When Chahab Nastar founded his computer vision software company LTU Technologies, in Paris in 1999, selling his products into neighbouring Berlin was a pain.
“I didn’t know where to start. My investors were all French. I didn’t know anyone in Germany,” he says.
Nastar may have found out the hard way, but he must have done something right, because in 2002 he was recognised by MIT Technology Review magazine as one of the world's top innovators under the age of 35.
Fifteen years later, Nastar now finds himself in a position where he is the one expected to offer a helping hand to entrepreneurs in similar jams.
As chief innovation officer with the European Institute for Innovation and Technology’s digital cluster, EIT Digital, Nastar describes his role as, “helping companies feel at ease to grow in Europe.”
“I’ve used some of my personal frustrations to tailor the kind of support I would have liked to have received,” he told Science|Business, on the release of the cluster’s 2016 report.
The report shows Nastar can claim some success. Since its launch in 2010, EIT Digital has grown to include 130 companies and universities. It has helped raise more than €77 million in private capital. A total of 200 start-ups have graduated through the business accelerator and 1,500 students through eight Masters programmes.
What is more, EIT Digital has had a hand in creating nine new companies. However, this is not its main focus. “Europe doesn’t have a problem in starting companies, but scaling them,” Nastar notes.
His old company, LTU technologies, would eventually grow to a point where it was acquired by Jastec Corp, a listed semiconductor company based in Tokyo.
In his new role, if one of the promising companies EIT Digital helps grow is sold abroad, would Nastar count it as a failure? “It depends. Not, for example, if the R&D base remained here, which is often the case because Europe has great engineers,” he said.
Creating EIT Digital is one recent, good example of how Brussels has got its act together on providing help for entrepreneurs, Nastar says.
“Policymakers are much more sophisticated than they were 20 years ago. You now have entrepreneurs following Commissioners on Twitter and vice versa.”
But the question that obsesses many who work in the technology policy sphere in Europe also trails Nastar. When will we see the continent come up with an answer to Google? Or grow its own Facebook?
Nastar strikes a level tone. “We have to be patient. Europe is doing well and progressing,” he said. “Silicon Valley wasn’t built in a day – it took more like 50 years.”
It is not always healthy – or necessary – for Europe to define itself by what is happening over the pond, he said. “I don’t think we need to have an inferiority complex,” Nastar says. “There are great things happening here.”