As an independent nation, Portugal was founded in 1143. Its boundaries have remained unchanged since then. It is arguably the oldest country in the world. Portugal began the globalization process in the fifteenth century, becoming the first political and economic power on a truly global scale. So how can the oldest country in the world and a pioneer of globalization be dubbed as a startup?

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Every nation has its ups and downs and Portugal is no exception. Precisely because of its longevity, Portugal has already gone through several heydays, as well as hard periods. Portugal is currently (and once again) exploring. It is a small-size country trying to find its place in a world where strength of numbers is increasingly important; trying to find out the value it has to offer again, to the world.

Therefore, the country finds itself in a similar situation to that of a startup, trying to validate its value and its growth opportunities in the fastest and most iterative way possible.

Portugal is embracing a true culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. That is why the country is currently in the spotlight.

This first glimpse of success is due to a number of factors – talent, science and infrastructure – which are now lining up. However, we venture to say that this momentum began to be built just about twenty to thirty years ago – a very short time in a nation’s History.

A timely investment in education and research allowed the country to train competent professionals and world-class scientists. Portugal has indeed made significant progress in these areas. The international partnerships MIT Portugal, CMU Portugal, UT Austin Portugal and Fraunhofer Portugal, currently celebrating their first decade, were no strangers to this success. There is now a new generation of talented, qualified and skilled Portuguese, comparable to those of the most advanced nations of the world.

Portugal has also equipped itself with great technological, laboratorial and business support infrastructure. The first science-based incubator emerged in 1991 in the city of Coimbra, under the initiative of the University of Coimbra, which launched an autonomous institution – Instituto Pedro Nunes (IPN) – for this matter.

Today, all the universities in the country have similar infrastructures.  We emphasize UPTEC (in Porto), Madan Park (Lisbon) and IEUA (Aveiro). The youth of this promising startup country stands out even more when we realize that the two main entities responsible for promoting entrepreneurship in Lisbon – the Beta-i and Startup Lisboa – were created in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The Startup Braga, located in the city of Braga, only emerged in 2014.

The availability of venture capital is typically crucial for the rapid scale-up of innovation-driven startups. This sector is taking the first steps in Portugal. Almost non-existent until 2009, it was significantly boosted with the launch of co-investment funds between the Portuguese State and private investors – both “business angels” and venture capital firms. Another milestone was the redesign of the State role and operations made in 2012, which resulted in the creation of Portugal Ventures – the current public venture capital. The challenge is to create strong international ties, as the VC industry is developing fast. Although there are not yet any major international VCs permanently in the country, Portugal can be an excellent gateway to Europe and the Portuguese world.

With these factors aligned, within a short period of time Portugal has created technological startups capable of competing in the global market – some example cases are of Farfetch, Feedzai, Talkdesk, Uniplaces, Codacy, among others. Many more promising companies are being born all over the country. This reality is evident in several areas, from those more deeply based on technology – ICT, Health, Energy, Transport, etc. – to the more traditional ones – Textiles, Fashion, Footwear and Cork, etc. There is also a new community of entrepreneurs and freelancers which organizes itself in co-works, fablabs and other forms of collaborative networks.

Portugal is currently creating a true national entrepreneurial ecosystem. Lisbon and Porto, the two large metropolitan areas of the country, are already seen as major European innovation hubs. Lisbon, in particular, features a remarkable growth, which is the result of its unique ability to attract international talent and resources. Coimbra, a well-known university town, stands out due to its knowledge-based innovation and entrepreneurship. The growth of the cities of Braga and Aveiro, and their proximity to Porto, reinforce the strong industrial character of the northern region of the country.

The world is changing fast, and so is Portugal. In a few decades, the country has made great progress. As a promising startup, Portugal must continue to attract talent and resources, to build up its credibility and to further internationalize itself. The best time to enter a new market is when it is at a turning point for rapid and sustained growth, right? So, what are you waiting for? !

João Bigotte

Assistant Professor
Technological Change and Innovation
University of Coimbra | MIT Portugal



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