370,000 young entrepreneurs from 40 countries competed to become Europe’s Company and Start Up of the Year on United Nations World Skills Day 2021.
Swim.me and Scribo have been named the winners of the JA Europe Enterprise Challenge and Company of the Year Competition, after battling it out withEurope’s best young entrepreneurs today in Gen-E 2021, the largest entrepreneurship festival across Europe.
Organised by JA Europe and hosted this year by JA Lithuania, the Gen-E festival combines two annual awards, the Company of the Year Competition (CoYC) and the European Enterprise Challenge (EEC).
Following presentations from 180 companies led by some of the brightest young entrepreneurial minds in Europe, the winners were announced at a virtual ceremony.
The winners of the European Enterprise Challenge, for university age entrepreneurs were as follows:
- 1st - Swim.me (Greece) who created a smart wearable device that preserves the orientation of blind swimmers in the pool. The system consists of an eco-friendly swimming cap and goggles and is intended for use in training conditions.
- 2nd - Mute (Portugal), a sound absorption module, able to eliminate echo/reverb and unwanted frequencies in a room by using fabric residues. Relies as a professional, sustainable and innovative solution, that promotes a circular economy.
- 3rd - Hjárni (Norway), whose goal is to become the world's most preferred supplier of eco-friendly tanning agents for sustainable leather production. While Europe's leather generates an annual value chain turnover of 125 billion euros, 85% of this leather is made using chrome, which is dangerous for both our health and environment.
The winners of the Company of the Year Competition were as follows:
- 1st – Scribo (Slovakia), a solution to dry-erase markers that are not being recycled and produce a waste of 35 billion plastic markers every year. They have developed zero-waste dry-erase whiteboard markers made of recycled wax.
- 2nd – FlowOn (Greece), an innovative adapter which converts outdoor taps into “smart taps” regulating the flow of water, reducing water consumption by up to 80% and reducing exposure to viruses and germs by more than 98%.
- 3rd – Lazy Bowl (Austria), are an all-female company specializing in freeze-dried fruit ‘smoothiebowls’ which are free from both colorings and preservatives.
For the first time ever, the Gen-E Festival saw the announcement of a “JA Europe Teacher of the Year Award. The award seeks to acknowledge role of teachers to inspire and motivate young people, to help them discover their potential and lead them to believe in their power of acting and changing the future.
Sedipeh Wägner, a teacher from Sweden, won the prize. Ms Wägner is an experienced JA teacher who teaches at the Introduction Program, dedicated to migrants and vulnerable students to prepare for the national programme, teach them Swedish and possibly complement their previous education to meet the Swedish high school levels and standards.
JA Europe, which organized the festival, is Europe‘s largest non-profit in Europe dedicated to creating pathways for employability, job creation and financial success. Its network operates across 40 countries and last year, its programmes reached almost 4 million young people with the support of over 100,000 business volunteers and 140,000 teachers and educators.
JA Europe CEO Salvatore Nigro said: “We are delighted to announce this year’s winners of the JA Company of the Year Competition and Enterprise Challenge. Each year over 370,000 students across Europe battle it out by designing their own mini companies and start-ups to compete at Gen-E, Europe’s largest entrepreneurship festival.
"Our intention is always to help boost career ambitions and improve employability, entrepreneurial skills and attitudes. Young entrepreneurs have so much to offer our society, and every year we see a new wave of enthusiasm towards solving societal problems with their own entrepreneurship. It’s reflected in the winners again this year, that young entrepreneurs not only see business as a means to a financial end, but as a platform by which to improve society and help people around them.”
JA Europe is the largest non-profit in Europe dedicated to preparing young people for employment and entrepreneurship. JA Europe is a member of JA Worldwide® which for 100 years has delivered hands on, experiential learning in entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy.
JA creates pathways for employability, job creation and financial success. Last school year, the JA network in Europe reached almost 4 million young people across 40 countries with the support of nearly 100,000 business volunteers and over 140,000 teachers/educators.
What are the COYC and JA Company Programme? The JA Europe Company of the Year Competition is the annual European competition of the best JA Company Programme teams. The JA Company Programme empowers high school students (aged 15 to 19) to fill a need or solve a problem in their community and teaches them practical skills required to conceptualise, capitalise, and manage their own business venture. Throughout building their own company, students collaborate, make crucial business decisions, communicate with multiple stakeholders, and develop entrepreneurial knowledge and skills. Every year, more than 350,000 students across Europe take part in this programme, creating more 30,000 mini-companies.
What are the EEC and JA Start Up Programme? The European Enterprise Challenge is the annual European competition of the best JA Start Up Programme teams. The Start Up Programme allows post-secondary students (aged 19 to 30) to experience running their own company, showing them how to use their talents to set up their own business. Students also develop attitudes and skills necessary for personal success and employability and gain essential understanding in self-employment, business creation, risk-taking and coping with adversity, all with experienced business volunteers. Every year, more than 17,000 students from 20 countries across Europe are taking part in this programme, creating 2,500+ start-ups per year.
COVID-19 reveals the shortcomings of a paper-based trade system
According to a recent report by the International Chamber of Commerce, as COVID-19 reveals the shortcomings of a paper-based trade system, financial institutions (FIs) are finding ways to keep trade circulating. It states that the problem being faced today is rooted in trade’s single most persistent vulnerability: paper. Paper is the financial sector’s Achilles heel. The disruption was always going to happen, the only question was, when, writes Colin Stevens.
Preliminary ICC data shows that financial institutions already feel they are being impacted. More than 60% of respondents to the recent COVID-19 supplement to the Trade Survey expect their trade flows to decline by at least 20% in 2020.
The pandemic introduces or exacerbates challenges to the trade finance process. To help combat the practicalities of trade finance in a COVID-19 environment, many banks indicated that they were taking their own measures to relax internal rules on original documentation. However, only 29% of respondents report that their local regulators have provided support to help facilitate ongoing trade.
It’s a critical time for infrastructure upgrades and increased transparency, and while the pandemic has caused a lot of negative effects, a potential positive impact is that it has made clear to the industry that changes do need to be made to optimize processes and improve the overall functioning of international trade, trade finance, and money movement.
“I think it comes down to integrating new technologies in smart ways. Take my company for example, LGR Global, when it comes to money movement, we are focused on 3 things: speed, cost & transparency. To address these issues, we are leading with technology and using things like blockchain, digital currencies and general digitization to optimize the existing methodologies.
"It's quite clear the impact that new technologies can have on things like speed and transparency, but when I say it’s important to integrate the technologies in a smart way that’s important because you always have to keep your customer in mind - the last thing we would want to do is introduce a system that actually confuses our users and makes his or her job more complicated. So on one hand, the solution to these problems is found in new technology, but on the other hand, it’s about creating a user experience that is simple to use and interact with and integrates seamlessly into the existing systems. So, it’s a bit of a balancing act between technology and user experience, that’s where the solution is going to be created.
"When it comes to the broader topic of supply chain finance, what we see is the need for improved digitalization and automation of the processes and mechanisms that exist throughout the product lifecycle. In the multi-commodity trading industry, there are so many different stakeholders, middlemen, banks, etc. and each of them have their own way of doing this - there is an overall lack of standardization, particularly in the Silk Road Area. The lack of standardization leads to confusion in compliance requirements, trade documents, letters of credit, etc., and this means delays and increased costs for all parties. Furthermore, we have the huge issue of fraud, which you have to expect when you are dealing with such disparity in the quality of processes and reporting. The solution here is again to use technology and digitalize and automate as many of these processes as possible - it should be the goal to take human error out of the equation.
"And here is the really exciting thing about bringing digitalization and standardization to supply chain finance: not only is this going to make doing business much more straightforward for the companies themselves, this increased transparency and optimization will also make the companies much more attractive to outside investors. It’s a win-win for everyone involved here.”
How does Amirliravi believe these new systems can be integrated into existing infrastructure?
“This is really a key question, and it's something that we spent a lot of time working on at LGR Global. We realized you can have a great technological solution, but if it creates complexity or confusion for your customers, then you’ll end up causing more problems than you solve.
In the trade finance and money movement industry, that means that new solutions have to be able to plug in directly into existing customer systems --using APIs this is all possible. It’s about bridging the gap between traditional finance and fintech and making sure that the benefits of digitalization are delivered with a seamless user experience.
The trade finance ecosystem has a number of different stakeholders, each with their own systems in place. What we really see a need for is an end-to-end solution that brings transparency and speed to these processes but can still interact with the legacy and banking systems that the industry relies on. That’s when you’ll start to see real changes being made.”
Where are the global hotspots for change and opportunities? Ali Amirliravi says that his company, LGR Global, is focusing on the Silk Road Area - between Europe, Central Asia and China - for a few main reasons:
“First, It’s an area of incredible growth. If we look at China for example, they have maintained GDP growth of over 6% for the last years, and central Asian economies are posting similar numbers, if not higher. This kind of growth means increased trade, increased foreign ownership and subsidiary development. It’s an area where you can really see the opportunity to bring a lot of automation and standardization to the processes within the supply chains. There is a lot of money being moved around and new trading partnerships being made all the time, but there are also a lot of pain points in the industry.
The second reason has to do with the reality of currency fluctuation in the area. When we say Silk Road Area countries, we are talking about 68 countries, each with their own currencies and the individualized value fluctuations that come as a by-product of that. Cross-border trade in this area means that the companies and stakeholders that participate in the finance side have to deal with all kinds of problems when it comes to currency exchange.
And here is where the banking delays that happen in the traditional system really have a negative impact on doing business in the area: because some of these currencies are very volatile, it can be the case that by the time a transaction is finally cleared, the actual value that is being transferred ends up being significantly different than what might have been agreed to initially. This causes all kinds of headaches when it comes to accounting for all sides, and it’s a problem that I dealt with directly during my time in the industry.”
Amirliravi believes that what we are seeing right now is an industry that is ready for change. Even with the pandemic, companies and economies are growing, and there is now more of a push toward digital, automated solutions than ever before. The volume of cross border transactions has been growing steadily at 6% for years now, and just the international payments industry alone is worth 200 Billion Dollars.
Numbers like that show the impact potential that optimization in this space could have.
Topics like cost, transparency, speed, flexibility and digitization are trending in the industry right now, and as deals and supply chains continue to become more and more valuable and complex, demands on infrastructure will similarly increase. It’s really not a question of “if”, it’s a question of “when” - the industry is at a crossroads right now: it’s clear that new technologies will streamline and optimize processes, but parties are waiting for a solution which is secure and reliable enough to handle frequent, high volume transactions, and flexible enough to adapt to the complex deal structures that exist within trade finance. “
Amirliravi and his colleagues at LGR Global see an exciting future for the b2b money movement and trade finance industry.
“I think something that we are going to continue to see is the impact of emerging technologies on the industry “he said. “Things like blockchain infrastructure and digital currencies will be used to bring added transparency and speed to transactions. Government-issued central bank digital currencies are also being created, and this is also going to have an interesting impact on cross-border money movement.
"We’re looking at how digital smart contracts can be used in trade finance to create new automated letters-of-credit, and this gets really interesting once you incorporate IoT technology. Our system is able to trigger transactions and payments automatically based on incoming data streams. This means, for example, that we could create a smart contract for a letter of credit which automatically releases payment once a shipping container or a shipping vessel reaches a certain location. Or, a simpler example, payments could be triggered once a set of compliance documents is verified and uploaded to the system. Automation is such a huge trend - we’re going to see more and more traditional processes being disrupted.
"Data is going to continue to play a huge role in shaping the future of supply chain finance. In the current system, a lot of data is siloed, and the lack of standardization really interferes with overall data collection opportunities. However, once this problem is solved, an end-to-end digital trade finance platform would be able to generate big data sets that could be used to create all kinds of theoretical models and industry insights. Of course, the quality and sensitivity of this data means that data management and security will be incredibly important for the industry of tomorrow.
"For me, the future for the money movement and trade finance industry is bright. We’re entering the new digital era, and this is going to mean all kinds of new business opportunities, particularly for the companies that embrace next generation technologies.”
Has the shine worn off activist investment?
A few recent cases suggest that the tide may finally be turning on activist investment, which until recently seemed as if it was becoming an entrenched part of the business world. Although the value of activist investor-held assets may have been climbing in recent years (in the UK, this figure grew 43% between 2017 and 2019 to reach $5.8 billion), the number of campaigns fell by 30% in the year leading up to September 2020. Of course, that drop-off can partly be explained by the fallout from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but the fact that more and more plays appear to be falling on deaf ears could signal a bleaker long-term outlook for activist agitators going forwards.
The latest case in point comes from England, where wealth management fund St James’s Place (SJP) were the subject of an attempted activist intervention on the part of PrimeStone Capital last month. After purchasing a 1.2% stake in the company, the fund sent an open letter to the SJP board of directors challenging their recent track record and calling for targeted improvements. However, the lack of incision or originality in the PrimeStone manifesto meant that it was brushed off with relative ease by SJP, with little impact being felt on its share price. The underwhelming nature and outcome of the campaign is indicative of a growing trend in recent years – and one that could be set to become more pronounced in a post-Covid-19 society.
PrimeStone unable to inspire
The PrimeStone play took the traditional form favoured by activist investors; after acquiring a minority stake in SJP, the fund tried to flex its muscles by highlighting the perceived shortcomings of the current board in an 11-page missive. Among other issues, the letter identified the company’s bloated corporate structure (over 120 head of department on the payroll), flagging Asian interests and tumbling share price (stocks have fallen 7% since 2016). They also identified a “high-cost culture” in SJP’s backroom and made unfavorable comparisons with other prosperous platform businesses like AJ Bell and Integrafin.
While some of the criticisms had elements of validity, none of them were especially novel—and they didn’t paint a complete picture. In fact, several third parties have come to the defence of SJP’s board, pointing out that equating the company’s downturn with the rise of interests such as AJ Bell is unfair and overly simplistic, and that when set against more reasonable touchstones such as Brewin Dolphin or Rathbones, SJP holds its own remarkably well.
PrimeStone’s admonishments over SJP’s high spending may hold some water, but they fail to recognize that much of that outlay was unavoidable, since the firm was forced to comply with regulatory changes and succumb to revenue headwinds beyond its control. Its impressive performance against its competitors confirms that the company has been dealing with sector-wide issues exacerbated by the pandemic, something which PrimeStone singularly failed to fully acknowledge or address.
Momentous vote imminent for URW
It’s a similar story across the Channel, where French billionaire Xavier Niel & businessman Léon Bressler have collected a 5% stake in international shopping mall operator Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield (URW) and are adopting Anglo-Saxon activist investor tactics to try and secure URW board seats for themselves and push URW into a risky strategy to drive up its share price in the short term.
It’s clear that, like most companies in the retail sector, URW needs a fresh strategy to help weather the pandemic-induced recession, particularly given its relatively high level of debt (more than €27 billion). To that end, URW’s board of directors are hopeful of launching project RESET, which targets a capital raise of €3.5 billion in order to maintain the company’s good investment-grade credit rating and ensure continued access to all important credit markets, while gradually deleveraging the shopping mall business.
Niel and Bressler, however, want to forego the €3.5bn capital increase in favour of selling off the firm’s US portfolio—a collection of prestigious shopping centres which have by and large proven resistant to the changing retail environment—to pay down debt. The activist investors’ plan is being opposed by a number of third party advisory firms such as Proxinvest and Glass Lewis, with the latter calling it “an excessively risky gambit”. Given that credit rating agency Moody’s have predicted an 18-month slump in rental income that is likely to hit shopping centres – and have even gone as far as to warn that failure to implement the capital raise underpinning RESET could result in a downgrading of URW’s rating – it seems likely that Niel and Bressler’s ambitions will be rebuffed at the November 10th shareholder meeting, in the same way that PrimeStone’s have been.
Long-term growth over short-term gains
Elsewhere, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey appears to have also overcome an attempt by high-profile activist investor Elliott Management to oust him from his role. Although a recent committee meeting did cede to some of Elliott’s demands, such as reducing board terms from three years to one, it chose to declare its allegiance to a chief executive who had overseen total shareholder returns of 19% prior to Elliott’s involvement with the social media behemoth earlier this year.
Alongside the atypically uninspiring campaigns conducted elsewhere in the market, and the retrogression of the sector as a whole, could it be that activist investors are losing their clout? For a long time, they have drawn attention to their ventures through flashy antics and bold prognoses, but it seems that companies and shareholders alike are catching on to the fact that behind their bluster, their approaches often contain fatal flaws. Namely, a focus on short-term inflation of the share price to the detriment of long-term stability is being exposed as the irresponsible gamble that it is – and in a shaky post-Covid economy, judicious prudence is likely to be prized above immediate profit with increasing regularity.
Time for the #EuropeanUnion to close longstanding #digital gaps
The European Union recently unveiled its European Skills Agenda, an ambitious scheme to both upskill and reskill the bloc’s workforce. The right to lifelong learning, enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights, has taken on new importance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As Nicolas Schmit, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, explained: “The skilling of our workforces is one of our central responses to the recovery, and providing people the chance to build the skillsets they need is key to preparing for the green and digital transitions”.
Indeed, while the European bloc has frequently made headlines for its environmental initiatives—particularly the centrepiece of the Von der Leyen Commission, the European Green Deal—it’s allowed digitalisation to fall somewhat by the wayside. One estimate suggested that Europe utilizes only 12% of its digital potential. To tap into this neglected area, the EU must first address the digital inequalities in the bloc’s 27 member states are addressed.
The 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), an annual composite assessment summarizing Europe’s digital performance and competitiveness, corroborates this claim. The latest DESI report, released in June, illustrates the imbalances which have left the EU facing a patchwork digital future. The stark divisions revealed by DESI’s data—splits between one member state and the next, between rural and urban areas, between small and large firms or between men and women—make it abundantly clear that while some parts of the EU are prepared for the next generation of technology, others are lagging significantly behind.
A yawning digital divide?
DESI evaluates five principal components of digitalization—connectivity, human capital, the uptake of Internet services, firms’ integration of digital technology, and the availability of digital public services. Across these five categories, a clear rift opens up between the highest-performing countries and those languishing at the bottom of the pack. Finland, Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands stand out as star performers with extremely advanced digital economies, while Italy, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria have a lot of ground to make up.
This overall picture of a widening gap in terms of digitalization is borne out by the report’s detailed sections on each of these five categories. Aspects such as broadband coverage, internet speeds, and next-generation access capability, for example, are all critical for personal and professional digital use—yet parts of Europe are falling short in all of these areas.
Wildly divergent access to broadband
Broadband coverage in rural areas remains a particular challenge—10% of households in Europe’s rural zones are still not covered by any fixed network, while 41% of rural homes are not covered by next generation-access technology. It’s not surprising, therefore, that significantly fewer Europeans living in rural areas have the basic digital skills they need, compared to their compatriots in larger cities and towns.
While these connectivity gaps in rural areas are troubling, particularly given how important digital solutions like precision farming will be for making the European agricultural sector more sustainable, the problems aren’t limited to rural zones. The EU had set a goal for at least 50% of households to have ultrafast broadband (100 Mbps or faster) subscriptions by the end of 2020. According to the 2020 DESI Index, however, the EU is well short of the mark: only 26% of European households have subscribed to such fast broadband services. This is a problem with take-up, rather than infrastructure—66.5% of European households are covered by a network able to provide at least 100 Mbps broadband.
Yet again, there’s a radical divergence between the frontrunners and the laggards in the continent’s digital race. In Sweden, more than 60% of households have subscribed to ultrafast broadband—while in Greece, Cyprus and Croatia less than 10% of households have such rapid service.
SMEs falling behind
A similar story plagues Europe’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which represent 99% of all businesses in the EU. A mere 17% of these firms use cloud services and only 12% use big data analytics. With such a low rate of adoption for these important digital tools, European SMEs risk falling behind not only companies in other countries—74% of SMEs in Singapore, for example, have identified cloud computing as one of the investments with the most measurable impact on their business—but losing ground against larger EU firms.
Larger enterprises overwhelmingly eclipse SMEs on their integration of digital technology—some 38.5% of large firms are already reaping the benefits of advanced cloud services, while 32.7% are relying on big data analytics. Since SMEs are considered the backbone of the European economy, it’s impossible to imagine a successful digital transition in Europe without smaller firms picking up the pace.
Digital divide between citizens
Even if Europe manages to close these gaps in digital infrastructure, though, it means little
without the human capital to back it up. Some 61% of Europeans have at least basic digital skills, though this figure falls alarmingly low in some member states—in Bulgaria, for example, a mere 31% of citizens have even the most basic software skills.
The EU has still further trouble equipping its citizens with the above-basic skills which are increasingly becoming a prerequisite for a wide range of job roles. Currently, only 33% of Europeans possess more advanced digital skills. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) specialists, meanwhile, make up a meager 3.4% of the EU’s total workforce—and only 1 out of 6 are women. Unsurprisingly, this has created difficulties for SMEs struggling to recruit these highly-in-demand specialists. Some 80% of companies in Romania and Czechia reported problems trying to fill positions for ICT specialists, a snag which will undoubtedly slow down these countries’ digital transformations.
The latest DESI report lays out in stark relief the extreme disparities which will continue to thwart Europe’s digital future until they are addressed. The European Skills Agenda and other programs intended to prepare the EU for its digital development are welcome steps in the right direction, but European policymakers should lay out a comprehensive scheme to bring the entire bloc up to speed. They have the perfect opportunity to do so, too—the €750 billion recovery fund proposed to help the European bloc get back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already stressed that this unprecedent investment must include provisions for Europe’s digitalization: the DESI report has made it clear which digital gaps must be addressed first.
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