The West Coast of Europe Wants to Be the New West Coast

Lisbon already has an iconic bridge, cable cars, and great surfing. Next year it will have the Web Summit, too.

Welcome to Europe's San Francisco

Picture a city with an iconic golden bridge, trams, bronzed surfers and a vibrant technology industry. San Francisco? Definitely. But what about Lisbon? 

The Portuguese capital already has the bridge, trams and surfers. Now it's starting to show off its tech strength too, with a raft of startups in Lisbon catching the attention of international investors.

Uniplaces was founded three years ago and finds accommodation for students across 38 countries. It has won backing from renowned angels such as Alex Chesterman, founder of Zoopla, and European venture capital firms including Octopus Investments.

Andre Albuquerque, head of growth at Uniplaces, thinks the Lisbon-San Francisco comparison is a valid one. "It's a booming environment and I see a lot of similarities from the energy of the people who are in both cities."

‘Lisbon is typically viewed as Europe's west coast, but obviously there is a tremendous gap in scale and maturity between these two hubs’ // Alexandre Barbosa, Faber Ventures

Meanwhile Talkdesk – a software-maker for call centres – has raised millions from strategic investors, like U.S. enterprise software maker Salesforce.com. Google Ventures has ploughed money into language translator Unbabel.

All three are choosing to build their internationally focused businesses in Lisbon, rather than moving to more mature tech hubs in London, Berlin or California. Not only are they staying, the companies are now starting to attract talent from abroad. Lisbon-based entrepreneurs say many are now rapidly hiring developers from as far away as Asia and Latin America, offering richer lifestyle, full of sun and surf,  in a city that is cheaper to live in than Berlin and London.

"We're seeing a lot of people coming to Portugal from foreign countries, whether it's China or the United States," said Uniplaces' Albuquerque. "We're seeing all the infrastructure rise and be born in the centre of Lisbon and accommodate that growth."

Exuberance and Realism

Lisbon's architecture is not always reminiscent of San Francisco
Lisbon's architecture is not always reminiscent of San Francisco
Source: Getty Images

And the growing start-up scene in Portugal will be boosted when the city hosts Europe's biggest starrtup event – the Web Summit, from 2016.

 Appetite was whet after Lisbon-based Codacy – an automated code review tool – won the pitch competition at the last Web Summit. So after five years in Dublin, the 22,000-strong gathering of innovators, investors and international media will now move to the warmer shores of the Atlantic coast from 2016. It's been quite the coup and there's palpable excitement among entrepreneurs and investors in Portugal.

"I honestly believe Lisbon can be one of the channels of bridging Europe to the U.S.," said Alexandre Barbosa, a founding partner of investor and incubator Faber Ventures.

But amid the exuberance there's also a healthy dose of realism.

"Lisbon is typically viewed as Europe's west coast, but obviously there is a tremendous gap in scale and maturity between these two hubs," said Barbosa.

No Lisbon startup has yet sold itself to a larger company or to the public via a share sale. There's yet to be millions pumped back into the ecosystem by tech entrepreneurs. Lisbon now needs its flurry of IPOs – a Portuguese Zalando or Just Eat – the kind of sale that has spurred continued growth in London and, more recently, in Berlin.

With ambition high, larger funding rounds are just around the corner, Portuguese startup founders say. And the 2016 Web Summit will be the perfect platform to see how the city harnesses the new wave of tech talent now breaking on Lisbon's shores.

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