Unicorns Roam Wild Across Europe’s CEE Business Hubs

With a growing startup scene that has already launched global firms like Skype, Bolt, Bitdefender, Wise, and Vinted, CEE has some lesser-known places where Europe's unicorns or "soonicorns" are thriving.

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Photo: iStock.com / Ong-ad Nuseewor

As CEE economies and entrepreneurial scenes have matured, they have begun to close in on or surpass other (more advanced) business environments. In fact, by the end of 2022, the total value of CEE startups rivalled Greece’s GDP, amounting to EUR 190 billion – representing a 20-fold increase within a decade. Across the region, we can find almost 50 unicorns (startups valued at over EUR 1 bln) alongside a few hundred soonicorns (aka, soon-to-be-unicorns with a value of over EUR 500 mln), numbers that doubled even during the pandemic.

On the move

With the current trends showing no signs of slowing down, the region is making waves on the global markets and increasing its attractiveness, with investors pouring around EUR 6 billion in venture capital (accelerating or incubating new companies) last year alone. This happened across 1100 deals and funding rounds, with both their value and frequency tripled in under two years.

Similarly, the birth/death rates for CEE startups and their maturity speed are almost on par with their Western counterparts, while surprisingly, just 1 in 6 startups with over EUR 1 mln are opting to relocate outside of the region.

Ex-communist spaces are enjoying this newfound status, as they have become Europe’s frontrunners for meetups, jobs creation, and spillover (indirect value-added), especially in ITC and disruptive sectors, as, for instance, CEE generates one-third of the global initial cryptocurrency offerings. Since the ground is fertile, the next question is, in which cities or countries do entrepreneurs plant their seeds?

While most will point out that Europe’s business landscape revolves around famous hubs like Paris, London, and Madrid, CEE has found its goldmines, too. Some might be surprised that on the 2022 Global Startup Ecosystem Index, Estonia ranked 13 (just beneath Switzerland and above Finland, Ireland, and Spain), while many of the CEE states sit in the top 30-50.

No slowdown in sight

Instead of opting for Turkey or Greece’s beautiful beaches, you might be better off grabbing a laptop and opening a business in Czechia, Poland, Bulgaria, or Romania. Similarly, Tallinn is more accommodating to new firms than Milan, Zurich, or Hamburg. If we look strictly at the European level, Estonia, Lithuania, Austria, Czechia, and Poland (in this order) are all amongst the best 20 countries for emerging businesses, with Tallinn and Vienna also entering the top 20 (while most of the rest fall below the first 100). Furthermore, except for Slovakia and Hungary, almost all CEE countries represent Europe’s best 30 startup ecosystems, with their rankings trending upward each year.

While overall, CEE tends to exceed some of the bigger economies in terms of startups, with their cities ranking alongside other well-established urban centers, albeit at quite a lower level, these feats must be put into context. While these states and cities offer plenty of promise for business growth, their development can be attributed to the dynamicity required by developing industries, making it easier to capitalize on opportunities. Regardless of prospective evolutions, it is an excellent sign that innovation and change can also be driven from within the CEE, with many of its business leaders seemingly being keen on creating the next big thing.

Christopher Radovici

is a Ph.D. student at the Bucharest University of Economics, former Westminster graduate, specializing in CEE and EU Neighborhood affairs, involved in several cross-disciplinary research projects across Europe and with a series of active publications and conference participations in the field of IR, FP and Macroeconomics. Private and Civil Society - Duke of Edinburgh's International Award Gold finalist, alumni of Alpbach, Aspen and SUSI, actively contributing to various civil society organization and think-tanks in the Danube Region, while also having been the founder of a social entrepreneurship start-up.

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