Je ne sais quoi: Craig Blair of AirTree Ventures on what the Australian startup scene could learn from Europe

Daniel Petre and Craig Blair, founders of AirTree Ventures

Daniel Petre and Craig Blair, founders of AirTree Ventures. Source: Supplied.

Having spent 10 years living in Europe in the 90s, Craig Blair, co-founder and managing partner of AirTree Ventures, has recently been back to check out the developments in the startup scene.

London and Paris undoubtedly have older, more mature startup communities — so what can Australians, whether they’re in the VC space, the government or starting up themselves, learn from their peers on the other side of the world? And what, if anything, could they learn from us?

Actively championing tech

One of the biggest differences between the European and Australian startup spaces is in the governments’ approaches to technology disruption, with European leaders more inclined to embrace change.

In France, for example, President Emmanuel Macron recently held a technology lunch, hosting representatives from the likes of Google, Uber and Microsoft, to consider how the government can work with global tech platforms.

“They’re actively championing startups and technology investors,” Blair says.

The French government also recently pledged €1.5 billion to artificial intelligence by 2022. In contrast, the $30 million set aside by the Australian federal government in this year’s budget “looks pathetic”, he says.

Investment into technology sets a scene, Blair says, and shows a recognition that “technology will underpin the future prosperity of the country”.

He argues that it’s important to view technology development as something that will be essential to the economy in the future. That’s “one of the reasons we founded AirTree”, he says.

“Australia’s future is less likely to be driven by mining or property, and more likely to be driven by innovation,” he adds.

Governments should be focused on “unearthing the next Facebook, or the next Google,” and this takes more than just money. They need to actively engage the community as well, he says.

Serendipitous co-working space

Australia is also lacking somewhat in the quality of its co-working spaces, Blair says.

Open in Paris last year, Station F is a 34,000-square-metre campus housing 26 startup programs, 3000 desks, four kitchens and a restaurant.

It’s “breathtaking in size”, Blair says, and shows an appreciation of the “serendipity co-location has on the innovation process”.

In London, the Old Street area is a hub of meetups and events, and again, Blair says, there’s an understanding of the positive effects “density and connectivity” can have.

“We’re starting to move in the right direction, but we’re probably five to 10 years behind in some ways,” Blair says.

While there are co-working spaces dedicated to startups, such as the new 1,000-desk Victorian Innovation Hub in Melbourne and Fishburners in Sydney, they’re “not of the scale and the quality you see in Europe”, he says.

Focus on data protection

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation came into effect in May this year, and throughout Blair’s European trip, “every startup team I met with, particularly the later-stage ones, were talking about it”.

The regulation means EU citizens’ data cannot be held outside of the EU. Individuals have to ‘opt-in’ for businesses to use their data, must be able to access and obtain their data in a workable format, and have the right to be forgotten: demanding their data be deleted at any time.

Europe is “probably at the forefront” of privacy protection now, and it’s likely that GDPR will provide the baseline for a “global protocol on this”.

Australian startups should be considering the implications a GDPR-like regulation could have on them, as the European regulation will likely have a “big bearing on where we land on these privacy issues,” Blair says.

“It’s unlikely you will have different data protection requirements in different countries,” he adds.

But Aussies get it done

One thing Australia does have going for it, however, is its people.

“There’s no question in my mind that, in terms of people to work with, Australians are some of the most productive, upfront and efficient people to have on your team,” Blair says.

Aussies bring a “no bullshit” and “can-do attitude”, and when compared to the additional complexities, hierarchies and politeness you have to get through in the UK and other European countries, you can sometimes get a lot more done in Australia.

“People aren’t afraid to disagree,” he adds.

And, as an Australian venture capital investor in Europe, Blair says he is starting to be taken seriously, with managing partners and founders of some of the largest venture firms in the UK reaching out to engage with him.

“As an Australian, venture capital is becoming a complete global game. We’ve got a seat at the table,” he says.

NOW READ: The Sydney-Melbourne rivalry could stunt Australia’s startup growth, says StartupAus chief Alex McCauley

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