Sunday 15 September 2019

Web Summit's just the start as Lisbon aims to be Europe's answer to Silicon Valley

The lookalike 25th of April Bridge in Lisbon.
The lookalike 25th of April Bridge in Lisbon.
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Picture a city with an iconic golden bridge, trams, bronzed surfers and a vibrant technology industry. San Francisco? Definitely. But what about Lisbon? The Portuguese capital already has the bridge, trams and surfers. Now it's starting to show off its tech strength too, with a raft of startups in Lisbon catching the attention of international investors.

Uniplaces was founded three years ago and finds accommodation for students across 38 countries. It has won backing from renowned angels such as Alex Chesterman, founder of Zoopla, and European venture capital firms including Octopus Investments. Andre Albuquerque, head of growth at Uniplaces, thinks the Lisbon-San Francisco comparison is a valid one. "It's a booming environment and I see a lot of similarities from the energy of the people who are in both cities."

Meanwhile Talkdesk - a software-maker for call centres - has raised millions from strategic investors, like US enterprise software maker Google Ventures has ploughed money into language translator Unbabel.

All three are choosing to build their internationally focused businesses in Lisbon, rather than moving to more mature tech hubs in Dublin, London, Berlin or California.

Not only are they staying, the companies are now starting to attract talent from abroad. Lisbon-based entrepreneurs say many are now rapidly hiring developers from as far away as Asia and Latin America, offering a richer lifestyle, full of sun and surf, in a city that is cheaper to live in than other European capitals. "We're seeing a lot of people coming to Portugal from foreign countries, whether it's China or the United States," said Uniplaces' Albuquerque.

"We're seeing all the infrastructure rise and be born in the centre of Lisbon and accommodate that growth." And the growing startup scene in Portugal will be boosted (at Dublin's expense) when the city hosts Europe's biggest startup event - the Web Summit - from 2016.

It's been quite the coup and there's palpable excitement among entrepreneurs and investors in Portugal. "I honestly believe Lisbon can be one of the channels of bridging Europe to the US," said Alexandre Barbosa, a founding partner of investor and incubator Faber Ventures.

But amid the exuberance there's also a dose of realism. "Lisbon is typically viewed as Europe's west coast, but obviously there is a tremendous gap in scale and maturity between these two hubs," said Barbosa.

No Lisbon startup has yet sold itself to a larger company or to the public via a share sale. There's yet to be millions pumped back into the ecosystem by tech entrepreneurs. Lisbon now needs its flurry of IPOs - a Portuguese Zalando or Just Eat - the kind of sale that has spurred continued growth in other European cities.

With ambition high, larger funding rounds are just around the corner, Portuguese startup founders say. And the 2016 Web Summit will be the perfect platform to see how the city harnesses the new wave of tech talent now breaking on Lisbon's shores. (Bloomberg)

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