Germany’s VC industry is ready to take off, but bureaucrats need to release the handbrake

The narrative suggests that Germany is lagging behind its European neighbors when it comes to building a globally competitive venture capital market. But I think that the next five years will be huge for the German venture capital sector, and that the signs for the future are very positive.

German startups raised €6.4 billion in 2020. That’s more than France, which came in at €5.7 billion. Another upside is that there is a healthy blend of local and international investment in the early-stage market. German funds dominate investments in German startups at the seed and Series A stages. As companies grow, overseas investment plays a huge part — half of the deals exceeding $50 million funding rounds are led entirely by foreign investors, while only 5% are run by German investors and 45% see a mix of foreign and domestic investors at the cap table.

I think this is where the German VC market needs to be right now. Great innovation is being sourced and backed by local funds. As these companies grow and become winners, they attract the best investors from around the globe, enabling the companies to internationalize from a German base, and the early-stage VCs reap the rewards and continue investing in local German talent. As the market matures, I am confident we will see more German VC money invested at the growth stages.

And the outlook is favorable. The German market is thriving. Even the pandemic did little to impact this fundamentally positive trend for the technology sector.

The German market is thriving. Even the pandemic did little to impact this fundamentally positive trend for the technology sector.

In addition to the growing level of both local and international investment into German tech, policymakers have created better conditions for startups and VC funds to thrive in Germany.

The German Federal Government launched the €10 billion Future Fund and has committed additional funds to the Deep Tech Future Fund. Not only does this immediately inject more capital into the market at the growth stage, but it also indicates that Germany is “open for business.” It sends a clear signal to the rest of the world that Germany understands the link between innovation and tangible improvements in society. It is a powerful and welcome indicator to funds from around the world.

Germany is incredibly attractive to tech talent, in addition to investors. More and more tech workers wish to relocate to Germany, with the welfare state providing a model for the future.

The long term looks good, too. Germany is famous the world over for its manufacturing and engineering sector. Germany is one of the few countries that still generates foreign trade surpluses through local production. Manufacturing and engineering are still yet to experience a massive leap in innovation. Therefore, German startups are extremely well positioned to benefit from the increasing activity in “Industry 4.0” innovation, with talent from Germany’s manufacturing heartland poised to blend with the ever-increasing pool of tech talent in Berlin and Munich.

Share options and spinoffs are the Achilles’ heel of the German startup scene

I think German VC and the tech market are due to take off and achieve new heights. However, there are two areas that need to be substantially improved: employee stock options and the regulations around spinoffs.

Germany is choking on its bureaucracy, and that threatens innovation. Tesla’s new Gigafactory is the latest example of how bureaucratic processes can slow everything down.

For startups in Germany, reforms on employee stock option plans (ESOP) are urgently needed for startup workers to benefit from the success of their companies and for the startup ecosystem to grow on its own.

The current bill to offer better tax benefits does not reflect the needs of the industry. For example, tax relief is only available for employees in companies that are younger than 10 years. If an employee changes employers, they must pay tax on company shares beforehand, which poses a significant risk of bankruptcy. Because many startups are still not profitable after 10 years, taxes should only be due when an employee makes an actual profit from their holdings — when they sell the shares. In the end, startups simply won’t offer new ESOPs to their employees.

Another example: spinoffs. Germany has the highest number of patent applications in Europe. However, startups often are not able to turn innovative technology into product-market fit. Spinoffs from the leading German research institutes have had a hard time gaining a foothold because they have been imposed with high institutional fixed and license costs when spinning off. Here, Germany needs to be more flexible and give startups the space and funding they need.

Lower the fixed costs and the enormous bureaucracy founders face when spinning off. Investors have to render more operational and organizational support for researchers-turned-founders. Furthermore, VCs must have the courage to invest more in innovative ideas and technologies that may take a bit longer to thrive. BioNTech is the best example of how this pays off in the long run.

More German unicorns?

As it stands, 2021 has already seen numerous new unicorns from Germany — with Personio, Mambu, Sennder, Gorillas and Trade Republic achieving billion-dollar valuations — and there are almost certainly more to come.

If regulators finally cut through the red tape around stock options and spinoffs, the German tech and VC industry will achieve new heights. I look forward to positive changes and an entire roster of German unicorns being minted in the years to come.