Beta-i: At the heart of Lisbon’s startup scene – an interview with Ricardo Marvão

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Beta-i is a non-profit association created in 2010, with the goal to improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Lisbon. Today, the Portuguese startup accelerator is one of the biggest startup & entrepreneurship promoters in Europe.

In the recent ranking with “Europe’s hottest startups 2016”, Wired considered Beta-i the key incubator in the Lisbon startup scene. Though not a surprise, it made us speed up a scheduled talk with Ricardo Marvão, Beta-I co-founder and Head of Global Resources. Hope you enjoy as we did.

What exactly do Beta-i accelerator programs offer to startups?

Lisbon Challenge, our flagship program, is an ambitious 10-week international acceleration program, aimed at eager international tech startups. Truly founder-centric, and focused on product acceleration, the program was recently considered the 2nd most dynamic European accelerator by Fundacity.

I think without the skills and know-how this kind of programs allows to develop, startups would have a much harder time going to the market, even if the ideas are very interesting or the founders very capable. The program is aimed at startups in prototype or product phase, looking for a truly innovative and empowering experience. We believe it offers consistent methods and resources for genuine startup acceleration.

More on the innovation side, we also foster some Corporate Accelerators, industry focused, with a vertical approach. Examples such as Protechting (an accelerator focused on insurance, with the Chinese conglomerate Fosun, and its local brand Fidelidade, the biggest Portuguese insurance company), Deloitte Digital Disruptors (a startup acceleration program by Deloitte, supported by Beta-i, and focused on digital solutions to disrupt the insurance industry) or Cork Challenge Barcelona (an 8 week acceleration program, focused on cork and non-intensive).

This kind of initiatives allow us to partner with companies such as Caixa Capital, Nestlé, Microsoft, Google, SAP, Cisco, Euronext, MasterCard, Deloitte, Amorim, Fidelidade or Portugal Telecom, for instance, building a bridge between big corporations and startups. The magic of such programs is that true innovation happens at crossroads between successful established businesses and disrupting startups still lacking scale.

Which milestones would you consider Beta-I’s biggest achievements so far?

For us, fostering great ideas and watching them grow to achieve their full potential is key. Because the world is changing, but the startup world is changing faster, we challenge teams to embrace change, to take off their shoes, to make things happen, and above all we challenge entrepreneurs to be the best they can be. At Beta-i we believe in the power of “i”, for innovation, imagination, initiative, inspiration, ignition, investment…

But if we think about metrics, our 175 alumni startups have raised over 55 million euros, we got 3 alumni at YCombinator, 3 at Techstars , 2 at 500Startups and 8 at Seedcamp, and 40% of alumni got invested.

Startups like Uniplaces, the online student accommodation platform, Line Health, that got a grant from German big-pharma company Bayer, or Unbabel, a scalable professional translation services platform, were all part of our Lisbon Challenge program, and that is why, once again, we received hundreds of applications, from the four corners of the world. The fact that we just got featured on Wired’s Top European Hubs for the very first time means we are doing something right…

Coming to that, Lisbon is developing into one of the leading startup hubs in Europe. How do you see the current state of Lisbon’s startup ecosystem and what are the remaining challenges?

Some international media coverage is comparing Lisbon to San Francisco or Berlin, considering it as one of the best cities to visit in Europe. According to Paddy Cosgrove, the Web Summit CEO, “Lisbon is like Berlin 5 years ago, but with southern Europe climate”.

Being an entrepreneur is hard, across the globe, but the good thing is that in Lisbon you get to know a lot of amazing people who are always willing to help. You can also relax by the beach and go surfing in the weekends. You have an amazing quality of life here and low costs of living – which is really helpful when you’re building your own company. The truth is, in recent years, Portugal has developed a significant number of world-class startups and programs like ours are key to this progress, for they help a large number of entrepreneurs develop and enhance their business ideas.

It’s inevitable to talk about the soon coming first Lisbon Web Summit. How do you see it contributing to the Portuguese startup scene and Beta-i’s future?

If we look at 2016, with all the buzz we can see in turn of entrepreneurship and startup related activities in Portugal, also because the Web Summit is coming to Lisbon, it’s easy to sense that this will be a year full of major challenges, but this can also be the year that sees the ecosystem mature and consolidate its position. Lisbon has also been able to attract major operations from international startups like Zomato and Sherpany and companies like Teleperformance (with over 6.000 employees in Lisbon).

The effects can already be felt. For instance, the Startup Guide, the handbook for startups and entrepreneurs, is just now heading to Lisbon. Filled with inspiration, “how-to’s”, case studies and tips for starting up, the popular series will be highlighting the opportunities and stories from the leading European Entrepreneurship Region in 2015 (Beta-i will be the local project owner and facilitator).

We see this opportunity as a proof that Lisbon is increasingly well positioned on an international level, and, in that sense, Beta-i is always available to help secure all the tools we can so that the local community can better develop, and take advantage of such a rich environment like the one we are currently in.

Which Portuguese startups are you currently most excited about?

The bulk of Portuguese scale-ups (17,% of the total) are located in Lisbon, were it’s easier to get access to venture capital. The companies based in the capital city raised about 60% of the total money made available to Portuguese scale-ups.

One of the most interesting stories is probably Talkdesk, that started here in Lisbon with a simple idea. They ended up joining 500 Startups and now they’re really taking off. They integrated with Salesforce and got an investment of 21 million dollars. They currently have offices in San Francisco and Lisbon.

Uniplaces also stood out by disrupting the student accommodation business. They’ve grown into a 150 employee company and they’re currently in more than 30 cities across Europe. Uniplaces also raised $24 million in Series A in last November.

Another example is Line Health, the creator of a small pill dispenser who recently went through a major re-branding and product improvement after getting a grant from German big-pharma company Bayer. We should also mention Unbabel, a scalable advanced solution for the translation of dynamic content (they all went trough Lisbon Challenge), and Tradiio, a music platform to help people get to know new artists, that is getting some interesting traction as well. Feedzai, Veniam, Seedrs or Attentive are also very interesting success stories that are becoming our startups champions.

Let me thank Beta-i for the interview and above all the work done for Portuguese startups and entrepreneurs. Let’s meet again very soon.