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Investors run to Europe for next hot tech start-up

The 'Startup Sauna' area is seen at the Aalto Venture Garage, a co-working business space for startups and tech developers, in Espoo, Finland.
Tomi Setala | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Riding a wave of euphoria surrounding the success of Finnish mobile game maker Supercell, venture capital firms are chasing after European tech start-ups in search of the next big thing.

Japanese tech and telecoms group SoftBank's 51 percent stake purchase in 3-year-old Supercell, announced last month, valued the maker of hit games "Clash of Clans" and "Hay Day" at $3 billion.

"Everybody wants to be the new Supercell," Torleif Ahlsand, General Partner at Nordic technology investor Northzone, said at the annual "Slush" tech start-up conference in the Finnish capital.

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With low economic growth prospects in Europe and the United States, venture capital investors hungry for yield are looking to new tech start-ups to provide the high level of returns they seek. And the amount of cash chasing the next potential winner could drive up valuations.

A strong market debut by Twitter Inc. in the United States and a comeback by Facebook following a shaky market debut last year has also lifted the mood.

Finnish gaming veteran Lasse Seppanen, CEO of PlayRaven, said in the past he had had to chase the venture capitalists.

"These days, VCs are calling me," he said.

And while investors say there is a risk of bubbles forming, the industry appeared to be growing at a more sustainable pace than in previous tech booms.

"We think there is going to be a steady flow of billion dollar companies in Europe," Kevin Comolli, General Partner at Accel, an early Supercell investor, told Reuters.

Venture capital investments remain below pre-crisis levels but have been rising steadily. Investments in the tech sector in Europe are at $3.22 billion so far in 2013, compared with $3.58 billion last year, according to Thomson Reuters data. Europe makes up 11 percent of global investments so far this year compared with 10 percent in 2012.

The "Slush" conference this year was a sell-out, attracting 5,000 people - many in hoodies and beanies - who crammed into an old cable factory. Supercell's conference after-party, featuring laser lights and shots of Fisu - vodka spiced with menthol lozenges - lasted into the early hours.

"I have never seen these kind of times in the gaming industry," said Petri Jarvilehto, who worked for Angry Birds creator Rovio as chief game developer before co-founding Seriously, which last week secured $2.4 million in seed funding though it has yet to release a single game.

"The transition is such that it is possible to build up something from scratch and emerge as an global actor in a couple of years. I wanted to give it a shot."

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VCs chase the enterprise

Games and E-Commerce

Two of the hottest areas in Europe are gaming and e-commerce. Investors are quick to point to companies like Swedish music streamer Spotify, payments firm Klarna and online retailer Zalando in Germany as some of the stars.

Niklas Zennstrom, founder of Skype - sold to Microsoft in 2011 for $8.5 billion - said European tech start-ups are maturing nicely.

"They are not just big in terms of user bases, they are also becoming real businesses," Zennstrom, who now runs tech investment firm Atomico, told journalists. "There are a lot of sustainable, robust businesses."

Swedish start-up Tictail, a do-it-yourself e-commerce platform for retailers which this week signed on Project A Ventures as a strategic partner, said there is greater competition to stand out.

"I think investors just want to see a clearer plan for a route to market. User traction has become extremely important," said Carl Waldekranz, Tictail co-founder.

European start-ups are also attracting more interest from U.S. investors, who may be finding companies on their doorstep too pricey.

Snapchat, a two-year-old U.S. mobile messaging firm, rejected an acquisition offer from Facebook which valued the firm at a whopping $3 billion, the Wall Street Journal reported this week.

Europe could be at a turning point for start-ups and their investors looking for exit opportunities in the form of M&A deals or share sales.

"There's a generation of companies in Europe which are getting ready to exit or to go public," said Ben Holmes at Index Ventures.

But beneath all the froth, there are concerns that valuations may become overheated. The outperformance of the gaming industry in particular, by companies like Supercell and Candy Crush Saga maker King, has taken many by surprise.

"I think definitely it's a bubble," Ahlsand said, about the gaming industry. "Some will emerge as winners, but most definitely will not."