Catalonia: main start-up hub in southern Europe
The figures back the reputation of Catalans as entrepreneurs and place Catalonia as the main hub for start-ups in Southern Europe. 1,902 start-ups were active at the end of last year, 26% more than before the pandemic, and the Generalitat aims to have more than 4,000 by 2030.
By the end of 2021, Catalonia had 1,902 start-ups, 11% more than in 2020 and 26% more than at the start of the pandemic. These companies, with a turnover of 1.71 billion euros, employ 19,307 people, according to a study by Acció, the Catalan government’s competitiveness agency.
If we analyse the evolution of the Catalan start-up ecosystem since 2016, the first year for which data is available, the number of start-ups has grown by 75%. This progression places Catalonia, and especially Barcelona, as the main startup hub in southern Europe.
Number of start-ups in Catalonia
Catalan start-ups attracted 1,479 million euros in investment last year, 246% more than in 2020. This turned Barcelona into the sixth city in the European Union with the greatest capacity to attract investment, according to Dealroom.com, and the fourth with the most investment rounds, behind only Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam.
Profile of Catalan start-ups
The Acció report reveals that almost half of these companies operate in the deep tech field, i.e. they are based on scientific discoveries or engineering innovations. In this regard, it highlights that 36% of them use artificial intelligence and big data as a fundamental element of their business model.
In terms of sectors of activity, the most numerous are those linked to healthcare (16%) and business services (13%). They are closely followed by ICT (7%), tourism and leisure (6%), finance (5%), food (5%) and energy (5%).
Most of these start-ups have gone international, with three out of four having customers outside the country, and the most widespread business models are e-commerce and marketplaces (20%), software as a service (17%) and subscriptions (13%).
The report also shows that Catalan start-ups have been growing in terms of staff and turnover in recent years. In fact, there are currently six unicorns in Catalonia, which are start-ups valued at more than one billion dollars. They are Adevinta, eDreams Odigeo, Letgo, TravelPerk, Wallbox and Glovo, although the German food delivery platform Delivery Hero has become the main shareholder of the latter, with more than 80% of the capital.
A privileged position
It is undeniable that today Catalonia has more start-ups than ever before, with a turnover, employment and investment attraction at record highs. The Government of Catalonia believes that this ideal position is the result of the efforts of many actors, with a prominent role from public-private collaboration.
In the opinion of Mathieu Carenzo, professor in the Department of Entrepreneurship at IESE Business School, Barcelona’s success is based above all on three elements. On the one hand, “its power to attract international talent, mainly from Europe,” which is fundamental because “entrepreneurial ecosystems tend to grow as urban hubs.” In addition, the city has “a network of universities, business schools and training institutions that provide the appropriate knowledge to generate innovation.” And finally, the existence of “success stories,” as evidenced by the six unicorns, which facilitate the self-sustainment of the system.
The Government of Catalonia has set itself the target of exceeding 4,000 start-ups and reaching 15 unicorns by 2030. In fact, Roger Torrent, Minister of Enterprise and Employment, estimated a few weeks ago that five or six start-ups could reach “a turnover of 1 billion by 2022.” One of the priorities to achieve these objectives is to promote deep tech start-ups, such as Factorial, UserZoom and Red Points.
Acció has planned actions to facilitate the financial analysis of start-ups to help attract international investors, as well as advice into accessing funds from the European Innovation Council Accelerator. In addition, Acció’s Startup Capital line has evolved to focus on the deep tech field, with direct grants of up to 75,000 euros non-refundable to promote the initial phases of this type of company.
Three major challenges ahead
According to Mathieu Carenzo, the main challenges facing Barcelona as a hub for entrepreneurship in order to achieve its goals are related to the retention of talent, technology transfer and relations between the local and foreign entrepreneurial ecosystems.
While Barcelona has a great capacity for attraction, in Carenzo’s opinion, the capacity for retention “is not as strong because salaries are not entirely competitive in comparison with other ecosystems such as those in London, Paris or Berlin.” In addition, this specialist in entrepreneurship warns that it is necessary to “find a more effective ‘modus operandi’ of technology transfer to transform the incredible innovative, scientific and technological potential of our universities and research institutes into successful companies.” A third challenge is a “certain disconnection between the ecosystem from abroad and the local ecosystem, which need to be more deeply integrated in order to grow even more.”
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