HELSINKI (Reuters) - European tech start-ups are eyeing an early move to the U.S. West Coast, lured by the deeper pockets and stronger track record of venture capitalists in Silicon Valley.
The trend is especially apparent in the red hot wireless technology where, not long ago, European cellphone heavyweights Nokia and Ericsson led innovation.
Now the focus has almost entirely shifted to the U.S. West Coast, the home of Apple and Google, which have taken the industry by storm.
“For the first time in my career, the innovation center in mobile is actually here. This is not a chamber of commerce speech, this is the reality,” said John Malloy, a partner at BlueRun Ventures’ in the Silicon Valley.
“My advice to European start-ups: You should move here.”
GetJar, which runs No 2 mobile online store after Apple’s App Store, took the hint in mid-2009 when it moved headquarters to San Mateo from Lithuania.
Community-based traffic and mapping service Waze, emerging as a serious rival to incumbent digital mapping firms, moved over this year.
“If you want to be globally successful you have to be in the United States and then go to Europe. Not the other way around,” said Waze chief executive Noam Bardin, who raised $25 million for further expansion earlier this month.
And many look at moving even earlier.
Finnish Audiodraft, an online service for musicians and sound designers, will set up a U.S. arm early next year, less than 12 month since its founding.
It aims to wrap its second small financing round early next year in the Valley, and could move permanently, said founder and chief executive Teemu Yli-Hollo.
“Through Silicon Valley we get the best access to U.S. markets which are crucial to us. It is a good place to start global expansion from,” 27-year Yli-Hollo said.
Dan Serfaty, chief executive of French professional social networking Viadeo — closest rival to LinkedIn — moved to San Francisco in August, but has promised to keep group headquarters in Paris where he raised $20 million in 2006-09.
“When you tell a European VC (venture capitalist) I am going to be a billion euro company, 99 percent of them have never seen that. If you believe in that you are ready to pay a higher valuation,” Serfaty said.
So far, there has been only one major venture-backed European success story — internet telephony group Skype, which venture firms and founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis sold to eBay for $2.6 billion in 2005.
European venture capital firms, key for financing start-ups, have cut back investment in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Venture investments totaled $4 billion last year in Europe, compared with $18 billion in the United States.
“It is hard to raise traditional VC money in Europe now, and I do not think it will get any easier,” said Simon Wilkinson, CEO of mobile software firm Myriad.
On average, there are more than 1,000 mid-sized VC investments of more than $5 million each year in the United States, compared with around 200 in Europe, according to European Private Equity and Venture Capital Association data.
“I would not start a consumer start-up in Europe. There is a lot of angel money around, but there is nothing after that,” said Andrew Scott, chief executive of British online firm Rummble, who has raised $1.2 million.
To stop entrepreneurs like Yli-Hollo from bolting, European Union politicians have been looking to move some of its massive regional financing toward supporting new businesses while also creating a joint European VC market instead of 27 separate ones.
Other problems may lie ahead in Europe where banks traditionally provide most of the financing for small firms, said Daniel Cloquet, Entrepreneurship & SMEs Director at BusinessEurope.
In particular, banks could become less willing to lend to start-ups when their capital requirements are raised.
Editing by Dan Lalor