April 26

Thomas Herlin: EU Is The Best Place To Start A Company

As a true visionary, he saw the opportunities of the sharing economy as early as 1995 when he founded Covoiturage.com, a company that provided a ride sharing service. Thomas Herlin is a seasoned entrepreneur and startup mentor, in charge of business development area at the European Institute of Innovation & Technology with in-depth knowledge of the European startup ecosystem, and he is convinced that Europe is the best place to start a business.
Mr. Herlin, Uber, which is considered to be one of the most disruptive global companies in the field of transport and mobility, introduced UberPool, the carpooling service in 2014. You came up with the idea of a carpooling service in as early as 1995, more than 20 years ago! How did you think of the idea so early on?
I like to combine people & ideas. At that time I was student at the University Goethe in Frankfurt/Main and I helped a PhD to install the 1st Internet server of the University in 1994. At the same time I was a heavy user of the German carpool network (Mitfahrzentrale). These 2 networks were in my mind meant to merge and gain efficiency.
The sharing economy, has, obviously, existed for a very long time. Why do you think it seems that it's been gaining momentum in the last few years?
For several reasons:
  • people long, in a materialistic & quite selfish world, to get back some relationships and sense of community,
  • for ecological reasons
  • for economical reasons: we possess things which are used only a fraction of their lifetime –e.g. 5% for cars; sharing economy participates in a massive efficiency increase
  • for a “trend” reason too; sharing is not anymore a sign of poverty, but rather cool
Why hasn't BlaBlaCar or Covoiturage.com become Uber? What made Uber?
It’s not the same model! People tend to confuse both, but remember that Uber is (so far) working with drivers who are earning a wage for their work.
BlaBlaCar drivers are on the road anyway, they share a journey, which would in any case be existing. Therefore BlaBlaCar is also un-touched by regulators for unfair competition against taxi drivers: it is not the same action.
What kind of problems were you facing while in the business that might seem the "dark side" of the sharing economy?
Obviously there is a race to the “winner takes all” which is current for network effect. Dominant players might extract too much value in comparison to their participation in the sharing market. If they don’t moderate this excess, they might experience what happened to the Oil majors in the 1890’s: a kind of a new Antitrust Act might come again.
What are the necessary steps we need to make in order to guarantee responsibility and safety for all the participants in the sharing economy?
At some point the information/data, which is the “raw material” of this economy, should be made available public/open source. Similarly to what happened with rail infrastructure or energy in Europe. Companies would then compete on sales & marketing parameters, but not on the “possession” of people’s contact.
As a seasoned entrepreneur and mentor, also part of the European Institute of Innovation & Technology, you are very familiar with the European startup system. What does Europe have that the US doesn't?
I always tell future entrepreneurs that the EU is the best place to start a company because we have many supports available, in euro or in kind (incubators). And on the contrary to the US, where you need to sell part of your equity to raise private capital, you have access to public financing for startups in many circumstances.
We also have a “biodiversity” which can be very helpful to explore various paths and not only a mono-culture in certain economic directions. It’s no wonder that the sharing economy is very linked to EU culture (Carpooling, Crowdfunding, HomeExchange, Carsharing) and has big EU companies in their highest ranking.
Of course these specificities can also transform into a weakness if we don’t see the positive aspects in them: public funding can transform into bureaucracy, biodiversity into market atomization …
What kind of advantages do European startups have compared to their US peers?
EU startups have access to a large scope of expertise and cultures, which is our wealth. Openness to others, EU or non-EU, must remain a key advantage for us in a period where isolationism is a real threat (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=laTbO-BBlpg).
If sky were the limit, in what industry would you choose to found a startup in the next few years?
Platform of platforms :)

Thomas Herlin is a Business developer accelerator at EIT Digital Accelerator. He has 15 years of experience as a founder in several startups and business development manager in international corporations.
EIT Digital is a leading European digital innovation and entrepreneurial education organization driving Europe’s digital transformation. They deliver breakthrough digital innovations to the market and breed entrepreneurial talent for economic growth and improved quality of life in Europe. It does this by mobilizing a pan-European ecosystem of over 130 top European corporations, SMEs, start-ups, universities and research institutes.

The interview about the future and the opportunities of sharing economy were made possible by Zavarovalnica Triglav, this year's PODIM Challenge BlueChip partner
Thomas Herlin will be a keynote speaker at this year's PODIM conference