The global technology story has been written by entrepreneurs who built game-changing businesses against tough odds. A good example of this is currently happening today in Portugal where a country that was once struggling with a crippling economic recession is beginning to emerge as a new growth area for tech innovation, despite signs that Europe may be actually limiting entrepreneurial success.
A set of recently formed startups from Portugal was on full display last month as a new organization was launched to support the country’s growing cadre of ambitious entrepreneurs. Called West to West, the group was formally unveiled at an event on San Francisco on October 22nd that was hosted by TalkDesk and attended by a number of dignitaries including Nuno Mathias, the Consul General for Portugal.
“The goal of West to West is to create a really strong Portuguese brand in Silicon Valley,” Mathias told the gathering.
TalkDesk itself symbolizes the technology present and future for Portugal. The Portuguese founders created cloud-based software that allows users to get a call-center up in running in minutes, without needing phones, special hardware, coding or massive downloads. Box has signed on as a customer and the company counts Salesforce and Zendesk as partners.
The company has recently raised $6 million in new funding, a process that many European entrepreneurs can find daunting. “The bar here for raising money if you are a foreign company is not high,” said Nuno Goncalves Pedro of Strive Capital. “It’s ridiculously high.”
Despite these and other potential roadblocks, there are a number of other Portuguese companies in the startup pipeline. One Portuguese firm that is showing strong growth is Farfetch, an online shopping community of over 300 global fashion boutiques. A recent round of funding last March has pushed the company into a valuation above $1 billion and official “unicorn” status.
One of the presenters at the West to West launch was MusicYou, an app that lets users take a photo or video and instantly apply music to it. Another new firm – JiTT Travel – has developed a smartphone app that doubles as a personal tour guide. The company was recently highlighted in the New York Times.
The road ahead for many European startups may not necessarily be an easy one for other reasons besides obtaining funding. A study published in the Harvard Business Review last month showed that fifteen European countries have been losing momentum in their “digital evolution” since 2008, measured by whether they were attracting global businesses and investors in a climate that could nurture fledgling technology firms.
Only Switzerland, Ireland, and Estonia had high enough levels of business development and investment to be considered “digitally healthy.” According to one of the report’s authors, Bhaskar Chakravorti, Dean of International Business with the Fletcher School at Tufts University, “Across the rest of Europe, the state of digital evolution has been mediocre and the pace of improvement, tepid.”
The report also highlighted a vexing problem for Europe’s technology community: red tape. The researchers documented an astounding 250 collective digital management organizations in Europe which are making it extraordinarily difficult to transport content across borders.
Many European countries have also built an uneasy relationship with the large technology players in the U.S. as privacy concerns abound. Perhaps this is no more evident than in France where privacy critics derisively call Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, “Les Gafa.”
The Portuguese tech industry is obviously trying to change this picture by creating a U.S. group that will give them a stronger identity in the Silicon Valley community and boost their ambitious startups. During the San Francisco event at TalkDesk last month, Goncalves Pedro described how he’d witnessed European entrepreneurs “slap each other in the face” just before going on stage to pitch for funding in front of high-powered investors. A slap in the face sounds like the “wake-up” call that the rest of Europe needs.