The cryptocurrency industry has been growing rapidly in the past decade, with more and more people adopting digital assets as a form of payment, investment, and innovation. According to a recent report, crypto is highly adopted by emerging and frontier markets in 2023, with Central & Southern Asia and Oceania (CSAO) region leading the charts. Eastern Europe is also ranked amongst the top 5. However, not all regions are equally friendly to crypto startups, as they face different regulatory, technical, and social barriers.
In this article, I will explore the opportunities and challenges for crypto startups in Europe, one of the world’s most developed and diverse regions. I will also compare the European cryptocurrencies landscape to that of South East Asia (SEA) and the Middle East, two other regions with high potential for crypto growth. I will argue that Europe offers a favorable environment for crypto startups but also faces some risks and uncertainties that need to be addressed.
Opportunities for Crypto Startups in Europe
Europe is home to some of the most innovative and successful crypto startups in the world, such as Bitpanda and Ledger. These startups have benefited from several factors that make Europe an attractive destination for crypto entrepreneurs, such as:
- A large and diverse market: Europe has a population of over 741 million people, with a high level of internet penetration, financial inclusion, and education. The European Union had the second-largest GDP in the world in 2024, with $19.35 trillion, after United States. Moreover, Europe has a variety of cultures, languages, and preferences, which creates a rich and dynamic market for crypto products and services.
- A supportive and harmonized regulatory framework: Europe has been one of the pioneers in regulating the crypto industry, with the aim of providing legal clarity, consumer protection, and market integrity. The European Commission proposed the Markets in Crypto-Assets Regulation (MiCA), which aims to create a comprehensive and uniform set of rules for crypto assets across the EU. MiCA covers aspects such as licensing, supervision, disclosure, governance, and risk management for cryptocurrencies service providers, as well as defining the legal status and requirements for different types of crypto assets, such as stablecoins and utility tokens. MiCA is expected to come into full force and will create a level playing field and a single market for crypto startups in Europe.
- A vibrant and collaborative ecosystem: Europe has a strong and diverse crypto community, with many events, meetups, hackathons, and conferences that foster innovation and collaboration. For example, BLOCKCHANCE 2023 is one of Europe’s leading blockchain event, with over 5,750 attendees, 370 speakers, and 100 exhibitors.
Challenges for Crypto Startups in Europe
Despite the favorable conditions for crypto startups in Europe, there are also some challenges and risks that need to be considered, such as:
- A fragmented and competitive market: While Europe has a large and diverse market, it also has a fragmented and competitive one, with different countries having different levels of crypto adoption, awareness, and regulation. The top European countries by crypto adoption were Ukraine, Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic, while the bottom five were France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the UK. This means that cryptocurrencies startups need to tailor their products and services to different customer segments, preferences, and needs and comply with local laws and regulations. Moreover, Europe has a high level of competition among crypto startups, as well as traditional financial institutions that are entering the crypto space, such as banks, payment providers, and fintech companies. This means that crypto startups need to differentiate themselves and offer value-added services to attract and retain customers.
- A volatile and uncertain regulatory environment: It still faces some volatility and uncertainty, as the regulation is still evolving and subject to changes and challenges. When I spoke to my contacts, they said that MiCA has been criticized for being too restrictive, complex, and costly for crypto startups, especially small and medium-sized ones. Some of the issues raised include the lack of proportionality, the lack of clarity on the scope and definitions of cryptocurrencies assets, the high capital and operational requirements, and the potential conflicts with existing national and international traditional finance regulations. Moreover, MiCA may face some resistance and delays from some members and legal challenges from some crypto service providers, which could create some uncertainty and instability for the crypto industry in Europe.
- A potential backlash and resistance from the public and authorities: It also have some backlash and resistance from some segments of the public and authorities, who may perceive crypto as a threat to the established financial system, the social order, and the environment. For example, some people may view crypto as a tool for illicit activities, such as money laundering, tax evasion, and terrorism financing, and may demand more regulation and oversight from the authorities. Some people may also view cryptocurrencies as a source of instability, speculation, and inequality, and may oppose its adoption and integration into the mainstream economy. Some people may also view crypto as a source of environmental harm, due to its high energy consumption and carbon footprint, and may advocate for more sustainable and green alternatives. These negative perceptions and attitudes may create some social and political challenges for crypto startups in Europe, as they may face more scrutiny, criticism, and opposition from some stakeholders.
Comparison with South East Asia and Middle East
South East Asia and Middle East are two other regions with high potential for crypto growth, as they have large and young populations, high internet and mobile penetration, and low financial inclusion. However, they also have different opportunities and challenges for crypto startups, compared to Europe. Here are some of the main differences:
- South East Asia has a more dynamic and diverse cryptocurrencies market, with higher adoption, innovation, and competition levels. They also have a more innovative and competitive crypto ecosystem, with many local and regional crypto startups, such as Coinhako and Coins.ph, as well as global players, such as OKX and BlockFire. However, it also has a more fragmented and uncertain regulatory environment, with different countries having different levels of openness, clarity, and enforcement of crypto rules. For instance, Singapore has been one of the most crypto-friendly jurisdictions in the world, with a clear and comprehensive regulatory framework, while Indonesia and Malaysia have been more restrictive and cautious, with bans on crypto payments and strict licensing requirements. Thailand, on the other hand, is more welcoming, with Binance starting a digital asset exchange, their first Southeast Asian operation. Moreover, SEA also faces some infrastructural and educational challenges, such as low internet speed and quality, high transaction costs and fees, and low crypto literacy and awareness among the public.
- Middle East has a more nascent and untapped cryptocurrencies market, with lower levels of adoption, innovation, and competition. Middle East ranked high by crypto adoption, behind Europe, Africa, North America, and Asia Pacific, with Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia among the top 20 countries. They also have a more nascent and untapped crypto ecosystem, with few local and regional crypto startups, such as BitOasis. They have a more supportive and progressive regulatory environment, with some countries embracing and promoting crypto as a strategic opportunity, such as the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel. In contrast, others, such as Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon, are more tolerant and pragmatic. Moreover, Middle East also has some cultural and social advantages, such as a high level of trust and interest in crypto among the public.
In conclusion, Europe offers a favorable environment for crypto startups, as it has a large and diverse market, a supportive and harmonized regulatory framework, and a vibrant and collaborative ecosystem. However, Europe also faces some challenges and risks, such as a fragmented and competitive market, a volatile and uncertain regulatory environment, and a potential backlash and resistance from the public and authorities.
Compared to South East Asia and Middle East, Europe has a more mature and developed cryptocurrencies market, with higher levels of regulation, innovation, and competition. However, South East Asia and Middle East have more dynamic and untapped crypto markets with higher levels of adoption, opportunity, and interest.
In my humble opinion, Europe is still a force to be reckoned with for sure. Therefore, crypto startups should consider the opportunities and challenges of each region and tailor their products and services to the specific needs and preferences of each market. Crypto startups should also leverage the strengths and advantages of each region, and collaborate and learn from each other to create a more inclusive, diverse, and sustainable crypto industry.
What factors make Europe an attractive destination for crypto startups?
Anndy Lian mentioned that Europe is appealing to crypto startups due to its large and diverse market, high internet penetration, financial inclusion, and education. Additionally, a supportive and harmonized regulatory framework, exemplified by the Markets in Crypto-Assets Regulation (MiCA), provides legal clarity, consumer protection, and market integrity.
How does the regulatory environment in Europe compare to that in South East Asia?
Anndy Lian said that Europe has taken a pioneering role in crypto regulation with MiCA, creating a comprehensive and uniform set of rules. In contrast, South East Asia has a more dynamic and diverse market but faces a fragmented and uncertain regulatory environment, varying between countries such as Singapore's crypto-friendly approach and Indonesia's restrictive stance.
What challenges do crypto startups in Europe encounter in the competitive landscape?
Despite a large and diverse market, Europe presents challenges for crypto startups, including a fragmented and competitive market. Different countries exhibit varying levels of crypto adoption, awareness, and regulation. Startups must tailor their products to diverse preferences, comply with local laws, and differentiate themselves to navigate both crypto and traditional financial institution competition.
How does the public perception of cryptocurrencies in Europe contribute to potential challenges for startups?
There's potential backlash and resistance from segments of the public and authorities who view crypto as a threat to the established financial system, social order, and the environment. Concerns include the perception of crypto as a tool for illicit activities, source of instability, speculation, and environmental harm. Startups may face scrutiny, criticism, and opposition from stakeholders.
Anndy Lian is an early blockchain adopter and experienced serial entrepreneur who is known for his work in the government sector. He is a best selling book author- “NFT: From Zero to Hero” and “Blockchain Revolution 2030”.
Currently, he is appointed as the Chief Digital Advisor at Mongolia Productivity Organization, championing national digitization. Prior to his current appointments, he was the Chairman of BigONE Exchange, a global top 30 ranked crypto spot exchange and was also the Advisory Board Member for Hyundai DAC, the blockchain arm of South Korea’s largest car manufacturer Hyundai Motor Group. Lian played a pivotal role as the Blockchain Advisor for Asian Productivity Organisation (APO), an intergovernmental organization committed to improving productivity in the Asia-Pacific region.
An avid supporter of incubating start-ups, Anndy has also been a private investor for the past eight years. With a growth investment mindset, Anndy strategically demonstrates this in the companies he chooses to be involved with. He believes that what he is doing through blockchain technology currently will revolutionise and redefine traditional businesses. He also believes that the blockchain industry has to be “redecentralised”.