Fairphone started in 2010 as a campaign against smartphone makers’
use of conflict minerals. Last year, after a series of artistic and
social protests to highlight what it says are injustices in global
supply chains, its founders decided to make and sell phones of their
The company has now sold more than 41,000 phones in Europe using
African minerals it certifies as “conflict free”, and will begin
selling in the United States in 2015. Co-founder Bas van Abel, a
37-year old Dutch artist, concedes his company is far from a panacea
for the ills of mass-manufacturing, but says it is working to
improve conditions for the Chinese workers who assemble the
“We had to be economically viable because we wanted to be part of
the economic system,” said Van Abel.
Europe’s politicians would like more success stories like Fairphone.
In a continent where one in five young people are out of work,
governments are pumping more and more cash into startups in the hope
they can goose economic growth. Exact numbers are hard to determine,
but according to AngelList, a website for new companies, there are
now more than 4,700 startups in Europe, compared with nearly 14,000
in the United States.
As in North America and Asia, most European tech startups focus on
software. In the Netherlands, though, Fairphone and a handful of
other firms are trying to change manufacturing. Some are taking the
principles of what’s known as the sharing economy pioneered by car-poolers
like Lyft or room-sharer Airbnb, and applying them to the way things
are made. That could reshape not just how people produce things, but
how they buy them, and even the economics of intellectual property.
The Dutch focus on manufacturing stems partly from the Netherlands’
strong design culture, and the ground-breaking 3D printing community
found there and in neighboring Belgium. Belgian 3D printing firm
Materialise, a pioneer in 3D printing, has been around for more than
The Dutch startups capture many of the main differences with
startups in the United States. Like all young European firms, they
face big financing challenges. Europe is the world’s biggest single
market, but it struggles to fund its newest firms. According to
Thomson Reuters data, venture capitalists invested an average of
$4.7 million in each of more than 1,600 new European firms last
year. That compares with $7.14 million per firm in India, $8.6
million per firm in the United States, and $12.3 million in China.
Fairphone was born as part of a Dutch state-backed project; its
early capital came partly from a UK government-funded incubator. But
Van Abel says its single biggest source of funding was downpayments
from individuals – mostly German – who wanted to buy its phones.
“We just put a ‘buy me’ button on the website somewhere and people
could push that button and pay 325 euros (per phone),” he said. “We
got more than 3 million euros ($3.9 million).”
Van Abel admits child labor and bribery are hard to avoid when
dealing with mines in Democratic Republic of Congo. The project
wants people to think more about the way they consume things. “We
want our customers to understand they are part of the process,” he
said. “We’ve proved there’s a market that ... wants social values as
part of the product proposition.”
That sentiment is a familiar one.
“Europeans culturally are much more reserved than Americans,” said
Jon Bradford, managing director at TechStars, an incubator, who has
helped dozens of startups in Europe from London to Moscow. “You
should not necessarily (think) that because someone is quiet and
doesn’t run around and say ‘look at me, aren’t I awesome,’ that that
is a limiting factor when it comes to their ambition.”
USE THE NETWORK
The dream of starting a tech company on a few thousand dollars and
turning it into billions is one of Silicon Valley’s greatest
exports. As the cost of computing has fallen, it has moved within
reach of more people. In a study published in March, the
Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) found
nearly half of all new jobs in 18 countries are created by young,
That’s one reason why cities around the world have begun to
encourage high-speed boot camps where startups pool resources such
as office space, electricity and even legal help, and volunteer
mentors help get things going. Investing around 50,000-100,000 euros
($65,000-130,000) per startup, each bootcamp – some are
state-backed, some not – typically takes a small stake in promising
ventures and introduces newcomers to a network of support.
In one such bootcamp on an Amsterdam canal this year, a freshly
graduated firm called 3D Hubs has assembled what its founders call
the world’s biggest network of 3D printers. The company doesn’t own
the more than 7,500 printers it connects – enough to collaboratively
3D print a life-size replica of the Statue of Liberty in less than a
week – because they are owned by individuals and other businesses,
mostly in the United States. 3D Hubs has simply created a network
which others can tap into for a fee.
Here’s how it works: If a designer in New York, say, urgently needs
to deliver a prototype to Sydney, they send instructions to a 3D
printer in Australia which creates the object on the spot. 3D Hubs
charges a 15 percent commission on each print job; currently it
handles around 10,000 prints per month for an average $10 per part.
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Co-founder Brian Garret, whose first invention was a 3D-printed pair
of headphones with the lyrics of a favorite song in relief across
the headband, said the idea is that printing capacity can work like
a real-time market: When demand is high, the cost will rise.
“We’re really thinking big,” said Garret, 29. “We want to offer
people access to 3D printing and for that to be an alternative to
mass production.” The bottom line, according to Garret: “business
can become local again.”
Shapeways is another young Dutch 3D printing firm. It runs two
factories, one in Eindhoven in the Netherlands and one in New York,
that let anyone – from haute-couture designers to cat-lovers – print
what they want. Jewellery, accessories for gadgets such as
personalized iPhone cases, and homeware are most popular.
CEO Peter Weijmarshausen moved the firm’s headquarters to New York
in 2010 to be close to its main market and attract talent and
investment. It now employs 150 people and hosts around 19,000 online
shops opened by its customers to sell designs they have made. Like
others, Weijmarshausen believes 3D printing will challenge mass
production. As for many European startups, the biggest single
obstacle is follow-on venture funding.
“I spoke to a lot of VCs in Europe, they all were like interested
but they never really committed,” said Weijmarshausen.
MIND THE GAP
To close the funding gap, governments are stepping in. Around 40
percent of all venture capital in Europe comes from governments,
according to the European Private Equity and Venture Capital
Association (EVCA). Public cash for innovation was squeezed by the
financial crisis, though Europe is beginning to spend more again:
Over the next seven years Brussels will devote at least 850 million
euros of its 80 billion euro innovation budget to help new and
growing small firms.
One conduit for that money will be the European Investment Fund,
which is mostly owned by European governments, and gives money to
venture capital funds to invest in small companies. The EIF said the
need for cash is obvious: More than two-thirds of the funds it has
given money to since 2011 have failed to reach their target size.
Investors are wary of big risks in what has been a highly fractured
“European venture capitalists have had to work in a more capital
constrained environment,” said Anne Glover, chairman of the EVCA.
“But they are creating companies which are of equal if not greater
value than those in other regions.”
Crowdfunding – the European Commission reckons about half a million
European projects receive a total of one billion euros in
crowdfunding a year – is growing, but has limits.
The most important need is money for research. Average government
spending on research and development for the 28 member states of the
European Union was 1.97 percent of GDP in 2012, behind China on 1.98
percent and far short of America’s level near 3 percent, according
to OECD data. Industry in the United States invests about twice as
much on research as it does in Europe.
For economist Mariana Mazzucato, who specializes in innovation, the
lack of investment in Europe is a big problem. “I just don’t think
startups are the point,” she said. “One of the big questions is
actually how to get business itself to be more innovative - firms of
all different sizes.”
Mazzucato’s research shows large-scale funding has been essential to
past breakthroughs. All the most important technologies in Apple’s
iPhone and iPad, for instance, were developed outside Silicon Valley
and largely state funded, including a Nobel-winning breakthrough by
European scientists Albert Fert and Peter Gruenberg.
Fairphone shows how quickly small firms may need to scale up. Van
Abel remembers the day he tried to pay the factory in Chongqing,
China, which had agreed to make phones.
“I totally panicked,” he said. “I was at home and my kids were
running around ... I had 1.5 million ready and I pushed the button,
and it went ‘EHHH.’ Because internet banking doesn’t allow you to
transfer 1.5 million euros to some account in China. I had to do it
(Edited by Simon Robinson)
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