From its time as an economic powerhouse at the centre of the merchant world in Renaissance Europe to its revitalisation as a tourist hotspot in the 20th century, Lisbon has seen many redirections in its history. Lisbon’s latest voyage sees the city repositioning itself as a flagship in the global startup ecosystem.
We sought help from Lisbon’s new generation of navigators – Beta-i CEO Pedro Rocha Vieira, Portugal Ventures’ Marco Fernandes and Aptoide’s Paulo Trezentos to bring you this guide on the city’s startup scene.
How Portugal changed the world
If you stand in Praça do Comércio, the main square in Lisbon facing the Tagus river, and squint your eyes a little, you could be convinced that you are standing in San Francisco. Latitude is not the only commonality here, things line up in a surprising number of ways.
Lisbon boasts an iconic suspension bridge, bronzed surfers, quaint trams, undulating hills and a vibrant technology industry. It’s easy to draw comparisons between Lisbon and San Francisco. Here’s just one: “The west coast of Europe wants to be the new west coast.”
Lisbon or San Francisco? Actually it’s Lisbon
Yet if you say that to a Lisbon native they won’t necessarily take it as a compliment. Lisbon doesn’t see Silicon Valley as a benchmark, it wants to be a city “with its own flavours and twists; its own voice”, says Beta-i Co-Founder Pedro Rocha Vieira. Lisbon is a city with a proud history and rich culture; a city that wants to stand out on its own terms.
“We are a far cry from the zombie lifestyles of some of the bigger tech hubs. We don’t need to be the Silicon Valley of Europe, we can be Lisbon,” says Pedro.
On the map
Top Funds based in Lisbon
Top Markets based in Lisbon
- 1. Software
- 2. E-Commerce
- 3. Marketplaces
- 4. Enterprise Software
- 5. Video
Top Social influencers
- 1. Pedro Rocha Vieira – CEO – Beta-i
- 2. Miguel Santo Amaro – Co-Founder – UniPlaces
- 3. Gonçalo Fortes – CEO – Prodsmart
- 4. João Romão – CEO – GetSocial
- 5. Filipe Castro Matos – Founder – thewime
Connected Lisbon – Influencer Identification Network from Web Summit
Startup life in Lisbon
One of Portugal’s favourite sons Ferdinand Magellan was possibly Lisbon’s first startup success. Just like many startups today, Magellan was big on ideas but short on funding. He managed to secure cash from top Spanish investors, in this case the Spanish Royal family, and used this venture capital to circumnavigate the earth. The return on the investment? The discovery of a new western route to the precious spice islands.
Portuguese adventurers went on to influence trade and commerce across the world. In The First Global Village – How Portugal Changed The World, Martin Page describes how a nation about half the size of and two-thirds the population of Florida exercised an outsize influence on farflung countries, and then in recent times rediscovered its mojo.
“The Portuguese gave the English afternoon tea. They brought to Africa protection from malaria, and slave-shipments to America; to India, higher education, curry and samosas; to Japan, tempura and firearms. Portugal entered the 21st century as the first European nation to have freed itself from communism, returned to democracy and set about rebuilding itself as a vital part of the new Europe,” he writes.
This monument celebrates the Portuguese age of exploration – Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan are a few of the early navigators featured
Right now Portugal is set on rebuilding itself as a haven for entrepreneurs. It is rapidly emerging on the European startup map. “Five years ago in Lisbon, very few people considered becoming an entrepreneur, most didn’t even know what a startup was. Incubators, coworking spaces and accelerators didn’t even exist at the time, not to mention that fundraising in Portugal was practically non-existent,” says Pedro Rocha Vieira.
Lisbon is leading the charge. The city has been able to attract a rich tapestry of ambitious young people through economic necessity and various government incentives. Lisbon was the first European Capital of Entrepreneurship in 2015. In particular, this has been reinforced through an impressive set of initiatives such as “Empresa na hora”, allowing the creation of a new business in a very short time. “It’s simple, you can create a company in one hour,” says Marco Fernandes of Portugal Ventures.
Recent results are tangible. The Startup Europe Partnership (SEP), published in December 2015, has identified 40 ICT scaleups in Portugal, and an additional 24 other startups lined up to follow in their path. SEP reports that Portugal has also already produced nine exits, attracting the interest of foreign acquirers, primarily from the US. Small numbers if compared with other European countries like the UK, Germany, France and Spain. But not small at all if you consider the relative smaller size of the Portuguese economy, according to Alberto Onetti, Coordinator at SEP report.
The Uniplaces team, one of the Lisbon scaleups identified by SEP – they announced a $24 million Series A in November 2015. Photo: Startup Lisboa
The greater number of Portuguese scaleups (17, 42% of the total) are located in Lisbon. And in Lisbon it looks easier to get access to venture capital. The companies based in the capital city raised about the 60% of the total money made available to Portuguese scaleups.
A good example is Farfetch. Founded in 2008 by Portuguese entrepreneur Josè Neves, it now employs over 1,000. Farfetch is a Global e-commerce site for independent boutiques, and in less than seven years it has become an online home for 300 or so stores from São Paulo to Milan. The company’s headquarters are in London, but most of its technology operations are in Porto. To date, Farfetch raised $195 million in five rounds.
Beta-i Co-Founder Pedro Rocha Vieira says: “Nowadays, so many new businesses and foreign talent are moving to Lisbon. A lot more people want to embrace entrepreneurship and are taking risks. Examples like Farfetch stand as a role model for many.”
So what are the attractions for startups in the city? Lisbon scores well on access to talent, affordable housing, and adequate public transportation. The European Digital City Index 2015 lists the top key features in Lisbon as the low cost of living and the high quality of life. The city itself is friendly, sunny and fun.
Surf, Sun and Super Bock
Bairro Alto is a historic picturesque quarter in Lisbon dating from the 16th century. The area’s grids of streets are lined with small restaurants, Fado houses, bars, pubs and cafés, which are quiet during the day, but transformed at night into the city’s vibrant nightlife quarter.
Life runs at a different pace in Lisbon
Throughout the week, and especially on weekends, you’ll find people of all backgrounds and lifestyles bar-hopping through the cobbled lanes or standing outside with a drink in hand enjoying the city’s usually mild nights.
“People like to sit outside and enjoy a glass of Super Bock (Portuguese beer). From 16 to 60 you will find every age in Bairro Alto,” says Pedro Rocha Vieira.
Many are struck by the low prices. You can grab a short, sharp espresso in the capital for a mere 60 cent, accompanied with Lisbon’s world’s famous Pastel de Nata (egg custard tart in filo dough). These are best served warm, fresh out of the oven and sprinkled with cinnamon and powdered sugar.
And if you want to get away from the city, some of the best beaches in Europe are nearby. Along the railway line linking Lisbon to Cascais are several broad beaches that attract those looking to unwind or catch a few waves. “It only takes 15 minutes to travel to the beaches from the city centre,” says Marco Fernandes, Portugal Ventures.
World-class surf is just up the road in Ericeira – the town regularly hosts a round of the international surf competition ASP World Surf Tour
While even Lisbon’s most fervent supporters would accept that the city has a long way to go before it becomes a genuine European tech powerhouse, many observers have noticed that something is happening on Europe’s west coast thanks to a compelling combination of talent and sunshine. “Lisbon has a very good balance between the quality of life and the cost of living,” says Marco.
The last word goes to TechCrunch’s Mike Butcher who knows what he is talking about when it comes to startup communities. “Lisbon is emerging as a genuinely new tech ecosystem in Europe, with Berlin-levels of cheapness but with Southern European weather.”
Mike said that when Portuguese software company Codacy won Web Summit’s PITCH competition in 2014. Now, in 2016, Web Summit will be in Lisbon and his words are proving prophetic as more Portuguese startups go on their own global voyages of discovery.
Take it from me
Top accelerators and incubators
Startup Lisboa – This incubator supports the creation of companies and tracks their first years of activity through mentoring, strategic partners, access to investment, specialised services, networking activities and work spaces.
BGI (partnership MIT-ISCTE) – This is an international accelerator directed at tech entrepreneurs, startups & spin-outs.
Lisbon Challenge – An ambitious 10-week acceleration program aimed at eager international tech startups.
Fabrica de Startups – Focuses on promoting entrepreneurship and supporting the creation, validation, and internationalisation of startups.
Founded in 2012, Startup Lisboa help Lisbon startups maximise their chances for success
Top Lisbon tech media supporting the startup scene
Tek SAPO editorial team – TeK Sapo is one of the main technology portals in Portugal, providing news, analysis and context on IT.
Hugo Seneca , Impresa– Hugo is the editor for R&D, consumer, and telecommunications reports in the IT Magazine that leads the Portuguese market.
Ana Pimentel, Observador – Ana is a journalist from Observador – her special interests are in startups, entrepreneurship, innovation, labour market and venture capital.
Ana Rita Guerra, B!T Magazine – Ana Rita specialises in technology for one of Portugal’s top magazines.
João Ramos, Expresso – João specialises in IT, telecommunications, entrepreneurship and innovation topics.
Top startup hangouts
Co-work Lisboa – This is a shared and flexible workplace for people from a variety of backgrounds.
Liberdade 221 – It’s a fun and friendly coworking place filled daily with an interesting crowd of differing backgrounds.
Entrepreneurs Break – This is an informal networking event set up with entrepreneurs to provide you with great startup tools and insights.
Product Tank – Founded in London and today spans over 40 cities. This is an informal meetup that brings together the local product community in each of those cities.
Village Underground – It’s a coworking and events space for creative activities in the heart of Lisbon. A unique space composed of 14 maritime containers and 2 disabled buses.
Lisbon’s 25 de Abril Bridge flies over coworking space Village Underground
Top places to go out for dinner or get a drink
Cervejaria Ramiro – Shellfish heaven. Fresh tiger prawns, scarlet prawns, crabs, clams, and goose barnacles for the adventurous.
Café De São Bento – If it’s steak you fancy, then this is the spot for you.
Pizzeria Casanova – Perfectly situated along the riverside, this is an ideal place for wood-fired pizza.
Pensão Amor – Located in Bairro Alto, this is a really cool spot to grab a drink.
LuxFrágil – This is one of Lisbon’s biggest nightclubs, with three main areas, a club, bar and roof.
What’s your view of startup life in Lisbon? What have we missed? What are your recommendations? Let us know on Twitter @WebSummitHQ or in the comments below.