There’s no question that Portugal – and its capital in particular – is undergoing a massive boom when it comes to promising technology companies and interesting investments these days. That’s been a few years coming, but we’re not blind to the relatively recent ‘next step’ for an ecosystem with undeniably vast potential (yet still a lot to prove).

Hence, earlier this year I flew out to Lisbon to spend a few days among the movers and shakers to learn more about what’s (not) happening and get a sense of what the buzz is all about.

Journalists tend to like to draw comparisons to Silicon Valley – yes, we get it, there’s a really good-looking red bridge in Lisbon, too – or European startup hubs when reporting on the flourishing tech scene in Portugal’s capital, but the truth is that it’s still massively early days over there.

Lisbon is far from “the next Berlin” – it’s the next … Lisbon, warts and all.

And it’s not like the main actors in Lisbon aren’t aware of this, either. In fact, I have to say many of the people I had conversation with during my whirlwind tour in Lisboa were almost apologetic and almost too humble about the current status. And there’s no reason for that.

There are a number of companies that are often cited as Portuguese success stories – Farfetch and TalkDesk in particular – but the fact of the matter is that a lot of these companies are being built by Portuguese founders outside of Portugal (in the aforementioned cases, in the UK and the US respectively). There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it can make it a little bit harder to gauge what’s actually happening in Lisbon.

Sure, there are plenty of great companies being built with Portuguese roots, or historical development offices, and it would be a shame to deny this, but I find that it’s equally dishonest to label all of these companies ‘Portuguese’ without noting that oftentimes their operations have largely moved to the US or the UK.

Lisbon Startup
(Left: Cristina Fonseca, the recently departed co-founder of Talkdesk, with TOPDOX‘s Inês Silva)

 

But it’s no secret that Portugal is home to legions of talented developers, engineers and software product managers – you need only look at the amount of big tech corporations (as well as the likes of Rocket Internet) banking on Portugal’s tech talent for product development, quality assurance and customer support.

But commentators tend to focus on how ‘cheap’ that talent is – sure, there are loads of skillful yet affordable engineers and developers in Portugal, but not extraordinarily so in comparison to other regions in Europe. The same goes for the relatively low cost of living.

Furthermore, that talent has started building amazing businesses of their own in recent times, which in turn has attracted people from over the world to start considering Lisbon as their next home and career base of choice. This is far from anecdotal – many people I spoke with moved here because of the opportunities combined with the climate and lifestyle, something I used to hear almost exclusively about places like Barcelona (cases in point: German investor / entrepreneur Felix Petersen and startup advisor Clara Armand-Delille). To wit, the still pressured Portuguese economy plays an obvious but unavoidable role in all the above.

A notable side-effect: there’s currently something of a ‘reverse brain drain’ going on, with entrepreneurs who’ve received schooling (at actual schools, or at startups) abroad and are now more keen on returning to Portugal than ever before, as the number of interesting prospects for employment swells and the government is making it more appealing to return from a tax, residency program and bureaucracy perspective, too.

There’s a also a strong local support network and community that’s working overdrive to help the local tech scene grow into a more mature hub. Key among them are Startup Lisboa, Beta-i, the Lisbon Challenge accelerator and Fábrica de Startups, though there are certainly more.

Also worth noting are the three main investors in high-potential Lisbon startups: Faber Ventures, Caixa Capital (which is also an investor in Faber) and the government-backed Portugal Ventures. They are playing a crucial role in the ecosystem by not just providing capital but also mentorship and access to their respective networks, which is bound to have an accelerating effect on Lisbon’s development as a tech hub.

Stephan Morais Caixa Capital
Stephan Morais, the uber-connected VC and growth investor at Caixa Capital

 

And the elephant in the room during my visit was that João Vasconcelos, the previous and untirable head of Startup Lisboa, was recently installed as secretary of industry within the Portuguese government. Many are (justifiably, given his track record in support local entrepreneurs) expecting him to move the needle for startups and early-stage investors even more now that he’s in a position to do so from a governmental point of view.

Worth noting: right after my visit, the Portuguese startup community went live with a Startup Manifesto of its own, and just a month ago the country’s government debuted Startup Portugal, a national public strategy to foster entrepreneurship and promote local startups internationally (as discussed in a recent Tech.eu podcast).

Also, I was told Vasconcelos has already played an instrumental role in getting the Web Summit to move from Dublin to Lisbon, which is no doubt to have further impact on the maturation of its startup scene – and more announcements like that will follow.

During my visit to the city, I heard that Factory, the international startup accelerator Startupbootcamp and other organisations are prepping a big push into Lisbon, ImpactHUB is preparing to land soon, and we’ve all seen the announcement that London-based Second Home is going to make the city its second home soon.

It’s also worth noting that the Web Summit is far from the only major event in town – in early June, investors and corporates from all corners of the world will be flying into the Portuguese capital for the Lisbon Investment Summit.

In short, it’s become impossible to deny that this city is absolutely buzzing in terms of tech startup activity – and the funding and exits will surely follow suit in the coming years.

And yet, as mentioned earlier, there’s still a tendency for the true scale-ups coming out of Portugal to quickly establish offices in other countries, where the tech scene is already more mature, and it’s notable that the founders often make the move as well.

Examples include FarFetch and Talkdesk, as mentioned earlier, but also the likes of Chic By Choice, Feedzai, Veniam and Muzzley.

This is normal, but it does make the notion of an ever-growing Portuguese tech ecosystem as such less of an established fact. Likely, in the next phase a lot of these founders will re-invest in local talent, enabling Lisbon to ‘take the next step’ in its maturation, but at this point we’re still very much in the early stages.

Filipa Neto Chick By Choice
Filipa Neto, the Portuguese co-founder of London-based Chic by Choice

 

But that there are interesting companies to visit in Lisbon is a fact that I was happy to experience first-hand. My tour took me to the likes of:

Uniplaces

Uniplaces
Left: Miguel Santo Amaro with Mariano Kostelec, two co-founders of Uniplaces, often referred to as ‘the Airbnb for students’ but actually way more (just wait and see in the coming months)

 

Seedrs

Seedrs
Crowdfunding platform operator Seedrs’ office in Lisbon

 

Seedrs
Carlos Silva, co-founder of Seedrs and its ‘head of Europe’

 

Unbabel

Unbabel Team
From left to right: Hugo Silva, Sofia Pessanha, João Graça, Bruno Prezado and Vasco Pedro, the co-founders of Unbabel, which graduated from the famous Y Combinator startup accelerator

 

Faber Ventures

Faber Ventures Wall Logo
Faber ventures members
Left: Alexandre Barbosa with Felix Petersen, partners at Faber Ventures, a refreshing kind of investment firm that has backed many of the companies mentioned in this article

 

Codacy

Codacy
Codacy co-founder Jaime Jorge, holding his personalised mugs

 

Codacy
Codacy’s dog-in-residence, who goes by the name Whiskey

 

Hole19

Hole.19
Anthony Douglas, the indefatigable founder of Hole19, a company that builds great and beautiful tools for golfers (and golf course owners)

 

Landing.jobs

Landing.jobs
Left: José Paiva with Pedro Oliveira, co-founders of Landing.jobs, a tech jobs marketplace

 

Fun Team
Yes, the Landing.jobs team knows how to have a good time

 

Other Portuguese startups to watch include Zaask, TOPDOX, WIME, EyeSee, Zercatto, Prodsmart, Attentive.us, Liquid and Tradiio. And rest assured that this closing list should be way longer (and will certainly grow in size in the near future).

In other words: Tech.eu will keep a close eye on Portugal, and spend more time there in the near future to stay abreast of what’s happening over there.

Featured image credit: Samuel Borges Photography / Shutterstock

  • Rute Silva Brito

    I enjoyed reading this article – one of the few that don’t read like a PR piece and instead portrays reality like it is. Lisbon is growing but not enough to be considered the new startup hub in Europe – the ecosystem is still too small. That’s why I, being a Lisbon native, moved to the US to launch my startup.

  • Leonardo Mathias

    Interesting perspectives, yet light on substance. To name but a few, the concept of where a company is from (ie – Farfetch and TalkDesk in particular – ) and where the founders are from, is the tipical lightweight conversation, about what comes first: the chicken or the egg. But aside from a slighly paternalistic tone, I would kindly ask Robin to get his sources strait next time he is in town. To say that ” I was told Vasconcelos has already played an instrumental role in getting the Web Summit to move from Dublin to Lisbon” is utterly preposterous. As pointed correctly in the article Mr. Vasconcelos worked at a Lisbon Municipality Association at the time of the bidding of the WS. There are 2 people who can confirm what in reality went on: Paddy Cosgrave or myself as head of the Governmental Team pitching for the WS to come to Lisbon. Journalism is good only when it is credible.