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European startups benefit from post-#Covid boost

Colin Stevens

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As a global recession looms, many businesses find themselves facing an existential crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has signalled an end to a period of untrammelled economic expansion, triggering a sharp rise in unemployment and forcing governments across Europe to introduce sweeping business bail-outs in a bid to stem the tide of insolvency.

Hard times lie ahead—and yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. With European policymakers’ attention firmly focused on getting the bloc’s economy back on track via a recovery plan designed to accelerate digital and green transitions, the crisis could, in fact, herald the beginning of a golden age of opportunity for Europe’s startups.

Pushing forward

The US and Asia enjoyed a significant head start in the startup boom. However, Europe has been steadily catching up—and is predicted to snap back with greater resilience from the pandemic. Not only did Europe bring the pandemic under control far faster than the US, but Europe’s existing social welfare system, together with its governments’ collective approach to preserving jobs during lockdown, rather than allowing unemployment to soar, are paying dividends.

While returning to ‘business as usual’ will be tough, evidence from the last global financial crash proves that crises drive innovation. Figures show that after 2008, more investors took chances on seed-stage funding rounds, for example, a trend that may be repeated as newly unemployed entrepreneurs create startups – both as a way of beating unemployment and solving pressing social problems.

A skilled workforce awaits these newly formed businesses: European startups can expect to attract talent either laid off in the US or barred from the country after Donald Trump’s crackdown on visa rules. Companies who are ready to hire could quickly see their stock rise, thanks to this unprecedented talent pool.

Tech startups in the ascendant

Some European startups are especially poised to grow in the wake of the crisis. Take France-based social media platform Yubo, whose founders featured on this year’s Forbes 30 under 30 list. The company’s goal—of fostering long-distance friendships between young people aged 13-25 through live video streaming and instant messaging—seemed particularly prescient during the pandemic. For young people who have suddenly been forced to drop the in-person socialization with their peers that research has shown is essential to their development, the app has proved a vital resource.

As the lockdowns necessary to slow the spread of Covid-19 shuttered schools, cinemas and concert venues, Gen Zers turned to their smartphones both for social sustenance and to discuss the pressing political issues of the day, with sites like Yubo or Houseparty offering a safe and flexible platform for socializing and debate in a group setting. Yubo’s daily sign-up figures speak for themselves, having more than doubled in number from the beginning of 2020 to reach 30,000 by the middle of April. With uncertainty lingering over when schools in the US, UK and Canada— the countries which make up the lion’s share of Yubo’s userbase—will reopen in full, the popularity of livestreaming apps is likely to grow still further.

Healthtech at the forefront of research

Meanwhile, European healthtech startups – which already had an advantage thanks to the continent’s strong public health systems – are sure to see renewed investment amidst the public health crisis.

London-based Benevolent AI, for example, uses artificial intelligence to identify promising new drug targets and has already identified some potential treatments for Covid-19 which are now being investigated further. Using tech designed to sift through reams of scientific literature referencing the virus, the researchers were able to speedily pinpoint a potential treatment: baricitinib. Originally developed as a way of suppressing the extreme immune-response triggered by conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, barictinib will soon be tested in an accelerated clinical trial as a potential cure for the overactive immune system response called a cytokine storm which has killed countless coronavirus patients.

Early assessments of barictinib’s effectiveness suggest that Benevolent AI’s algorithms may be right on the money. Four independent studies have indicated that the drug may be effective in preventing cytokine storms. In the largest out of the four studies, carried out by the Hospital of Prato in Italy, deaths were significantly lower among the patients treated with baricitinib as opposed to the control group, and baricitinib patients were vastly more likely to be discharged from the hospital within two weeks.

Countless other European startups in the healthtech sector have rolled out special initiatives to help combat the pandemic— lending a helping hand and, at the same time, showcasing their ground-breaking products. These companies are offering high-tech interventions that are enabling people – including health professionals – to work more effectively from home, as well as delivering tools and platforms that are providing parents and students with opportunities for remote learning.

Appointment booking platform Doctolib—one of France’s five startup unicorns— has made its teleconsultation platform freely available to all doctors in France, while others, like Estonian digital startup Velmio, Zurich-based Scandit and Babylon Health, the British digital health unicorn, have pledged resources to tracking, testing and collating data on Covid-19.

Fighting for a brighter future

Keeping the European startup ecosystem alive and functioning as the world adapts to post-pandemic conditions has been a big priority for the European Commission. The €10bn pot promised by the European Innovation Council to amass ‘the biggest deeptech equity fund in Europe’, added to a generous €13bn budget for research grant, has the potential to change the game for tech startups.

As tensions between the US and China create fresh opportunities for the bloc to attract inward investment – especially as the practice of remote and distributed working gains ground – Europe could find itself ideally placed to challenge the status quo. Europe’s acknowledged primacy in areas such as energy and aerospace could also give credence to the bloc’s bid for global tech leadership.  As Europe recovers from the economic downturn it may well be European startups’ turn to shine.

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Commission approves €40 million Italian aid measure to support coronavirus related research and development activities

EU Reporter Correspondent

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The European Commission has approved a €40 million Italian aid measure to support coronavirus related research and development (R&D) by biotechnology company ReiThera S.r.l. The measure was approved under the state aid Temporary Framework.

Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said: “This €40 million Italian measure will support research into a new vaccine against the coronavirus. We continue to work closely with member states to support measures that can help us find solutions to tackle the pandemic, in line with EU rules.”

The Italian aid measure

Italy notified to the Commission under the Temporary Framework a €40 million aid measure to support coronavirus related R&D activities by ReiThera S.r.l., a medium-sized biotechnology company located in the Lazio region. The public support will take the form of a direct grant.

The aim of the measure is to support the development of a novel coronavirus vaccine, contributing to finding solutions to respond to the current health crisis. The candidate vaccine developed by ReiThera has been evaluated in preclinical studies and in a phase I clinical study that has shown that it is safe in adult and elderly people. The measure will support the setting-up and implementation of the next development step, a phase II/III study to confirm safety and demonstrate efficacy.

The Commission found that this aid measure is in line with the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework. In particular, (i) the aid will cover less than 60% of the relevant R&D costs; and (ii) any results of the research activities will be made available to third parties in the European Economic Area at non-discriminatory market conditions through non-exclusive licences.

The Commission concluded that the Italian measure is necessary, appropriate and proportionate to fight the health crisis, in line with Article 107(3)(c) TFEU and the conditions set out in the Temporary Framework.

On this basis, the Commission approved the aid measure under EU State aid rules.

Background

The Commission has adopted a Temporary Framework to enable member states to use the full flexibility foreseen under State aid rules to support the economy in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The Temporary Framework, as amended on 3 April, 8 May, 29 June, 13 October 2020 and 28 January 2021, provides for the following types of aid, which can be granted by member states:

(i) Direct grants, equity injections, selective tax advantages and advance payments of up to €225,000 to a company active in the primary agricultural sector, €270,000 to a company active in the fishery and aquaculture sector and €1.8 million to a company active in all other sectors to address its urgent liquidity needs. Member States can also give, up to the nominal value of €1.8 million per company zero-interest loans or guarantees on loans covering 100% of the risk, except in the primary agriculture sector and in the fishery and aquaculture sector, where the limits of €225,000 and €270,000 per company respectively, apply.

(ii) State guarantees for loans taken by companies to ensure banks keep providing loans to the customers who need them. These state guarantees can cover up to 90% of risk on loans to help businesses cover immediate working capital and investment needs.

(iii) Subsidised public loans to companies (senior and subordinated debt) with favourable interest rates to companies. These loans can help businesses cover immediate working capital and investment needs.

(iv) Safeguards for banks that channel State aid to the real economy that such aid is considered as direct aid to the banks' customers, not to the banks themselves, and gives guidance on how to ensure minimal distortion of competition between banks.

(v) Public short-term export credit insurance for all countries, without the need for the Member State in question to demonstrate that the respective country is temporarily “non-marketable”.

(vi) Support for coronavirus related research and development (R&D) to address the current health crisis in the form of direct grants, repayable advances or tax advantages. A bonus may be granted for cross-border cooperation projects between Member States.

(vii) Support for the construction and upscaling of testing facilities to develop and test products (including vaccines, ventilators and protective clothing) useful to tackle the coronavirus outbreak, up to first industrial deployment. This can take the form of direct grants, tax advantages, repayable advances and no-loss guarantees. Companies may benefit from a bonus when their investment is supported by more than one member state and when the investment is concluded within two months after the granting of the aid.

(viii) Support for the production of products relevant to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in the form of direct grants, tax advantages, repayable advances and no-loss guarantees. Companies may benefit from a bonus when their investment is supported by more than one member state and when the investment is concluded within two months after the granting of the aid.

(ix) Targeted support in the form of deferral of tax payments and/or suspensions of social security contributions for those sectors, regions or for types of companies that are hit the hardest by the outbreak.

(x) Targeted support in the form of wage subsidies for employees for those companies in sectors or regions that have suffered most from the coronavirus outbreak, and would otherwise have had to lay off personnel.

(xi) Targeted recapitalisation aid to non-financial companies, if no other appropriate solution is available. Safeguards are in place to avoid undue distortions of competition in the Single Market: conditions on the necessity, appropriateness and size of intervention; conditions on the State's entry in the capital of companies and remuneration; conditions regarding the exit of the State from the capital of the companies concerned; conditions regarding governance including dividend ban and remuneration caps for senior management; prohibition of cross-subsidisation and acquisition ban and additional measures to limit competition distortions; transparency and reporting requirements.

(xii) Support for uncovered fixed costs for companies facing a decline in turnover during the eligible period of at least 30% compared to the same period of 2019 in the context of the coronavirus outbreak. The support will contribute to a part of the beneficiaries' fixed costs that are not covered by their revenues, up to a maximum amount of €10 million per undertaking.

The Commission will also enable member states to convert until 31 December 2022 repayable instruments (e.g. guarantees, loans, repayable advances) granted under the Temporary Framework into other forms of aid, such as direct grants, provided the conditions of the Temporary Framework are met.

The Temporary Framework enables member states to combine all support measures with each other, except for loans and guarantees for the same loan and exceeding the thresholds foreseen by the Temporary Framework. It also enables member states to combine all support measures granted under the Temporary Framework with existing possibilities to grant de minimis to a company of up to €25,000 over three fiscal years for companies active in the primary agricultural sector, €30,000 over three fiscal years for companies active in the fishery and aquaculture sector and €200,000 over three fiscal years for companies active in all other sectors. At the same time, member states have to commit to avoid undue cumulation of support measures for the same companies to limit support to meet their actual needs.

Furthermore, the Temporary Framework complements the many other possibilities already available to member states to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak, in line with EU State aid rules. On 13 March 2020, the Commission adopted a Communication on a co-ordinated economic response to the COVID-19 outbreak setting out these possibilities. For example, member states can make generally applicable changes in favour of businesses (e.g. deferring taxes, or subsidising short-time work across all sectors), which fall outside state aid rules. They can also grant compensation to companies for damage suffered due to and directly caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

The Temporary Framework will be in place until the end of December 2021. With a view to ensuring legal certainty, the Commission will assess before this date if it needs to be extended.

The non-confidential version of the decision will be made available under the case number SA.61774 in the state aid register on the Commission's competition website once any confidentiality issues have been resolved. New publications of State aid decisions on the internet and in the Official Journal are listed in the Competition Weekly e-News.

More information on the Temporary Framework and other action the Commission has taken to address the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic can be found here.

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EU co-ordinating the urgent delivery of COVID-19 vaccines to Moldova

EU Reporter Correspondent

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A consignment of 21,600 doses of COVID-19 vaccines has been delivered to Moldova from Romania to support the country's response to the pandemic. This delivery follows Moldova's request for vaccines through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, to which Romania has responded rapidly with this offer.

Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič said: “I thank Romania for its generous and rapid offer to Moldova. The EU Civil Protection Mechanism continues to facilitate solidarity during the current pandemic. It is only through cooperation and mutual support, within the EU and also outside, that we can have an effective response to COVID-19. Supporting vaccination globally is essential for containing the COVID-19 pandemic: no country in the world will be safe until everyone is safe.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Moldova has already received a range of other offers co-ordinated through the Mechanism:

  • 8 million items including surgical masks, FFP3 masks, protective suits and gloves offered by  Romania;
  • 55 ventilators and 405,000 items of surgical masks, protective gloves and protective suits sent by Czechia;
  • almost 57,000 items of protective face shields and disinfectant liquid made available by Poland, and;
  • more than 6,000 items of examination gloves, hand disinfectant and blankets offered by Austria.

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism has co-ordinated and co-financed the delivery of over 15 million items of assistance to 30 countries to support their COVID-19 response, be it personal protective equipment, ventilators, the reinforcement of medical staff, or, more recently, vaccines. The first vaccine delivery under the mechanism was facilitated last week, when the Netherlands sent 38,610 doses of COVID-19 vaccines, together with other vaccination tools, such as syringes and needles, to the three Caribbean islands of Aruba, Curaçao and Sint-Maarten in response to their request for support.

In addition to the co-ordination of requests and offers made through the Mechanism, the EU also finances up to 75 % of the costs for transporting the assistance.

Background

The EU Civil Protection Mechanism is one of the tools that has been instrumental in providing support to countries requesting assistance during the coronavirus pandemic. Through the Mechanism, the EU is helping coordinate and finance the delivery of medical  and protective equipment and material across Europe and the world, to countries that seek assistance.

In addition, the EU's rescEU medical reserve and the Emergency Support Instrument (ESI) have provided additional key support to member states' health response to the pandemic.

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Russian scientists say Sputnik V performs well against COVID mutations

Reuters

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A Russian trial testing the effectiveness of revaccination with the Sputnik V shot to protect against new mutations of the coronavirus is producing strong results, researchers said on Saturday (27 February), writes Polina Ivanova.

Last month President Vladimir Putin ordered a review by March 15 of Russian-produced vaccines for their effectiveness against new variants spreading in different parts of the world.

“(A) recent study carried out by the Gamaleya Centre in Russia showed that revaccination with Sputnik V vaccine is working very well against new coronavirus mutations, including the UK and South African strains of coronavirus,” said Denis Logunov, a deputy director of the centre, which developed the Sputnik V shot.

Results of the trial are expected to be published soon, but this was the first indication of how the tests are going. No further details were available yet.

So-called viral vector shots - such as Sputnik V and a shot developed by AstraZeneca - use harmless modified viruses as vehicles, or vectors, to carry genetic information that helps the body build immunity against future infections.

The revaccination used the same Sputnik V shot, based upon the same adenovirus vectors. The trial indicated this did not impact effectiveness, Logunov said in a statement to Reuters.

Some scientists have raised the possible risk that the body also develops immunity to the vector itself, recognising it as an intruder and trying to destroy it.

But developers of Sputnik V disagreed this would pose long-term problems.

“We believe that vector-based vaccines are actually better for future revaccinations than vaccines based on other platforms,” Logunov said.

He said that the researchers found that antibodies specific to the vectors used by the shot - which could generate an anti-vector reaction and undermine the work of the shot itself - waned “as early as 56 days after vaccination”.

This conclusion was based on a trial of a vaccine against Ebola developed earlier by the Gamaleya Institute using the same approach as for the Sputnik V shot.

Vector immunity is not a new issue but has come under renewed scrutiny as companies including Johnson & Johnson anticipate regular COVID-19 vaccinations, like annual influenza shots, may be needed to combat new variants of the coronavirus.

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