Can He Make Portugal the Next Tech Capital?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because aren’t you even a little tired of Silicon Valley?
By Carl Pettit
Miguel Fontes knows how to work a room. At a recent Pitch Slam — a monthly event hosted in Lisbon’s trendy Pestana CR7 hotel bar (opened by soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo) — Fontes, CEO of Startup Lisboa, circulates among the budding entrepreneurs. He’s extremely approachable, and the conversation flows along with the booze, but make no mistake: This is a powerful man bent on pumping up Portugal’s startup machine.
The path Fontes took toward the jargon-laden startup world was circuitous, to say the least. As a child, he wanted to be a member of parliament. “I love to speak and defend [the people],” he tells OZY. At university, where he studied sociology, he was involved with the National Education Council (Conselho Nacional de Educação) and the Catholic Students Movement (Movimento Católico de Estudantes), which brought him into contact with António Guterres — now Secretary-General of the United Nations — who headed Portugal’s Socialist Party at the time.
“When Guterres won the national elections, he invited me to become his adviser, in 1995,” Fontes says. He was just 24. Two years later, Fontes became Portugal’s secretary of state for youth. Because he “didn’t want to be a professional politician,” he left government in 2002 to study business management and work in the private sector.
Tourists may flock to Lisbon for its idyllic weather, but it’s not all sunshine for startups just yet.
In January 2016, Fontes became CEO of Startup Lisboa, a five-year-old organization supported by the city of Lisbon, Montepio Bank and the Agency for Competitiveness and Innovation. “Miguel is a quick learner,” says Ana Santiago, Startup Lisboa’s head of communications. When he doesn’t know something, she notes, he simply asks and then gets on with his work. The incubator’s founding mission, according to Fontes, was “to help entrepreneurs grow their businesses.” That mission now includes promoting Lisbon as fertile ground for startups from around the globe.
Lisbon won’t become the next Silicon Valley, Fontes clarifies (a comparison he hears too often), but he’s convinced it can become something “truly unique” in the startup universe. CASA Startup Lisboa, a hostel for business-minded folks coming to the city and looking for a “soft landing,” is one example of the welcoming vibe the Portuguese capital extends to motivated entrepreneurs. Another is the aforementioned Pitch Slam, where Fontes and his staff mingle with startup hopefuls who then step up to the mic and have five minutes to practice their new business pitches.
After dropping in at the monthly event, I hear pitches from Portugal, Turkey, India and elsewhere. Striking up a conversation with Tai Barroso, who traveled from Brazil two days earlier, I learn that she came “to see if Lisbon is all that it’s supposed to be.” Back home, Barroso set up an online platform connecting travelers to cultural learning experiences in Rio de Janeiro. Once I introduce her to Fontes over drinks, they dive into how Startup Lisboa can help Barroso bring her project to Portugal.
Tourists may flock to Lisbon for its idyllic weather, but it’s not all sunshine for startups just yet. “We need more pre-seed investment and qualified investors,” Santiago says — funders who are willing to invest money up front so entrepreneurs can test and validate their business ideas. Fontes agrees, adding that the problem is finding more foreign venture capitalists. “We don’t have enough capital in Portugal,” he laments. And the Portuguese with money to invest often don’t know how to deal with entrepreneurs (they demand too much equity as collateral).
The HCB, or Beato Creative Hub, with help from the city of Lisbon, Startup Lisboa and Berlin-based hub-builder Factory, is just one way the capital hopes to recruit foreign investors to build a more cosmopolitan ecosystem and strengthen the pipeline of new projects coming in. A 20-building complex of factories in the city’s Beato district, which once produced food for the Portuguese army, it is being reconceived as a mega-campus for startups. “Portugal has an extremely talented workforce, open to international influence, that to this day remains largely untapped,” says Jeremy Bamberg from Factory, which will have its own building as part of the project by late next year. Well-placed in a community of creative businesses and, of course, a craft beer scene, the HCB, according to Bamberg, will become a sprawling campus that will help attract international tech companies and entrepreneurs to the Portuguese capital and keep “the startup momentum going.”
Startup Lisboa’s other early successes include Academia de Código, a coding boot camp that is expanding to different cities throughout Portugal, and SPEAK, a language and cultural initiative that started locally but has since gone international. And now with the HCB hosting the 2017 Web Summit technology conference (the first outside of Dublin since the summit’s founding there in 2010) and Lisbon’s recent feature in the Startup Genome Report, which examines the health of global startup ecosystems, the city’s entrepreneurial future is brightening.
“The Web Summit helped us change how we’re perceived in the world,” Fontes says. The trick for him and his team going forward is to accelerate that change so local and international startups see Lisbon as a European hub for innovation and talent. That, as Fontes puts is, will be “something really beautiful.”