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Kirsty Styles

any in tech will only
briefly touchdown in
Barcelona if they’re
heading to quickly dash
around the now-throbbing halls of
Mobile World Congress trying to spot
the next big thing.
As the official Mobile World Capital,
Barcelona opens its doors to some
80,000 mobile professionals from
more than 200 countries each year,
as well as hosting so many more
additional conferences that it can lay
claim to being a top five global events
Spain has been hit hard by
the financial crisis and youth
unemployment across the country has
hovered around 50% for the past few
years. But Barcelona, the capital of
the Catalonia region, has consistently
outperformed other areas of the
Of course, the city doesn’t disappear
as soon as we all jump on our budget
flights back to Blighty. Barcelona is
not only a thriving tourist hotspot,
welcoming tens of millions every year
to explore its 4km of beaches, 46
theatres and 78 museums; it’s also
a pretty smart city. It boasts some
175,000 companies, including multimillion euro tech success stories such
as Softonic and eDreams, plus more
than 5,500 foreign businesses.
“Barcelona is going to be one of the
most vibrant startup ecosystems in
the future,” says Daniela Arens, cofounder and CEO of local networking
platform Foundum. “It ticks all the
boxes for entrepreneurs who want
to build up companies with capital


efficiency and enjoy quality of life at
the same time. And if you are focused
on mobile, the world will come to you
at least once a year.”
The city is home to eight universities
and has the largest number of top
ranked business schools in the
world, according to the Wall Street
Journal. Polytechnic University of
Catalonia students can take advantage
of a specially-designed tech startup
course, which includes free space for a
year to incubate their idea. The EADA
business school, meanwhile, has been
providing seed capital loans since
2013 and offers its alumni office space
in the city council-sponsored Business
Factory of Barcelona.
While some local councils could be
accused of dragging their feet around
tech, Barcelona set up its Activa local
development agency way back in
1986 and founded its first business
incubator two years later. In 2013
alone, 1,800 companies were created
through the Activa programmes, with
the Glòries Business Incubator touting
a business survival rate of 80% and an
average turnover of €600,000 in the
fourth year of operation.
“Barcelona Activa is making good
efforts in supporting entrepreneurs,”
Arens says. “There’s also access
to entrepreneurial loans from the
Spanish State, such as the ENISA,
and the public investment agency ICO
has launched an innovation finance
programme with €1.2bn to invest
in startups and growth companies.”
Some startups are offered a reduction

in corporation tax during the first two
years they’re active, she adds.
The designated innovation
district 22@, known to old-timers
as Poblenou, has been transformed
over the past 15 years, including
adding high-speed fibre optic
internet and 4G, to attract both local
and international tech companies.
The Barcelona Growth initiative,
situated here, is another city council
programme and seeking to build
public and private partnerships to
help boost growth. It houses all of
the local government’s business
accelerators, along with branding and
business services, a tech skills scheme
and a post-MWC legacy project.
The city is acutely aware that MWC
will not last forever and as Barcelona’s
contract with the GSMA expires in
2018, efforts are being made to create
a long-standing benefit to residents.
mStartup Barcelona was launched last
year and is entirely geared towards
mobile tech development. Activa is
also ensuring its entrepreneurs are
cushioned from the bureaucracy
that dogs some areas of the Spanish
economy, like the property market.
Activa promises online business
incorporation for limited liability
companies in just 48 hours, for
Barcelona’s startup ecosystem is
growing all the time, with Impact Hub
and Tag Garden just two new names
moving into the co-working space,
and there are numerous global brands
and local initiatives trying to make



“The city is clearly aiming
to carve a niche in the
smart cities and big data
space, and it’s doing a
pretty good job”




their mark.
In terms of global accelerator
brands, Spain’s Wayra, created by
the telco Telefónica, is now joined by
Startupbootcamp, which launched
its first Internet of Things & Data
programme in Barcelona just this
year. Startupbootcamp offers up to
€15,000 per startup, up to 6 months
of free office space and more than
€450,000 worth of partner services.
Not to be outdone, local accelerators
include Seed Rocket and Conector,
with the latter about to welcome 11
new startups through its doors, its
third cohort since launch. While some
sound a little ‘me too’, the ideas span
areas as diverse as logistics, marketing
and ecommerce. Perhaps the most
interesting, Joyners, focuses on the
creation of shared homes for senior
citizens, with a tech twist. One of
Conector’s 2014 alumnus, Viuing, has
just received a €700,000 investment
to grow its disposable entertainment
screen business.
“Lifestyle, tourism and bioscience
startups will undoubtedly continue
to emerge from Catalunya, however
we’re seeing some great new startups
in the fintech, IoT and big data arenas
as well,” says Scott Mackin, founder
of English-language startup mag
Barcinno. “If I had to put a number
on it, I would say there are about 400
high-growth startups in Barcelona and
a nascent, but emerging investment
scene to fuel its growth.”
Given Spain’s weak economy
and global perceptions around
local bureaucracy, many believe it’s
tough to get investment in BCN.
But Catalonia is actually one of the
top European foreign investment
destinations, with firms based
here looking for their next startup
including Nauta Capital, Active VP,
Highgrowth, Caixa Capital Risc and
“It’s not difficult to drum up
€50,000 to €200,000 seed funding
with a good pitch and some
networking, however we still have
a crunch in the €500,000 to €5m

range, so a lot of companies opt for
‘follow-on’ bridge rounds to keep
going,” Mackin says. “Unfortunately,
at that stage we’re seeing some very
promising ventures leave the country,
opting for US or UK headquarters
while keeping their dev team and
majority of operations in Spain where
your money stretches further.”
The city is clearly aiming to carve a
niche in the smart cities and big data
space, and it’s doing a pretty good job.
Last year, Barcelona hosted the Smart
City Expo World Congress, which
welcomed 50 mayors, 41 international
delegations and 400 speakers to
address the major challenges of our
future smart cities. The city’s Centre of
Contemporary Culture, which is lead
sponsored by Telefónica, also hosted
the Big Bang Data Exposition, which
saw some 65,000 people head through
its doors.
Barcelona has now launched The
Big Data Centre of Excellence to focus
this effort and is already attracting the
big guys in big data to its shores, with
STRATA+HADOOP hosting its first
Big Data Conference outside of the US
in BCN.
It is also one of four participant
cities in the EU’s iCity open data
project, along with Bologna, Genova
and London, where it is developing
and deploying cost-effective smart city
“The city is pouring millions into an
effort to brand itself as an ‘innovation
capital’ and world-leading smart
city so there’s a lot of buzz there,
plus the private sector is joining
in with massive investments from
companies like Cisco and Oracle,”
Mackin says. Barcelona was chosen
among 58 applicants to become the
first European Capital of Innovation
last year and the €500,000 prize is
being used to expand its efforts on
It’s the ‘Barcelona gherkin’, Torre
Agbar, a protrusion on the city’s
skyline, that’s said to mark the gateway

to the new tech area, but it’s not quite
Silicon Roundabout. “One thing we’re
definitely missing here is our very
own Shoreditch neighbourhood,”
Mackin adds. “Our startup ecosystem
is all around the city without any
real hub. Luckily, our city is fairly
easy to manoeuvre so we find
ourselves meeting up at events like
Fest-UP, Startup Grind, weekly
Meetup groups, or just over pints at a
local pub.”
The Sacred Heart of Jesus looks out
from the top of Mount Tibidabo over
the city, reminding its residents where
they are and who they are; one only
need look at the success of the .cat
domain name to understand how
proud Barcelona is of its identity.
As if you need reminding, Barcelona
is also home to the world’s second
most valuable sports team, FC
Barcelona, owned by the fans and ‘més
que un club’ (more than a club),
which includes its tech efforts. FCB
appointed entrepreneur Didac Lee
as board member responsible for
innovation, aiming to ensure it is a
global leader in new media, social
media and mobile. In 2012, the club
released a whopping eight apps but
its most recent launch is a mobile
ticketing system over at Camp Nou.
Mobile World Congress clearly has a
major impact on Barcelona’s economy,
as well as blocking up roads and
spilling executives out on the streets
for one intense week of the year, but
it’s so much more than that. One only
needs to check out the rad red Bicing
bike scheme, the 100% accessibility
of buses for disabled people or the
2,400 hours of sunshine each year to
see that.
The city may be accused of being
overenthusiastic in using the public
sector, local and EU-level funding,
to build its tech scene, but let’s not
forget, that’s exactly how the World
Wide Web came into being. And where
would we all be without that? Not
smart at all. 