works across the European Commission, EU institutions and Member States on initiatives such as the EU Startup Nations Standard (enhancing access to the single market and streamlining regulatory framework for startups), Digital Innovation Hubs (access to technology for digitalization and skills to SMEs across more than 200 hubs across EU) and European Innovation Council (grants and blended financing to startups with breakthrough and market creating innovations).

It also spearheads targeted financing for deep tech startups through the Digital Innovation and Scale-up Initiative (DISC) and the Artificial Innovation and Blockchain fund. On programme level it connects high tech startups, scaleups, investors, accelerators, corporate networks, universities and the media supported by a portfolio of EU funded projects in which startups can directly participate and receive coaching, soft landing and matchmaking support.

We receive a lot of questions about accessing funding by startups. Is there any funding directly available via the EC for early-stage startups, or larger scaleups? Where can they stay up to date about this?

There are plenty of opportunities to access funding for startups and scaleups in the EU. We gather the info about funding on Startup Europe Club.

Recently we read about the possibility of a digital euro. How do you think this could affect European startups?

A Digital Euro would be an opportunity to re-design money that support the digital economy and Industry 4.0. Central Bank Digital Currency based on DLT, available to the general public and companies, can foster innovation and increase opportunities for European startups already very active in blockchain and cryptocurrency ecosystems, beyond the financial sector.

There’s growing debate (positive and negative!) on whether there could be a European company structure e.g. ”EU Ltd” (Here is our Twitter discussion!). What is your feeling about this?

It is already possible to set up EU legal company structures e.g. the ‘Societas Europea’ (SE) for public limited liability companies which allows companies coming from different Member States to run their business in the EU under a single European brand name and the ‘European Economic Interest Grouping’ (EEIG), for a grouping formed by companies coming from different Member States. The EC has also laid down new rules on cross-border conversions and divisions and the use of digital tools in company law procedures to help startups restructure and move cross-border, while providing strong safeguards against fraud and to protect stakeholders. The purpose is to facilitate or develop the cross-border economic activities.

When it comes to competition, our poll shows that many people would welcome more regulation for the tech giants. Do you think this could happen?

The accelerating digitalisation of society and the economy has created a situation where a few large platforms control important ecosystems in the digital economy. They have emerged as gatekeepers in digital markets, with the power to act as private rule-makers. These rules sometimes result in unfair conditions for businesses using these platforms and less choice for consumers.

The recent Digital Services and Digital Market Acts have two main goals; to create a safer digital space in which the fundamental rights of all users of digital services are protected and to establish a level playing field between small and large players to foster innovation, growth, and competitiveness, both in the European Single Market and globally. These proposals are now scrutinised and debated by the European Parliament, member states. Startups and stakeholders association are already engaging in this discussion and I can only encourage this even more to get startups views included in the final legislation.

What is the EC doing for women in tech? Are there any European initiatives that the female entrepreneurs reading this should know about?

Achieving gender equality and more diversity in tech is one of the major priorities of the European Commission. The Commission is working with Member States to promote female leadership and close the gender gap in technology and innovation. Recently the EC launched the ‘Women TechEU’ to support women leading deep tech startups in Europe, and help grow their companies into tomorrow’s deep tech champions. ‘Women TechEU’ will offer first-class coaching and mentoring to female CEOs and founders, as well as targeted funding to help take their business to the next level. It is funded under the European Innovation Ecosystems work programme of Horizon Europe. A call for mentors to provide coaching and mentoring for the women selected under the ‘Women TechEU’ scheme is looking for women and men in leadership positions, experienced entrepreneurs, investors, tech experts, researchers and innovators.