Startup Guide Barcelona: how this cultural hub has emerged as an entrepreneurial base

By Madanmohan Rao
September 23, 2020, Updated on : Wed Sep 23 2020 03:57:43 GMT+0000
Startup Guide Barcelona: how this cultural hub has emerged as an entrepreneurial base
Startup Guide Barcelona covers emerging startups, accelerators, investors, and support institutes in this vibrant European business and arts hub.
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Launched in 2012, YourStory's Book Review section features over 250 titles on creativity, innovation, entrepreneurship, and digital transformation. See also our related columns The Turning Point, Techie Tuesdays, and Storybites.

The Startup Guide series of books, launched in 2014 by Copenhagen-based publisher Sissel Hansen, covers over 25 cities such as London, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Oslo and Miami. See our reviews of the guidebooks for New York, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Paris, Stockholm, Vienna, Johannesburg, Cairo, Tokyo, Bangkok, and Singapore.

Startup Guide Barcelona is spread across 225 pages and makes for an informative and entertaining read, with profiles of founders, co-working spaces, incubators, and other ecosystem players.

Already renowned as a hub for art, music, culture, food, commerce and industry, Barcelona has become a dynamic hub for startups in Europe, Sissel Hanson begins. She cites data which shows that there were around 1,200 startups in Barcelona in 2018, and the city ranks second in the world as a smart city.

World-class universities and research centres attract and produce top talent, and the city is home to major conferences and trade fairs such as the Mobile World Congress and Smart City Expo. Barcelona has excellent infrastructure, a long coastline, mild climate, and diverse cultural festivals, making for an enviable quality of life.

"Barcelona has historically been a reference point in innovation and design,” adds Angels Chacón, Minister of Business and Knowledge of Catalonia.

The city is reinventing itself through tech and scientific projects, according to Pere Duran, 4YFN Event Director.

The annual 4YFN startup festival (‘Four Years From Now’), held for seven years, attracted 700 startups, 1,000 investors, and 23,000 attendees in its 2019 edition. See our writeup here, and earlier coverage of Mobile World Congress 2019.



One section provides an overview of the city’s environment and lifestyle, such as food (something for every budget), mealtimes (late), trendy bars (no shortage), people (easy-going, bilingual), community (very international), public transport (excellent, but with lots of pickpockets), cost of living (affordable by European standards), public health service (free), and bureaucracy (complex).

Heatmap Europe recently ranked Barcelona as the third best startup hub in Europe; the city attracts more than half of all the startup investment in Spain.

Barcelona has seven science-and-technology parks and more than 35 accelerators. Notable local startups are Social Point, Badi, Red Points, TravelPerk, Typeform, Glovo and 21 Buttons.

Barcelona straddles northern and southern Europe, both geographically and culturally, the authors describe. The city’s population is 1.6 million, with a greater metropolitan population of five million.

It is a popular tourist destination, thanks to highlights like the fantastical architecture of Gaudí. The book has stunning photographs of the city, making it one of the most picturesque startup guidebooks of all.

I. Startup profiles

One section of the book profiles 10 startups based in Barcelona, with inspiring origin stories and business descriptions. They include 21 Buttons (social network and marketplace for fashion) and Badi (room-rental platform using AI).


Datumize leverages unused data of businesses to generate actionable insights and operational intelligence about customers. Factorial HR provides SMEs with automated HR solutions for payroll.

Hubtype is a SaaS startup that uses chatbots to create conversational experiences for a company’s customers. TravelPerk helps SMBs and corporates manage their travel needs.

Foods for Tomorrow has developed plant-based products as substitutes for meat. TAPP Water offers affordable facet filters for drinking water, as a sustainable alternative to bottled water.

Unnax provides open-banking solutions for KYC and financial management. Verse has a virtual wallet to enable payments and sharing of bills.


II. Startup ecosystem

One section of the book profiles the support system for startups, ranging from incubators to accelerators. For example, Demium Startups is a “pre-team, pre-idea startup incubator” and offers a six-month programme for founders in early stages of their business.

Barcelona Activa, launched by the City Council, promotes entrepreneurship through a range of programmes, including a network of incubators: Glòries Incubator, Almogàvers Incubator, ESA BIC Barcelona Incubator, and Media TIC Incubator. The incubator innoBA is focused on the social and solidarity economy (SSE).

The Collider is a deep-tech incubator operated by Mobile World Capital Barcelona, and runs for six months. The Founder Institute is also present in Barcelona; it is regarded as the largest pre-seed startup accelerator network in the world.

Conector is a seed-stage accelerator with a five-month programme. It takes four to seven percent of equity from each graduating startup; mentors are also given one percent equity.

CRAASH Barcelona is active in the healthcare sector, and is partners with CIMIT in Boston, and Biocat and EIT Health in Barcelona. It offers a programme of 12 weeks.

IQS Next Tech accelerator offers a six-month programme for industrial-hardware startups. It runs IQS Tech Fest, dedicated to industrial-based startups.

Ship2B has a social impact accelerator programme with four vertical paths: Tech4Health, Tech4Climate, Tech4Social, and B-Value (helping NGOs to become self-sustaining). The programme is of six-month duration.

TecnoCampus is a technological park that also offers funding, networking, mentoring, outreach activities, and incubator/accelerator services (eg. Kenko Health Accelerator).

Managers of these support institutes advise aspiring entrepreneurs to take advantage of every opportunity to network and connect, increase market access, and connect to the broader ecosystem.

Teams should be balanced in qualities and responsibilities, with a mix of technical, domain and entrepreneurial skills. Founders should be willing to learn and change, and know when to recognise the time to start a dedicated venture.

III. Co-working spaces

Barcelona has a number of co-working spaces, some of which specialise in certain sectors like social innovation or creative sectors. They include OneCoWork Catedral, WeWork Glòries, and Spaces 22 Arroba.

Aticco’s slogan is ‘Where the crazy ones become geniuses’. Betahaus Barcelona attracts ‘creative professionals and dreamers’. Pier01 is the co-working headquarters of nonprofit organisation Barcelona Tech City.

MOB Pau was founded by Cecilia Tham. It has spinoffs such as FabCafe (makerspace) and AllWomen (AI bootcamp for women). Itnig Coworking has an early-stage fund to support 20 startups a year with €100,000 each.

Each description also profiles key organisers of these spaces, called ‘Face of the Space.’ Some of them are from industries as varied as fashion and law.  


IV. Expert insights

One section of the book provides tips from three experts, covering market expansion, industry connects, and design issues.

“It’s not enough anymore to build a unique product,” explains Ann Rosenberg, Senior Vice President for UN Partnerships at SAP, and Global Head of SAP Next-Gen and SAP University Alliances. Founders should also work for positive social impact and a sustainable future.

SAP hosts youth hackathons, “Innovation with Purpose” communities, and FQ Lounges on campuses (with The Female Quotient). It also collaborates with the UN Technology Innovation Labs.

Founders should feel like they are part of something bigger than their own business, according to Jordi Aguasca, Director of Startup Catalonia, which belongs to the government’s Competitiveness Business Agency. Its focus includes Industry 4.0, circular economy, and digital transformation.

Simone van Neerven, Head of Innovation at Vueling airlines, advises founders to have a focus on human-centred design. Vueling has a joint innovation team in London (Hangar 51) with a yearly accelerator.

The three experts offer a range of tips for entrepreneurs, including the importance of finding like-minded mavericks and even ‘crazy thinkers’ in large firms to improve the chances of collaboration. Founders should take a deep dive into the problem, and be willing to discard unworkable solutions along the way rather than falling in love with them.

V. Founder advice

The book features interviews with founders of five startups. The profiled founders trace their entrepreneurial journeys, lessons learnt, and tips for the next wave of aspiring entrepreneurs.

Interaction designers David Okuniev and Robert Muñoz co-founded Typeform, which creates data-collection solutions for market researchers and customer-service teams. They advise aspiring founders to not postpone having “difficult conversations” along the way.

“Have an engineering mindset so that what you build is scalable and will last a long time,” David recommends. “Build discipline. Discipline is something that is not very sexy. It’s not a sexy word in startups,” Robert jokes.

Francesca Gabetti is the Co-founder and CEO of TeamEQ, an AI-based SaaS platform to improve emotional intelligence (EQ) and decision-making capabilities of teams. “Success is granted by having the antennas that allow you to listen to everybody but then be able to make a decision while following your own instinct.”

Juan Margenat is Co-founder and COO of Marfeel, which offers mobile site optimisation and monetisation solutions for publishers. He was originally a civil engineer, and later founded a gift-experience platform (Bongo). Satisfaction comes from doing something for the greater good, he explains.

It is important to have an effective head of sales, particularly in the SaaS sector. “In Europe, there is less of a tradition of SaaS businesses, so it’s not easy to find experienced sales executives who can run a SaaS team,” he cautions.

He advises founders to appreciate the different management organisation needed while scaling a startup. “Spending money on a good lawyer can save you a lot of money, time, and headaches later on,” Juan adds.

Oscar Macia is Co-founder and CEO of ForceManager, which makes mobile CRM tools for sales teams based on voice apps as virtual personal assistants. “When you realise there are people who have the pain point that you’re solving, and they’re willing to pay for it, that’s when you realise that you can build a real business,” he observes.

Since the path is uncertain, it helps to have Plan B and even Plan C. Founders should ensure that the culture scales as the startup grows, and retains a sense of curiosity along with “extreme ownership”. They should also spend “tons of time” talking with potential customers.

“Be properly strategic when planning your funding, when looking for investors, because you’re selling part of your company and at the same time you’re buying an advisor and a partner,” Oscar emphasies.

Timo Buetefisch is Founder and CEO of on-demand scooter rental service Cooltra. He spotted a gap in the vehicle market where only four-wheelers were serviced by the likes of Europcar, Hertz, and Avis.

Some startups can become profitable only at scale, but should ensure that the business model has been properly worked out, Tim advises. He cautions founders to be prepared for a bumpy ride, and be willing to pivot as the situation demands (eg. from B2C to B2B fleet management in his case).

The founders offer other tips as well to aspiring entrepreneurs, such as the need to have a holistic view along with an eye for detail. They should be persistent and resilient, and also know when to say ‘no’ to customers and employees. Founders should surround themselves with talent even more talented than themselves.

The founders appreciate Barcelona’s startup ecosystem for becoming mature and exciting, with a lot of know-how and good work-life balance. There is an increasing international mix among entrepreneurs and employees as well.


VI. Capacity building

One section of the book profiles the entrepreneurship programmes of the city’s universities, such as Universitat de Barcelona, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, and IESE Business School.

ESADE Business School runs two 24/7 entrepreneurship labs based out of ESADE’s Rambla of Innovation campus, called EWorks and EGarage. Business challenges are key feature of the programme at IQS School of Management.

La Salle – Universiteit Ramon Llull (URL) also has the Technova startup incubator and a Startup Cafe where students present innovative ideas. Ironhack is a bootcamp for aspiring tech professionals.

“It’s a combination of the hard learning and soft skills that will set you apart from your competitors,” explains Timo Sohl, academic coordinator at BSM (Barcelona School of Management) – Pompeu Fabra University.

“Design is all about tactility and emotions; it’s the best way to understand consumers,” advises Iñaki Arbelaiz, Programme Director at Elisava school of design and engineering.

Other advice given by programme heads of these schools includes the importance of having a flexible and agile mind, willingness to interact with radically new ideas, and an ability to bounce back from failure. Gaps in expertise should be filled with a drive for self-learning, eg. in fields like data visualisation.

Founders should have a bias for action and become a force for change. They should be good listeners, communicators, and executors. They need to be “curious self-starters” as well as team players.


VII. Investors

The last section of the book profiles six investing firms, along with sample portfolios and advice for founders. For example, Finaves is a venture capital fund investing in startups launched from the IESE Business School. Its portfolio includes Cooltra and Advance Medical.

Banco Sabadell banking group has launched the BStartup initiative for entrepreneurs, which includes BStartup10 (investing €1 million annually in ten early-stage startups), BStartup Health, Sabadell Venture Capital, and InnoCells.

Caixa Capital Risc is the venture-capital arm of investment holding company CriteriaCaixa. Its portfolio includes Privalia (a fashion ecommerce store, acquired by Vente-Privee), Trip4Real (a marketplace for travel activities, acquired by Airbnb), Playgiga, Vlex, KDPOF, Sanifit, and Scutum.

Inveready Technology Investment Group is an early-stage venture capital fund. Nauta Capital has invested in Social Point, Privalia, Scytl, Marfeel, ForceManager, and Onna. Nekko Capital has invested in personal-finance app Curve.

The investors offer a range of tips for founders. Spot opportunities where no one else is looking. Have a customer-first attitude. Be flexible and malleable while trying to get the product right. Build a balanced and energetic team.

Learn to do more with fewer resources, and work smarter, not just harder. Build high-impact pitch decks. Think globally and even shift certain departments to other countries. Cultivate ties in the ecosystem.

The book ends with a four-page glossary of terms and a directory of useful resources for startups, such as investors, meetups groups and events. For example, forums and events include Barcelona Global, EU-Startup Summit, GameLab, Sónar+D, and Startup Grind Barcelona.

In sum, the book provides informative and entertaining insights into Barcelona’s startup ecosystem, as well as a useful framework for other cities to reflect on and improve their own startup ecosystems.

Edited by Teja Lele