In a not-too-distant past, the will of the citizens of Lisbon gave birth to an initiative that promised to transform the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem and help startups take their ideas from imagination to reality.
Eight years, 4,500 applications, and 400 startups later, Startup Lisboa—one of the most voted ideas in the 2009/2010 Participatory Budget of the City Council—has proved that it has not taken people’s trust for granted.
“It’s been a long journey… Startup Lisboa is different than any other place because eight years there feel much longer than eight years,” Miguel Fontes, the CEO of Startup Lisboa, told Via News in an exclusive interview on the occasion of the incubator’s eight anniversary.
It feels so because everyone is in a mood of “acceleration” as they are moving fast every single day to concretize their ideas and projects, he explained.
Startup Lisboa, a private non-profit association, was founded by the Municipality of Lisbon, bank Montepio, and IAPMEI (Portuguese Agency for Competitiveness and Innovation) to offer budding entrepreneurs an opportunity to establish and scale their business.
It began its activities in February 2012 with the opening of its first building on Rua da Prata 80 in Lisbon’s historic downtown. Three years later, Startup Lisboa began hosting larger teams in a second building right in front of their headquarters.
They have a residence named CASA Startup Lisboa in the city center in Baixa, which provides short-term accommodation for entrepreneurs coming from abroad and outside of Lisbon to participate in an accelerator or incubator program.
Also, the Airport Business Center, located at the heart of Lisbon Airport and powered by Startup Lisboa, offers a flexible facility for individuals who need an area to work, rest, or hold meetings and conferences.
Miguel, who joined Startup Lisboa four years ago, says there are many milestone moments to be grateful for in the past several years. “We have seen so many ideas become reality… It’s beautiful when that happens.”
He believes that the best part of the journey is when passionate founders start with a simple idea, keep fighting against all odds to make their dreams come true, refuse to listen to naysayers, and grow their projects into profitable, large-scale ventures.
He said they have supported around 400 startups so far who have contributed to the creation of many job opportunities not only inside the country but also beyond the borders.
According to Startup Lisboa’s website, entrepreneurs from more than 40 countries have taken part in their initiatives and around 3,500 jobs have been created by participants. There are two models of incubation: physical and virtual.
Miguel considers it a source of pride that a total of over €120 million worth of investment has been raised so far by the startups they supported. He says the success figures could be higher because it is difficult to keep track of startups that leave the incubator.
Entrepreneurs from more than 40 countries have taken part in Startup Lisboa’s initiatives and around 3,500 jobs have been created by participants.
In his view, Indie Campers—which got its start at Startup Lisboa and is now Europe’s largest campervan rental company—is a great example of entrepreneurs who dared to dream big and ventured into uncharted territory.
Indie Campers, in its own words, “started as a three-van rental company in Portugal” and was brought to reality in 2013 by two friends from Portugal and Austria.
It calls itself an ultimate “road trip provider” rather than just a typical “rental service” and offers adventure lovers the chance to start their journey in one location and end it in any of their other depots.
With a fleet of over 800 vehicles, it currently operates in more than 50 locations across Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, Netherlands, England, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Croatia, and Iceland.
Miguel maintains that infusing technology into a simple idea helped Indie Campers create a “completely different experience”.
They were “so good” and “so fast” at doing it that they now hire a large number of people, he added. “This is really amazing.”
Startup Lisboa’s CEO said their incubator was initially completely focused on helping startup founders but has now defined other missions for itself.
“We are not only focused on the founders but we see ourselves in Lisbon mainly as someone that has a responsibility to promote the ecosystem. That’s why we are establishing so many partnerships with other entities. We are trying to create the right atmosphere to help [startups] succeed at the end of the day.”
When asked what makes Startup Lisboa unique, Miguel said a review of what they do for entrepreneurs is necessary to answer this question.
“We support them with a very good network of mentors. Mentoring is very very important for them because they need to have access to the right people at the beginning of their projects,” he noted, adding that they have a portfolio of over 135 mentors who have very good connections and are experts in different fields such as technology and marketing.
According to him, the second aspect of their activities is shaped by their “strategic partners” and Startup Lisboa helps startups gain access not only to tech companies like Amazon Web Services, Cisco, Microsoft, or Google but also law companies that can help them navigate the legal world.
Miguel added that promoting companies and raising awareness about their projects is another element of their mission. “We use our brand to help them grow and become known in the city and beyond.”
“Of course another part of our important job is to put them in contact with investors, namely angel investors and VCs [venture capitalists],” he said while emphasizing that they do their best to make the right match happen.
And the final pillar that makes Startup Lisboa distinctive is its efforts toward building a “community” and an environment in the incubator where individuals can share their knowledge and ideas, Miguel commented.
“We try to create the right atmosphere inside Startup Lisboa, which means that we try to promote the spirit of community where they can learn and share what they are doing.”
Miguel says they do not believe in the saying that goes, “The secret is the soul of the business”. “It’s not. It’s all about sharing. It’s about sharing your doubts, your challenges, your contacts, and your knowledge.”
“If we can create this right atmosphere, this right community, it helps everyone,” he said, adding that they strive to promote a sense of community through formal events they organize and also social media where entrepreneurs can get in touch with and reach out to each other easily.
“Every day, at any moment, if someone is thinking about something and he or she needs to have access to someone to ask them something, it’s very easy because there are always other founders that are there to support them. So this kind of community is something unique about Startup Lisboa.”
What makes Startup Lisboa unique is its efforts toward building a “community” and an environment for sharing knowledge and ideas.Miguel Fontes, CEO of Startup Lisboa
Startup Lisboa has some other initiatives aimed at supporting entrepreneurial talent and contributing to further expansion of the startup landscape in the Portuguese capital.
According to its website, Startup Lisboa is the organizer of Launch in Lisbon—a soft landing program to help foreign entrepreneurs and investors set up their business in Lisbon.
It is also the manager of Hub Criativo do Beato, an innovation hub under construction in the city, and runs two acceleration programs: WPP Booster and From Start-To-Table.
WPP Booster, which is implemented in partnership with the WPP group, targets startups who aspire to play a role in transforming the communication and media industry.
From Start-To-Table is a program supported by Turismo de Portugal and is designed to help re-shape the restaurant ecosystem.
The efforts of the team behind Startup Lisboa have certainly paid off as they have earned well-deserved recognition along the way, including European Enterprise Promotion Award 2013 by European Commission, People’s Choice Award for Best Accelerator or Incubators in Europe by London Web Summit, and Partner of the year 2013 by Portugal Ventures.
Partners, Not Rivals
On whether they see other startup incubators and accelerators in Lisbon as competitors or entities that complement each other, Miguel said they are considered partners rather than rivals.
“It is very important to develop the local ecosystem. So if we want to have a great ecosystem here in Portugal, particularly in Lisbon, it’s very good to attract new players.”
For example, he said, when Second Home came to Lisbon, the first player they met was Startup Lisboa and “we helped them establish their project in the city.”
Second Home is an initiative that offers “workspace as creative as you are” in London, Lisbon, and Los Angeles.
Miguel’s respect for such partnerships is reflected in the fact that Startup Lisboa calls other actors in the startup scene in Portugal their “Friends & Neighbors” on its website.
“We never see that kind of player as competitors. We see them much more like people who are doing great work to grow our ecosystem,” Startup Lisboa’s CEO said.