During the Renaissance, Europe saw great economic growth and scientific advancement. Improvements to sailing ships and navigational tools (like the astrolabe) made it much easier for Europeans to make voyages. Their main motivation for doing so was to have easier access to the exotic goods they were currently importing from Asia. Goods such as silks, spices, and jewels were brought from China, India, and Southeast Asia by Ottoman traders. Italy was a major hot-spot for traders to up-sell these goods to European merchants, who then further drove up the price for their customers. By planning to sail directly to Asia, European merchants could "cut out the middle-man" and get a better quality and price for the goods they sought.
Portugal were the first major players in European exploration. Prince Henry had founded a navigational school which, combined with direct access to the oceans, gave Portuguese merchants and traders a leg-up in sea exploration. After the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to sail around the tip of Africa and prove the existence of a sea route to Asia, many other European nations quickly founded their own trade companies to do the same.