Europe: Competitive or colony of Tech empires in USA or China?

The world is in a New Moon Race. Looking at the digital economy, today’s world is organized around two centers of gravity: the U.S. and China. They are home to nine of the top 10, and 18 of the top 20 internet companies as measured by market capitalization. All the leading companies in online search, social media, and e-commerce are based there. But as the digital transformation continues, other industries like automotive, manufacturing, financial services or health care are following, new technological developments in AI, IoT or Big Data spark an even faster and widespread disruption.

In an age of a growing digital economy, Europe’s prosperity is created, not inherited. The future of Europe depends on a competitive mindset and a willingness to gain advantage against the world’s best competitors in the U.S. and China. Hence, Europe’s competitiveness depends on the capacity of its society, politics and economy to innovate and upgrade. As European companies and governments consider their own stakes in the game, a critical question remains: Are Europeans defying the two centers of gravity?

State of Play: Two centers of gravity

Today’s world is organized around two centers of gravity: the U.S. and China. They are home to nine of the top 10, and 18 of the top 20 internet companies as measured by market capitalization. Klick um zu Tweeten

Technology advances quickly and in order to measure future potential, one has to look at innovation and start-up ecosystems, investment in new technologies or market capitalization in the digital economy between in the U.S., China and Europe.

Advanced Technology: Put a Stamp on Artificial Intelligence 

Developments in Artificial Intelligence and robotics are generally recognized as a main driver of future growth, competitiveness and job creation by increasing productivity and efficiency, and lowering costs. But AI also triggers far-reaching societal and economic changes, which will transform all aspects of life from employment, the social contract to warfare. The impact of AI leadership has been summed up by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin: „whoever becomes the leader in this sphere will become the ruler of the world [1].

In Artificial Intelligence, the U.S. and China are in an arms race for global leadership. Rapid improvements in information storage capacity, high computing power, and considerable advancements of Artificial Intelligence technology in end-use industries are driving economic growth. The global artificial intelligence market size was valued at 641.9 million USD in 2017 on the basis of its direct revenue sources and at 5,970 million USD in 2017 on the basis on AI based gross value addition (GVA) prognoses. The market is projected to reach 35,870 million USD by 2025 by its direct revenue sources, growing at a CAGR of 57.2% from 2018 to 2025.[2]

Potential Revenue through AI

Source: Artificial Intelligence Market Analysis 2017

While taking an either more state-driven (China) or a more private-sector-driven (U.S.) approach, in their entrepreneurial frenzy China and the U.S. are outshining other countries. In 2017, China’s artificial intelligence start-ups took 48% of all dollars going to AI start-ups globally in, more than that of the U.S. (38%). Both combined made up for almost 90 percent.[3]

In 2017, China’s artificial intelligence start-ups took 48% of all dollars going to AI start-ups globally in, more than that of the U.S. (38%). Both combined made up for almost 90 percent. Klick um zu Tweeten
AI Funding between US and China

Source: CBInsights 2018

In July 2017, China outlined a bold multi-billion national strategic plan to catch up with global AI research by 2020 and to deliver major breakthroughs and become the world leader by 2030. On the other side however, the U.S. still leads in both the total number of AI start-ups and total funding overall. Both countries can draw from a wealth of data and opportunities for companies to scale quickly. 

For some, Europe’s role in this arms race is defined as a colony in the American tech empire.[4]Indeed, Europe still lacks a comparable AI ecosystem. Even the European Commission admits Europe is behind in private investments in AI: „2.4-3.2 billion EUR in 2016, compared to 6.5-9.7 billion EUR in Asia and 12.1-18.6 billion EUR in North America“.[5]

A lack of a strategic plan at EU level, a low level of public and external investment, a cautious adoption from companies and the general public and no EU-wide liability rules on AI and robotics are credited for the underperformance.[6]This has led European countries to lay down AI specific and comprehensive AI strategies (e.g. the UK, France), integrating AI technologies within national technology or digital roadmaps (e.g. Denmark) or developing a national AI R&D or Work strategy (e.g. Finland).

In April 2018, 25 EU countries signed a declaration to join forces and to engage in a collective „European approach” to AI. This push includes funding for research to harvest the potential of artificial intelligence.[7]Under the research programme „Horizon 2020” public funding will be 1.5 billion EUR for the period 2018-2020 and adds up to a combined public and private investment in the same period of 20 billion EUR.[8]

German Minister for Economy, Peter Altmaier, has called for a „European Airbus for AI“ as an IPCI (Important Project for Common Interest), which fits Germany’s AI Strategy to create a joint French-German AI research center.[9]In such an endeavour, European institutions will play a key role in coordinating, „filling in policy gaps that cannot be addressed solely at the national level and support the widespread development of competitive AI ecosystems throughout Europe” as well as aim for „a common, internationally recognised ethical and legal framework for the design, production and use of AI, robotics, and their increasingly autonomous systems”.[10]Protecting the privacy of the user would be a distinct different approach as the commercial quest for data and analytics of the American and Chinese ones.

It seems Europe seizes the opportunity by fostering a continent-wide collaboration to put its distinct stamp on AI as a different path than the U.S. or China. Or in the words of Emmanuel Macron: „to be an acting part of this AI revolution “.[11]

Innovation: Flourishing a Digital Start Up Ecosystem

Such an aggressive competition for innovation and new technologies spills over in the venture capital market and start-up ecosystem. The U.S. and China have the most active digital-investment ecosystems in the world. In fact, the so-called „Global Unicorn Club “, private companies in the tech sector whose value exceeds 1 billion USD, speak predominantly American-English or Chinese-Mandarin.

For the 274 companies founded in 2003 or later that have reached unicorn status, half are in the U.S. and China with its 69 has more than twice as many unicorns as Europe with 33.[12]More striking, American companies in the Silicon Valley tend to scoop up the promising digital start-ups from Europe. From 2011 to 2017, the GAFAM companies[13]have acquired more than 65 leading-edge European technology companies like Skype and AI pioneer DeepMind. And no wonder, in most cases the size of the European operation shrank after the acquisition.[14]

For the 274 companies founded in 2003 or later that have reached unicorn status, half are in the U.S. and China with its 69 has more than twice as many unicorns as Europe with 33. Klick um zu Tweeten

In China, the „Great Firewall“ of legislative actions and technologies hinders competition and helps the three Internet giants to nurture a homegrown digital ecosystem that is now spreading beyond them. Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent[15]have been developing a multi-industry digital ecosystem that touches almost every aspect of consumers’ lives. How important Chinese digital companies are for the venture capital market are, becomes obvious by looking at the numbers. In 2016, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent (BAT) provided 42 percent of all venture-capital investment in China. They have a far more prominent role than Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Netflix that together contributed only 5 percent to the U.S. venture-capital investment in that same year.[16]

In China, the „Great Firewall“ of legislative actions and technologies hinders competition and helps the three Internet giants to nurture a homegrown digital ecosystem that is now spreading beyond them. Klick um zu Tweeten

In contrast, European companies make up about 11% of the total number in the „Global Unicorn Club “, that is only 30 companies. These European start-ups have an aggregate valuation of about 64 billion USD, and operate across industries including fintech, e-commerce, or healthcare.[17]Europe’s tech community seem to be still „Balkanized“ along national borders, while connections between local venture capitalists and start-up founders across the continent is needed if Europe ever wants to play in the big leagues.[18]The lack of a competitive Venture Capital market is described by the most recent numbers of 2017. From the 57 start-ups which became unicorns in 2017, 32 are from the U.S., 18 from China and just four from Europe, interestingly from UK.[19]The lack of appropriate and swift funding of new ideas to make them a product or a company is a major weakness of Europe.

Market Share: Competing in Platform Economy and E-Commerce

Even in a digital world, size matters. In a digital economy, Napoleon Bonaparte’s old saying becomes reality: „China is a sleeping lion. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world.” In e-commerce, China is the world’s largest e-commerce market and accounts already for more than 40 percent of the value of worldwide transactions compared to less than 1 percent only about a decade ago. The current value of China’s e-commerce transactions is estimated to be larger than in France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States combined. One explanation for China’s dominance is the explosion in use of mobile payments, which grew from just 25 percent in 2013 to 68 percent in 2016. In 2016, the value of mobile payments related to individuals’ consumption was 790 billion USD, 11 times that of the United States.[20]

Two factors drive this quick digital transformation of the Chinese Dragon. Firstly, China is benefiting from a large domestic market to achieve scale and to surround itself with rich ecosystems of start-ups, suppliers and customers. In 2016, 731 Million of China’s 1.4 billion citizens use the internet, more than the European Union and the United States combined. Beyond scale, it is the enthusiasm for digital tools among China’s much younger consumer base, which accelerates growth and quick adoption.  

Platform Economy per Region

Such an imbalance can also be found in the platform economy. According to the Center for Global Enterprise, the Asia-Pacific has seen the creation of 82 digital platforms with close to 350,000 employees and combined market capitalization of 930 billion USD. Europe is trailing behind both the United States and the Asia-Pacific region in encouraging successful platform enterprises. Only 27 digital platforms were created in Europe, with 109,000 employees and a combined market capitalization of 181 billion USD. However, Europe and China do not come close to the combined market capitalization of U.S.-based digital platforms – about 3 trillion USD.[21]

Market Capitalization: Financial Strength in Tech

From 2010 to 2017, the market capitalization of GAFAM companies (Google/Alphabet, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft) increased by 2.6 trillion USD. In contrast, the value of the 28 non-GAFAM companies that make up the Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 2.1 trillion USD. In China, Alibaba and Tencent are among the 10 most valuable companies in the world and, along with Baidu, are collectively worth more than 1 trillion USD.[22]In today’s digital economy the U.S. and China are the two centers of gravity, where their tech giants dominate the markets. Out of the top 10 companies by market capitalization nine are based in these two countries.

There is another aspect aside from duality between the U.S. and China driven by the winner-take-all mentality of digital companies in the U.S. and China. Looking at the 20 world’s largest tech giants, there is a divide between top-tier companies and those further down the ladder. The top companies on the list like Apple, Alibaba, Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and Tencent are all above the 450 billion USD mark and account for over 80% of the total value of Top 20 tech companies. Not a single company hoovers between 200 and 450 billion USD. This underpins the divide. First of all, digitalization is driven by American or Chinese companies, and secondly, for tech newcomers it is pretty hard to vault into the upper echelon of the market. The only European company in the Top 20 ranks is German based SAP. 

Part 2 of the article deals with European Strategies to gain better traction in the competitive race.

The article is part of proceedings of a conference in Singapore, summer 2018.


[1]         Gigova, Radina. 2017. Who Vladimir Putin thinks will rule the world. https://edition.cnn.com/2017/09/01/world/putin-artificial-intelligence-will-rule-world/index.html. Accessed 18.12.2018.

[2]         Grand View Research. 2017. Artificial Intelligence Market Analysis By Solution (Hardware, Software, Services), by Technology (Deep Learning, Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing, Machine Vision), by End-use, By Region, and Segment Forecasts, 2018 – 2025. https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/artificial-intelligence-ai-market/methodology. Accessed 18.12.2018.

[3]         CB Insight. 2018. Artificial Intelligence Trends To Watch In 2018. https://www.cbinsights.com/research/report/artificial-intelligence-trends-2018/. Accessed 18.12.2018.

[4]         Lee, Kai-Fu. 2018. AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley and the New World Order. 

[5]         European Commission. 2018. Communication „Artificial intelligence for Europe“,https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/factsheet-artificial-intelligence-europe,Accessed 18.12.2018.

[6]         European Commission. 2018. Digital Transformation Monitor. USA-China-EU plans for AI: where do we stand? https://ec.europa.eu/growth/tools-databases/dem/monitor/sites/default/files/DTM_AI%20USA-China-EU%20plans%20for%20AI%20v5.pdf. Accessed 18.12.2018.

[7]         European Commission, 2018. EU Member States sign up to cooperate on Artificial Intelligence. https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/eu-member-states-sign-cooperate-artificial-intelligence.Accessed 18.12.2018.

[8]         European Commission. 2018. Communication „Artificial intelligence for Europe“. https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/news/factsheet-artificial-intelligence-europe. Accessed 18.12.2018.

[9]         Peter Altmaier at the Digitalgipfel, 4.12.2018. 

[10]     Delponte, Laura. 2018. European Artificial Intelligence (AI) leadership, the path for an integrated vision.http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/626074/IPOL_STU(2018)626074_EN.pdf.Accessed 18.12.2018.

[11]       Thompson, Nicholas. 2018. Emmanuel Macron talks to wired about france’s ai strategy, 31.3.2018, https://www.wired.com/story/emmanuel-macron-talks-to-wired-about-frances-ai-strategy/.Accessed 18.12.2018.

[12]       CB Insight. 2018. The Global Unicorn Club. https://www.cbinsights.com/research-unicorn-companies. Accessed 18.12.2018.

[13]       GAFAM stands for Google, Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft. 

[14]       Candelon 2018.

[15]       Collectively known as BAT.

[16]       Woetzel, Jonathan et. al.. 2017. China’s digital economy. A leading global force. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/china/chinas-digital-economy-a-leading-global-force. Accessed August 2018.

[17]       Candelon, François, Reeves, Martin, and Daniel Wu. 2018. 18 of the Top 20 Tech Companies Are in the Western U.S. and Eastern China. Can Anywhere Else Catch Up?. Harvard Business S 3/5/2018.

[18]       Scott, Mark. 2018. Goodbye internet: How regional divides upended the world wide web

Governments have broken the world wide web. 28.1.2018, Politico, https://www.politico.eu/article/internet-governance-facebook-google-splinternet-europe-net-neutrality-data-protection-privacy-united-states-u-s/.Accessed 18.12.2018.

[19]       Desjardins, Jeff. 2017. The 57 Startups That Became Unicorns in 2017, https://www.visualcapitalist.com/57-startups-unicorns-in-2017/.Accessed 18.12.2018.

[20]       Woetzel, Jonathan et. al.. 2017. China’s digital economy. A leading global force. https://www.mckinsey.com/featured-insights/china/chinas-digital-economy-a-leading-global-force. Accessed August 2018.

[21]       Evans, Peter, and Gawer, Annabelle. 2016. The Rise of the Platform Enterprise: A Global Survey, Center for Global Enterprise, 2016. 

[22]       Candelon, François, Reeves, Martin, and Daniel Wu. 2018. 18 of the Top 20 Tech Companies Are in the Western U.S. and Eastern China. Can Anywhere Else Catch Up?. Harvard Business S 3/5/2018.

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