Top European tech entrepreneurs
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From music streaming and digital mapping to wearable devices and food-on-demand: meet the FT’s Eurotech 50, our pick of Europe’s top technology entrepreneurs. The competition launched in June 2015 alongside Founders Forum, a leading network of digital innovators. Find out more about the region’s most interesting technology start-ups below.
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Read more about the selection process
Hear from the winner and founder of Spotify, Daniel Ek
See our pick of Europe’s top 10 under 30
1. Daniel Ek
Ek applied to Google as a teenager but was turned down because he didn’t have a degree. He had, however, been creating internet businesses since he was 14, selling several to make an early fortune.
In 2006, in the wake of Napster’s collapse, Ek and his friend Martin Lorentzen (the founder of Tradedoubler, a Swedish internet marketing firm) began to spitball ideas for a music streaming service. The pair, both music lovers, created a universal jukebox — allowing anyone, anywhere, to listen to any track they wanted through the internet. It was July 2011 before they were granted a license to launch in the US, the world’s biggest music market, and Ek and Lorentzon had pumped their personal fortunes into the business to prevent it going under.
Spotify is now the world’s leading music streaming service, with 60 million users and more than $500m funding from some of the world’s top technology investors. Spotify’s impact has left Ek a rock star in the tech world and at the forefront of global debate about the music industry’s future. Yet, he remains close to his native Stockholm, where Spotify has built a massive five-storey headquarters, and continues to nurture Sweden’s booming tech start-up scene.
2. Jan Koum
Koum moved from communist-era Ukraine to Mountain View, California, at the age of 16. His family used to collect food stamps around the corner from the building that would become the offices of WhatsApp, a deceptively simple messaging app he founded with a colleague from Yahoo in 2009.
Koum had been known to rail against his former employer, as well as Facebook, for its mass collection of user data — an unsurprising sentiment from someone who grew up under state surveillance. In his first tweet in August 2011, Koum said that “advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy s*** we don’t need”. Pulled from the movie Fight Club, this quote captures a business philosophy that’s at once obliquely anti-capitalist and fiercely protective of individual privacy.
So the jaw of the tech industry dropped when, in February 2014, it emerged that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was paying $19bn in cash and stock for WhatsApp, which had fewer than 60 employees at the time. Still, it certainly had the growth: after just four years in business, 450 million people were using it, a figure that has ballooned to 800 million today. It’s still unclear what Facebook plans to do with the service — or how that will square with Koum’s vow to continue to collect only minimal data on WhatsApp’s users.
3. Markus Persson
Better known as “Notch”, the Swedish programmer was the brains behind Minecraft — a deliberately retro world-building game launched in 2011 that’s become a sensation among both children and adults. Microsoft snapped up its parent company, Mojang, for a cool $2.5bn last September.
In a tortured blog post explaining his decision to step away from the company at the time of the buyout, Persson wrote that he didn’t consider himself a real games developer, never expected Minecraft to be as big as it became and struggled with life in the public eye. “If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately,” he wrote. “It’s not about the money. It’s about my sanity.”
Persson grew up in Stockholm, in what he’s described as “a relatively poor family”, and worked at Candy Crush-maker King.com for four years before creating Minecraft.
4. Arkady Volozh
Before he started Yandex — Russia’s answer to Google and the country’s biggest search engine — one of Volozh’s early projects involved developing a sophisticated algorithm to conduct searches on a database of Russian literature. He was a founding member of one of Moscow’s first computer co-operatives in the late 1980s and capitalised on the deregulation of industry after the fall of communism as a successful telecoms executive and company founder.
Yandex, which Arkady created in 2000, is listed on stock exchanges in New York and Moscow, with a market value of around $6bn. It has about 60 per cent of the search market in Russia and a large presence in Ukraine and Kazakhstan — but it is coming under increased pressure from President Vladimir Putin’s clampdown on media freedom. Google recently pulled engineering operations out of Russia after new laws were passed requiring tech companies to store more data in the country.
5. Alex Ljung and Eric Wahlforss
The founders of Soundcloud came up with their idea for a social audio platform when they were university students in Sweden, taking their cue from the creativity unleashed by blogging sites such as WordPress and the photo-sharing site Flickr. Soundcloud lets people upload and share audio files, from podcasts to new tracks from up-and-coming musicians.
Ljung and Wahlforss launched the company in 2007, basing themselves in Berlin for the vibrancy of its music and cultural scene and its proximity to a deep pool of programming talent. Ljung brought his expertise as a sound designer, while Wahlforss’ background as a DJ allowed them to tap into the needs of independent artists and musicians.
The business is now valued at more than $1bn and is on an aggressive campaign to get major record labels on board to beef up its revenues and potential as a music discovery service. A large part of the appeal of Soundcloud, Wahlforss told the FT last year, comes from its “mash-up” content, where relative unknowns remix tracks from established artists.
6. Taavet Hinrikus and Kristo Käärmann
The sweet spot for TransferWise, founded in London by Estonian friends Hinrikus and Käärmann, is the set of cosmopolitan young professionals moving money around the cities where they work, play or own assets. The company has toned down its cheeky bank-bashing rhetoric lately but its selling point is still its ability to let people transfer between different currencies at cheaper rates than those offered by the big institutions.
TransferWise is now one of the fastest-growing financial technology start-ups in Europe, having processed more than $3bn of transactions since it started in 2011. It’s valued at nearly $1bn based on its latest round of investment. Hinrikus was Skype’s first employee, and applied the insights he learnt there about how digital technology could connect people directly with one another and undercut bloated incumbents.
TransferWise is making a big push into the US, Germany and Australia. Investors include Richard Branson and PayPal’s Peter Thiel and Max Levchin.
7. Demis Hassabis
By his own telling, every step on Hassabis’ path from games nerd to neuroscientist was a move calibrated to culminate in the success of DeepMind, an artificial-intelligence start-up that Google bought for £400m last year. Hassabis continues to run DeepMind and has ambitions to apply its technology to complex problems including climate change and disease.
Hassabis spent his childhood in north London honing an aptitude for chess and teaching himself to code on a Spectrum computer. By the time he started a computer science degree at Cambridge, he’d already launched a successful game — Theme Park, which provided a blueprint for his later work running an independent gaming studio. He returned to academia to work on a PhD in neuroscience, investigating the computational processes behind creativity — a quality, he has said, that he thinks is within the grasp of computers.
Early glimpses into DeepMind’s work at Google include a self-teaching algorithm that can beat humans at a range of Atari games including Joust and Q*bert. But Hassabis hopes to build “general purpose machines” with the capacity to learn to perform tasks with intelligence and versatility comparable to that of humans.
8. Patrick and John Collison
It’s perhaps not surprising that Patrick and John Collison, two Irish dropouts from MIT and Harvard respectively, would find backing for their payments business Stripe from the likes of Peter Thiel — the PayPal co-founder known for far-sighted investments and for funding people to leave university to become entrepreneurs. Stripe facilitates the world of web-based payments and has raised $190m to date.
The brothers started their first business in Limerick but moved to California prompted by interest from Y Combinator, the renowned accelerator program. That company was sold in 2008 and the Collisons went on to found Stripe in 2010.
“In the short term we want Stripe to enable more commerce online,” Patrick told the FT last year. “When you think about how much we spend, or our cohort spends, and the direction the world is likely going to take, there’s at least a tenfold gain possible.”
9. Natalie Massenet
A former fashion editor and daughter of a model who used to act as a movie stand-in for Sophia Loren, Massenet once told Vanity Fair she was “the laziest person” she knew. This blunt self-assessment seems to fly in the face of the success of Net-a-Porter, the luxury online shopping service she founded in 2000. But perhaps it signalled her understanding of the time-poor consumer: she did, after all, start the business from her London flat while pregnant with her first child.
Massenet built Net-a-Porter internationally before selling it to luxury-goods group Richemont for more than $50m in 2010, and remains an executive chairman. The company has come under pressure as more luxury brands expand in-house online shopping services but recently merged with Italian rival Yoox to bolster its position.
10. Riccardo Zacconi
You could think of him as the guru of modern time-wasting. Co-founder and CEO of King Digital Entertainment, Zacconi is the mastermind behind “casual gaming” — those addictive apps such as King’s own Candy Crush which are, he says, “easy to learn and difficult to master”. The company has 550 million active users each month.
The 48-year-old Italian’s career spans the disappointments of the dotcom era, when he worked at a Swedish messaging service sold at a knockdown price after the crash, to a stint at the precursor to Match.com. He founded King in 2003 and pulled off a multibillion-dollar public stock flotation in New York last year. The news was met with praise but also scepticism from observers who doubted King’s ability to reproduce the success of Candy Crush. King’s stock has sagged since the float. Zacconi has said he remains focused on “casual games” but is pushing the company in new directions such as adventure games and word games.
11. Max Levchin
PayPal, yelp, slide, Affirm
Levchin churns out billion-dollar companies. The Kiev-born entrepreneur co-founded PayPal (acquired in 2002 by eBay for $1.5bn). He co-founded Yelp, the review service (current market capitalisation $3.5bn). He founded Slide, a media-sharing service (sold to Google at the bargain price of $228m). Currently, he is the CEO of Affirm, a business that allows online shoppers to take small loans to pay for purchases and is thought to be worth in excess of $1bn. Whatever comes next, expect it to be lucrative.
12. Ilkka Paananen
Paananen loved Nintendo games when he was growing up — they were the childhood experience that inspired him to found Supercell, the Helsinki-based mobile-games maker, in 2010.
The studio has released just three games, Clash of Clans, Hay Day and Boom Beach. Yet this was enough for Japan’s SoftBank, which paid $1.5bn for 51 per cent of the company in 2013 and this month said it had increased its stake to 73 per cent.
The Finn is a famously humble boss. He encourages employees to vote on key decisions such as whether to “kill” a game — and like his staff he has just one vote. “My goal is to become the least powerful CEO in the world,” he told Wired magazine.
13. Nicolas Brusson, Frédéric Mazzella and Francis Nappez
Founded by Brusson, Mazzella and Nappez in 2006, ride-sharing service BlaBlaCar took off in its native France a year later, during a series of strikes that crippled the country’s transport system.
Now some 2 million people use it globally every month; in 2014, it raised $100m from investors — which, based on other tech investments, would value the company at about $1bn or more.
14. Renaud Laplanche
In April, Laplanche set a new world speed-sailing record when crossing the English Channel. For his day job, the Frenchman is the chief executive of Lending Club, the world’s biggest peer-to-peer lending company. It has issued almost $10bn in loans since it was founded in 2006, had an IPO last year and now has a market capitalisation of $6.8bn.
15. Samir Desai, James Meekings, Andrew Mullinger
The trio behind Funding Circle, the London-based peer-to-peer lender, met at Oxford University and founded the company in 2010. It became one of the UK’s best-funded tech start-ups this year when it raised $150m in its latest funding round. “We want Funding Circle to just become part of the financial infrastructure,” says Desai, the chief executive. Some 38,000 investors have lent money through the site, including individuals, financial institutions and the UK government. Collectively, they have invested $1bn in 8,000 businesses around the world.
16. Eugene Kaspersky
Kaspersky studied mathematics at a school that was was part-funded by the KGB and after graduating worked for Russia’s ministry of defence. He used his training to create Kaspersky Labs. Its main revenue comes from antivirus software but its fame stems from revelations of state-sponsored cyber-weapons such as Stuxnet, a worm said to have been created by US and Israeli intelligence to wreck Iran’s nuclear programme. In 2012, Kaspersky ruled out an IPO that, reportedly, would have valued his company at more than $1bn.
17. Jacques-Antoine Granjon
Known as “JAG”, the billionaire businessman sports long locks and V-neck T-shirts that reveal plenty of chest hair. His Bentley is painted hot pink, like the logo of his Paris-based flash-sales company Vente-Privee, which offers online deals on goods for limited periods. Its revenues — €1.7bn in 2014 — match its founder’s outsized personality.
18. Chris Barton, Avery Wang, Philip Inghelbrecht, Dhiraj Muckerjee and Andrew Fisher
When Barton came up with the idea for Shazam, a music recognition service, he approached Wang, who had just completed a PhD in audio analysis at Stanford University. They worked with Inghelbrecht and Muckerjee initially — and then Fisher (not pictured), who joined as chief executive in 2005 — to turn the idea into a company. Shazam is now one of the world’s most popular apps, with 100 million monthly active users. In January, it raised $30m in a funding round that valued the company at around $1bn.
19. Alex Asseily
The son of an English-Russian mother and a Lebanese father who moved from Beirut to London during the Lebanese civil war, Asseily went to school in Britain. He studied at Stanford University, and in 1998 became the founding chief executive of Jawbone, the California-based personal technology group that makes fitness gadgets and audio devices. He remains the group’s chairman but now lives in London, where he runs the start-up State, a global opinion network.
20. José Neves
The Portuguese founder of Farfetch, the online luxury fashion site, doesn’t particularly like catwalks. “I try to avoid fashion shows,” he says, “I’ve been running fashion businesses for 20 years now, so it is a luxury not having to be there.” Before Farfetch, while studying at university in Porto, he founded Grey Matter, a software business, and then set up two fashion companies in London. In March this year, Farfetch raised $86m in its latest funding round, valuing the company at $1bn.
21. Oliver Samwer
When Samwer had breakfast with the FT last year, he was so busy evangelising about ecommerce in emerging markets that he almost forgot to eat his porridge. “Driven” does not begin to describe him. He founded Rocket Internet in 1999 with his brothers Marc and Alexander after the sale of their online auctions business Alando.de to eBay. Rocket, which grows start-ups at speed, tried to slough off accusations of being a “clone factory” of other people’s ideas when it floated at a valuation of more than €6bn in Germany last year.
22. Jean-Baptiste Rudelle
Rudelle started Criteo, a digital advertising company, in a spare room behind his wife’s sandwich shop in Paris in 2005. It is now a global giant, serving online ads for groups such as Orange and Expedia. In 2013 the company’s Nasdaq IPO raised $250m.
23. Mikkel Svane
Late last year, Svane released a book, Startupland, in which he details how he started his company, an online customer service platform, at a kitchen table in his home in Denmark in 2007. He has led the company through its relocation to Silicon Valley and its listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Zendesk now has 50,000 customers across 150 countries.
24. Sebastian Siemiatkowski
Klarna, the online payments service that Siemiatkowski founded in Stockholm in 2005, was recently valued at more than $1bn. Siemiatkowski puts his desire to create the company down to the struggles his parents experienced on moving to Sweden from Poland.
25. Adam Somlai-Fischer, Péter Halácsy and Peter Arvai
In 2008, Swedish-born Hungarian Peter Arvai left Sweden, where he had been born, for Budapest, to join Somlai-Fischer and Halácsy’s presentation software group Prezi. He says his uncle thought him a fool, saying “people move from east to west, so why would I move to Hungary?” Prezi now has 50 million users worldwide.
26. Azmat Yusuf
On a visit to London, the Italian entrepreneur Pietro Bezza found himself, via Airbnb, staying at the home of Yusuf, who was working on a public transport app, Citymapper. It became one of the first investments for Bezza’s Connect Ventures. Millions now use it, from Berlin to New York.
27. Martin Varsavsky
Varsavsky was born in Argentina and at 16 was expelled from school for his political views; his family fled the country in 1977, during the Dirty War. Varsavsky eventually settled in Spain, where he has founded seven companies. His current venture, Madrid-based FON, is the world’s largest WiFi network and runs more than 13 million hotspots internationally.
28. Geert-Jan Bruinsma
In 1996 Bruinsma, a computer scientist from Twente, created Booking.com from his attic. He was one of the first to spot the potential for a site platform that would let people book hotels anywhere in the world. In 2005, the company was acquired by Priceline for $133m.
29. Fabrice Grinda
A tech-industry veteran, Grinda has been CEO of three major internet groups. At 23 he founded Aucland, which became one of Europe’s largest auction websites, and is known for his early investments in tech groups including Lending Club, Delivery Hero and Alibaba.
30. Nicole Eagan
Having led the marketing teams of several tech companies, including Oracle, Quest, Verity, Peregrine and Autonomy, Eagan has now stepped up to the top job as CEO of British cyber security start-up Darktrace, where she works closely with Autonomy founder Mike Lynch, whose Invoke Capital is the leading investor.
31. Alex Chesterman
In 2003 Chesterman got a parking ticket while returning a tape to a video store. It prompted him to start a DVD-by-mail business that morphed into the video-streaming service Lovefilm, sold to Amazon for £200m in 2011. He then founded Zoopla, the house-pricing website which now has a market capitalisation of almost £1bn.
32. Robert Gentz
Gentz was inspired to set up Berlin-based Zalando, the ecommerce fashion company, after reading about the sale of website StudiVZ, a German social-networking site for students, to Holtzbrinck Publishers for $85m in 2007. He too dreamt of one day owning his own lucrative website. Now his vision is becoming reality, with Zalando’s sales growing to €2.2bn in 2014.
33. David Buttress
Buttress describes Just Eat as the “WhatsApp of takeaway”, a digital giant in food delivery. He joined in 2006 and was made chief executive in 2013. Just Eat became Britain’s latest “unicorn” — a tech company valued at more than £1bn — when it floated on the London Stock Exchange in 2014 with a debut valuation of £1.5bn.
34. Pieter van der Does
Van der Does is co-founder and chief executive of Adyen, a Netherlands-based payments company. It joined Europe’s unicorn club in December last year, when it raised $250m in its latest funding round, valuing it at $1.5bn. Van der Does, who has a masters degree in economics, is now looking to expand Adyen into the Asian market.
35. Eben Upton
Upton, the entrepreneurial brain behind the Raspberry Pi — a credit-card-sized computer that plugs in to larger monitors — has been described by the FT as a “computer evangelist”. In 2009, he helped set up the Raspberry Pi Foundation to encourage computer-science education in the UK.
36. Niklas Ostberg, Markus Fuhrmann and Nikita Fahrenholz
Germany-based Delivery Hero claims to be the “largest food network in the world”, allowing users to order takeaway through its app or website. It is the most heavily backed European tech company, having raised more than $1.4bn from investors to date. Ostberg has been involved in the start-up scene since the late 1990s. Fuhrmann is an angel investor and start-up expert. Fahrenholz is featured in “30 and Under”.
37. Dan and Sam Houser
Grand Theft Auto V, the video game, earned more than £600m within three days of release in 2013, becoming the fastest-selling entertainment product in history. The Houser brothers, Londoners educated in the UK, steer the franchise through their studio Rockstar Games. Dan told the New York Times that their games are the closest they’ve come to a “living artwork”.
38. Michael Acton Smith
Smith has the ambitious goal of creating a new Disney, a modern entertainment franchise. The company he founded, Mind Candy, is behind the Moshi Monsters children’s game that has around 80 million registered users. A standard-bearer for east London’s “Silicon Roundabout” start-up scene, he says the aim is to become the “greatest family entertainment company in the world for this new digital generation”.
39. Clare Sutcliffe
Sutcliffe is among the numerous start-up founders who are trying to take coding to the masses. In 2012, while working for a digital advertising agency, she founded Code Club, a nationwide network of free after-school coding clubs — run by expert computer programmers — for children aged nine to 11.
The company says that children “should know how [technology] works and how to build it too”. There are currently more than 2,500 of these clubs in the UK. Code Club has received financial support from Google. Sutcliffe, who previously studied at Leeds College of Art and Design and Bath Spa University, has ambitious expansion plans for the group, aiming to set up thousands more clubs around the world.
40. Gareth Williams
Williams and two friends founded Skyscanner, the flight-comparison website, in 2001, after struggling to find cheap travel deals online. The company now has offices in the UK, Singapore, Beijing, Shenzhen, Miami and Barcelona, and last year doubled its revenues to £66m. Williams has said that the website attracts 25 million unique visitors a month.
41. Alan Mamedi and Nami Zarringhalam
Swedish-Kurdish and Swedish-Iranian
Mamedi and Zarringhalam grew up in Sweden with Kurdish and Iranian parents respectively — an upbringing which, they say, gives them a global perspective. You’ll find murals of international landmarks such as the Taj Mahal on the walls of their Stockholm offices.
Their company Truecaller has produced an app that allows users to find phone numbers and block spam calls — it is used by up to half the population in countries such as Lebanon and Jordan. The group’s largest market is India, which accounts for around half of its 100 million users worldwide.
Since launching in 2009, Truecaller has become one of the shining lights of Stockholm’s booming tech scene. Last year it gained $60m in funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital, two of Silicon Valley’s leading investors, as well as Atomico, the London-based venture firm started by Swede Niklas Zennström, the Skype co-founder.
42. Nick D’Aloisio
D’Aloisio, 19, is the youngest of our tech entrepreneurs: at 16 he created news-summary app Summly, attracting investment from the likes of Stephen Fry and Yoko Ono. See “30 and Under”
43. Jon Reynolds and Ben Medlock
SwiftKey is among the most popular Android apps in the world. It learns your writing style by analysing your emails and texts and suggests what the next word might be. It has been downloaded well in excess of 15 million times on devices using Android software, and a further million times on Apple mobiles. See “30 and Under”
44. Nick Halstead
Founder of social-data platform DataSift, which filters data from Twitter (and millions of other sources) for companies to utilise. It does all the “Big Data heavy lifting,” says Halstead, and processes “two billion human-generated interactions a day”, analysing text, images, audio and video shared on the web. Halstead also founded TweetMeme, which invented the Retweet button.
45. Nigel Eccles
When Floyd Mayweather fought Manny Pacquiao this year in the most lucrative boxing match in history, the logo of a relatively unknown Scottish start-up was on the American boxer’s shorts. That company, FanDuel, a web-based fantasy sports game, has global ambitions and pays out more than $10m in prize money every week to game players. The business is based in Edinburgh but its main target is the US.
46. Lance Uggla
Canadian Uggla founded the financial information services company Markit in 2003, initially running it from a barn near his St Albans home. A former credit trader, he holds an MSc from the London School of Economics. Markit now employs more than 3,000 people worldwide.
47. Filip Engelbert and Jonas Nordlander
When Swedes Engelbert and Nordlander took over a Russian internet classified ad company in 2007, their first task was to sack the chief executive – who drove off with the company car. They went on to found Avito.ru, which is now Russia’s leading classified site, with up to 30 million users each month.
48. Holly Tucker and Sophie Cornish
Tucker and Cornish founded notonthehighstreet in 2006. Nine years later, sales are nearing £100m. They seek out original items from small businesses and bring them together. It’s “the online equivalent of the little alleyway that has all those independent shops,” Tucker told The Guardian.
49. Cristina Stenbeck
Stenbeck runs AB Kinnevik, a Swedish investment group founded in 1936. She joined in 1997, the third generation of her family to take the reins, and has steered it into the digital age, focusing on holdings in consumer tech companies. It now has major stakes in Rocket Internet, Avito and Sweden’s Tele2. Last year Stenbeck became chair at German ecommerce giant Zalando.
50. Nick Robertson
Robertson co-founded leading UK-based fashion website Asos in 2000. The name stands for “as seen on screen”, as the initial plan was to source items seen on celebrities. It now ships to more than 160 countries, with seven country-specific websites, and has a market capitalisation of around £3bn.
Photographs: Spencer Heyfron; Bloomberg; Getty Images; PA; Hermione Hodgson
This article has been amended after original publication in relation to Mr Kaspersky’s education and early career.