European tech is a world of big personalities. As the ecosystem grows, so does the number of people making their mark.
Sifted looked at the 21 most impactful disruptors, money lords, rule-makers, whisperers and renegades — some of whom hit the headlines this year (for good or bad) and others who preferred operating in the shadows.
The money lords
The capital market expert was appointed president of Italy’s National Innovation Fund in October, replacing Francesca Bria. The recipient of the 2019 Award for Green Finance from the UK government, she’s now in charge of a network of accelerators across Italy and more than 10 funds that invest in startups across sectors including transport, energy, software, deeptech, life sciences, AI and fintech. Italian tech seems to finally be taking off, so all eyes will be on how the fund can support the ecosystem.
The Berlin-based VC turned operator turned angel investor launched Europe’s first female solo GP fund, Puzzle Ventures, in March, after raising €21.5m — nearly twice the size she originally aimed for. Out of the 100 LPs Bäuerlein approached, 95 of them agreed to put money into the pot. Her investors are a notable bunch too, and include founders and operators from large scaleups such as Personio, Kry, Stripe, Coinbase and WhatsApp.
Scheffer took over the presidency of Europe’s largest deeptech investor, the European Innovation Council (EIC), with big ambitions to give it more tools to serve a greater set of startups, including bigger cheques for deeptech companies. He arrived during turbulent times at the EIC, as delays in payments had left many startups short of cash, and some on the brink of going out of business. Under his supervision, the EIC has introduced new rules to exclude coinvestors from countries such as Russia and China. A founder, former minister and angel investor, Scheffer told Sifted he wanted to have at least five startups in each country receiving equity or grant money from the EIC. We’re eagerly waiting to see the results.
The Indian-American internet entrepreneur, venture capitalist, podcaster and author this year became the head of Andreessen Horowitz’s first office in Europe, located in London. From this outpost, the famed US VC firm will run its next cryptocurrency accelerator programme in spring 2024, and establish closer links with UK universities to develop blockchain talent. The firm, known as a16z, did at least 11 deals in Europe in 2023, according to Dealroom data, and is rumoured to have also backed Mistral AI. Though Krishnan is focused on cryptocurrency, it will be interesting to see if a16z having a footprint on the ground here will lead to them being on more European cap tables.
The French billionaire announced in September he would invest €200m to bolster Europe’s AI sovereignty and retain French talent. Part of that money is going to Kyutai, a new non-profit AI lab based in Paris, to carry out open research in the field of foundational models, which two months later attracted additional investment from ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Niel was also one of the investors in Mistral AI’s seed round.
In a year of increasing migratory flows, Ana Álvarez fought Europe’s concerns regarding immigration and helped hundreds of migrants in Germany and the UK start their own businesses. Born in Costa Rica and living in Germany since 2015, Álvarez runs Migrapreneur, a platform which this year awarded 992 scholarships for people to help migrants access entrepreneurship courses, language improvement skills and mentorship. Her programme received about 2,200 applications.
Arthur Mensch’s generative AI company Mistral released its first large language model (LLM) in September — a significant milestone for the Paris-based startup which had raised a €105m seed round in June. Mensch argued Mistral’s model outperforms others on the market because of its efficient design of models and its open-source strategy. He was also one of the startup founders pushing against the inclusion of foundation models in the EU’s AI Act, arguing the regulation, which is in its final stages of negotiation, poses “a significant risk” to AI innovation in Europe.
Spotify founder and CEO Daniel Ek hit the news early in the year when Sifted revealed the existence of Neko Health, the body scanning healthtech he cofounded with serial entrepreneur Hjalmar Nilsonne. The startup raised €60m in Series A funding in the summer to expand across Europe. However, it's not all good news, as Ek finished the year announcing Spotify is cutting 17% of its workforce, about 1,500 jobs, as the company seeks to clamp down on costs. Ek argued the music streaming service had taken on too many employees over 2020 and 2021, when capital was cheap and tech companies could invest big sums to grow their teams.
The Swede who helped to found energy storage company Polarium, battery manufacturer Northvolt and sustainable steel maker H2 Green Steel — three of Europe’s leading climate companies — this year launched a fourth one. Called Aira, his new venture is a direct-to-consumer startup taking on the heat pump and domestic energy market. In October, just months after launching, Aira raised SEK 1bn (about €87m) from a group of climate and innovation-focused investors. It has already expanded to Germany and Italy, and has eyed the UK as the next market to enter. The startup aims to create 10k new clean energy expert jobs across those three countries.
Spain’s AI and digitalisation minister found herself shepherding one of the most controversial and impactful EU pieces of tech legislation of recent years — the bloc’s AI Act. As Spain took over the rotatory presidency of the EU Council in the summer, the Spanish government set itself a goal of passing the legislation by the end of this year. Artigas worked hard to build bridges as the European Parliament called to bring foundational models within the scope of the act in the face of opposition from Germany, France and Italy. She’s also pushed to ensure Spain launches Europe’s first AI regulatory sandbox and oversaw the passing of Spain’s Startups Act which came into force in January. Artigas will step down from the Spanish government on December 22, but carries on as co-chair of the AI Advisory Board to the UN secretary-general.
The chair of the UK government’s AI Foundation Model Taskforce played a key role in the organisation of the AI Safety Summit, the world’s first international gathering of government leaders and startup founders on how to make the technology safe, which was held in November at Bletchley Park in England. Hogarth, a cofounder of Songkick and Plural Platform, will now liaise with peers in the US and other like-minded countries to build a global network of AI safety institutes and help other governments develop in-house capabilities to understand the most advanced AI models.
An economist with an extensive career in EU institutions, Ivanova became the EU’s commissioner for innovation and research in the summer — the post that oversees the European startup ecosystem. Her meteoric promotion from a member of the European Court of Auditors, the EU’s audit body, and the European Parliament to the European Commission was triggered by the resignation of the previous commissioner Mariya Gabriel.
The soft-speaking European digital chief has trotted the world trying to ensure the bloc’s AI legislation serves as a source of inspiration to other geographies seeking to regulate the technology. This year, she displayed an almost ubiquitous power: she visited the UK, Japan, China and the US, promoting the EU rules at the G7 and the UN. She also pushed the US to agree to keep an eye on how its tech companies comply with the G7 AI principles. But after two mandates at the European Commission, Jourová has announced she won’t be seeking a third term.
The executive director of the Startup Coalition, a leading UK lobby group, was a key player behind the scenes this year, helping the UK government deal with the fallout of the US-based Silicon Valley Bank’s collapse in March and the acquisition by HSBC of its British arm. Hallas, a former civil servant in the UK Brexit department, is now keeping a close eye on the government’s reforms to unlock pension funds’ money for tech investment. He’s usually the one wearing a hoodie in the PM’s tech meetings — but you’d be wise not to underestimate him by his fashion choices.
Very often, behind a powerful politician lies an effective communications adviser. Zakka, a former brand manager and university lecturer at Sciences Po, runs comms for Thierry Breton, the EU commissioner for the internal market. Zakka is credited with boosting Breton’s media efficacy and reach — which can be seen in the politician’s public fights with some of Europe’s emerging AI founders over the EU’s AI Act and his relentless push for European tech sovereignty on the airwaves.
One of the most respected entrepreneurs and angel investors in Germany, Pausder is taking over as chair of the German Startups Association. In that role, Pausder wants to improve tech transfer from Germany’s universities and research centres, making the country more appealing to international talent and integrating entrepreneurship into the curriculum for young people. She also co-hosts the Fast & Curious podcast with Lea-Sophie Cramer, where the pair discusses trends and news in the startup world.
At the centre of UK healthtech Babylon’s meteoric fall over the summer was the startup’s enigmatic founder and CEO, Ali Parsa. This year saw Babylon’s shares become practically worthless on the New York Stock Exchange after a $4.2bn — but ultimately ill-fated — special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) flotation in 2021. Parsa later said listing was his “biggest mistake” and by September this year, the company had been sold for scraps. Insiders told Sifted a tale of overambition, cultural problems and tech that never lived up to the hype on the way to a fall from grace of seismic proportions.
He might not be a household name in the startup scene, but the Polish privacy and security researcher hit the headlines in September after filing a complaint accusing Microsoft-backed OpenAI of a string of breaches of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which triggered an investigation into the company’s ChatGPT generative AI chatbot by Poland’s Office for Personal Data Protection. The probe is not the first such headache that the US startup faces in Europe — Spain’s Data Protection Agency and the European Data Protection Board are also looking at how ChatGPT treats data from its EU-based users. Olejnik has likened his efforts to get responses from OpenAI on how they process his data with the experience of Josef K in Kafka’s book The Trial.
The European Space Agency (ESA), which Aschbacher runs as director general, deviated from its plan to launch its first next-generation Ariane 6 rocket system this year. The launch, now targeted for 2024, matters because the ESA wanted it to become an alternative to Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon for the delivery of large satellites. The delay is bad news for European tech sovereignty as it keeps Europe’s space startups reliant on American rockets to access the Earth’s orbit.
Billionaire and Donald Trump donor Peter Thiel, known for cofounding Paypal and Palantir, spooked the UK’s data privacy activist community last month after Palantir won a government contract worth £330m to overhaul England’s National Health Service (NHS). Over the next seven years, Palantir will build a new platform that integrates data from across the NHS into a central repository. The platform could become one of the world’s largest repositories of health data, and beyond privacy concerns, Thiel worried health officials with what they described as aggressive lobbying tactics to win the contract. Meanwhile, in a year of falling investments, Thiel swam against the current, backing the likes of Milan-based cryptocurency assets exchange One Trading, London-based healthtech Lindus Health and German drone company Quantum Systems.
The future builders
Tech workers who have been laid off
Amid a more challenging funding environment, layoffs at European tech companies continued in 2023. Some of the continent's highest profile names — like Spotify and Getir — were among those that made cuts. Some data also suggested that women have been disproportionately affected by layoffs, putting the ecosystem even further behind on diversity. 2024 might be no different, with layoffs likely as some companies struggle to raise again. But talented employees who have been forced to part ways with their employers could become attractive hires for scrappy startups — or become founders of their own.