Explorers 2.0 – how startups in Portugal are remaking risk-taking

Startup Pirates Lisboa
Startup Pirates Lisboa

Risk-taking was part of the game of the old days of navigation explorers. What happened – and is it back? Guest contributor André Marquet takes a look at the state of the startup scene in Portugal.

Startup Pirates Lisboa

It’s now five hundred years after Portuguese explorers like Gama and Magellan departed to search for spices, gold or new lands, and visionaries like Columbus first stopped in Lisbon to announce to Europe the discovery of America. Risk-taking was part of the game in the old days of navigation explorers. What happened?

In a sense, entrepreneurs have become the new daring explorers of modern times, willing to take risks and inspiring a whole generation of young entrepreneurs. Lisbon is kicking again with startups that want to give hope to a country strongly hit by economic crisis. That hasn’t gone unnoticed by Matt Symonds from Forbes, who considered Portugal one of the top 10 countries to start and grow a business.


A startup scene in Portugal? Shocking!

As a recent article in the Kernel put it, “a new generation of Portuguese entrepreneurs is emerging”. Last May, The Next Web’s Robin Wauters was shocked to find out there was even a tech startup scene in Portugal.

wind turbinePortugal is still better known as a touristic destination where sun-seekers flock during summer holidays. The truth is, it’s also been a lab ground for some innovations like pre-paid GSM phones and automated highway tolls, which first launched in the country in the early ’90s.

More recently, it has rolled out the most extensive electrical-car charging network in the world and is playing a leading role in renewable energy, with the construction of floating platforms for offshore wind power generators to harvest the strong winds of Portugal’s Atlantic coast.

The support crew

Recently, the city council of Lisbon launched the Startup Lisboa initiative, a network of startup smart incubation spaces that mix coworking spaces in the historical center of the city with acceleration programs that is mostly provided in partnership with not-for-profit organisations like Beta-i or Startup Pirates.

These organisations provide several accelerator programs like Beta-start, with mentors, coaches, ending with a demo day, getting entrepreneurs venture capital exposure and organise events such as “Silicon Valley comes to Lisbon” to foster access to an international network.

Startup Pirates Lisboa

Countrywide, the government has also enacted a number of measures to make entrepreneurs’ life easier, such as financial grants for founders and established a public venture fund. That fund is now being managed by José Franca, an electronics professor that in 2007 sold his company Chipidea, to MIPS Technologies, Inc (NASDAQ:MIPS), in a transaction estimated at $120m.

Franca now controls the Portugal Ventures fund, collectively controlling around $600m to spur the creation of a better-fueled startup ecosystem, along with a fiscal system that is very attractive to foreign investors.

Portuguese – fast track to Brazil

Seedcamp Lisbon, which took place last week, shows Lisbon is definitely entering into the radar of startup hubs in Europe. In Seedcamp principal Philipp Moehring’s words, “it’s amazing the availability of local talent on both engineers and designers”. If you’re considering bootstrapping, Lisbon is one of Europe’s most affordable cities.

Portuguese startups are also well-placed to explore natural ties with Portuguese-speaking countries, most notably Brazil, something that Monocle picked up in its October issue cover story: Generation Lusophonia: why Portuguese is the new language of power and trade.

Fraunhofer Institute Portugal

What’s going on where…

Other hotspots in Portugal are in cities like Oeiras, where the leading international corporations are headquartered, and Porto, home to UPTEC Science Park Incubator and Fraunhofer Institute Portugal (pictured above). Braga hosts the International Nanotechnologies Lab, while Aveiro is home to the Telecommunications Institute and Portugal Telecom Innovation Labs.

And, of course, there’s Coimbra, a smaller university town in the very centre of the country, proud of its Pedro Nunes incubator – considered one of the best science-based incubators in the world.

As traditional corporate employers struggle due to the economic crisis, for Portugal, startups are now the one extremely viable way to fight an already visible problem of brain drain, by keeping talent in the country while helping it to move towards a more competitive lane… Here’s to the new generation of risk-takers.

Tomorrow, we’ll run the second part of our spotlight on Portugal and Lisbon – the top 10 startups to watch.

Image credits: Lisbon, by Flickr user rstml; wind turbine, courtesy Principle Power; Fraunhofer Institute Portugal, Bene Office Furniture; Startup Pirates Lisboa 2012, by facebook.com/henriquecms