Some people think governments should stay away from the entrepreneurial world. Yet, some of the most interesting programs we have seen recently, such as Start-Up Chile, are promoted by local authorities.
However, this program is very recent compared to another initiative called Barcelona Activa. If you have traveled to Barcelona lately, you may have noted its talent attraction campaign, “Do it in Barcelona“.
Yet, what you may not know is that Barcelona Activa has been around since 1986. Created as a business incubator with the ambition to promote entrepreneurship in the Catalan capital, it is now the city’s development agency.
From small businesses to Silicon Valley
Besides Barcelona’s City Council, its backers also include the Generalitat of Catalonia and the European Union. Barcelona Activa even received the European Enterprise Awards grand jury’s prize last year, among other reasons for having “helped create 6,214 new businesses and 11,800 new jobs [since 2004]“.
So how can one single entity combine two somewhat contradictory ambitions, widespread job creation and top-of-the-line innovation? This is one of the most interesting aspects of Barcelona Activa. On one hand, its information and resource center attends anyone interested in starting a business, from a bakery to a beauty salon. On the other hand, it also hosts innovative tech startups, and takes a handful of them on a field trip to Silicon Valley each year.
According to its international business growth manager, Rocio Espartero, Barcelona Activa manages this diversity thanks to filters. While some of its training activities are open to anyone, from self-employed individuals to traditional micro-businesses, others involve a selection.
For instance, Barcelona Activa handpicks the startups hosted at its office facilities – 7@ Barcelona Activa and Barcelona Nord Technology Park. It then boosts their growth until it has to gently oust them when their staff becomes too big, Espartero explains.
As for general activities, its Entrepreneurship Centre boasts it has coached more than 134,000 individuals and that more than 222,000 people attend its events each year.
Both ends of the spectrum are essential to the city; while it needs innovation, new jobs are also crucial in a country hard hit by the global economic downturn like Spain.
Barcelona has obvious assets to attract foreign companies and investors, such as its location and its large population (1.6m in the city itself and 4.5m in its metropolis) – not to mention its climate and lifestyle.
Yet, good looks can only go so far – and even a city like Barcelona deserves ambitious urban regeneration programs. One of them is called 22@.
Also known as ‘the innovation district’, 22@ is aimed at transforming industrial land into an intensive knowledge-based cluster. It is home to over 7,000 companies, half of which moved to the area after 2000. Even more interestingly, half of those are startups.
Mobile and tech startups for the Mobile World Capital
When I visited Barcelona Activa’s offices a few weeks ago, one of the things that struck me was the sizable portion of mobile-related startups it has been incubating.
Qustodian is one of them, and focuses on mobile advertising with the ambition to ”put the user in control of what they receive, when and how.” One of its investors is no one less than the Finnish mobile expert and ex-Nokia exec Tomi Ahonen, recently listed on Forbes as the world’s top mobile influencer.
Thinking about it again, it’s not that surprising; last year, the GSMA declared that the Catalan city would be the ‘Mobile World Capital’ from 2012 to 2018. This means that besides hosting the Mobile World Congress (see our coverage), it also hopes to become a hub for mobile innovation.
Yet, Barcelona’s tech scope goes well beyond mobile, and this is also true within the digital world. Barcelona Activa itself hosts a number of Internet startups focusing on other segments. For instance, HallSt is a marketplace for hotel rooms – and could be worth bookmarking for your next MWC stay.
Besides individual startups, Barcelona Activa is also home to SeedRocket, an accelerator for early stage tech-oriented companies.
A few days ago, we learned that one of these, the make-up subscription service Glamourum, had been acquired by the French startup Joliebox.
As a matter of fact, the frontiers between incubation and acceleration at Barcelona Activa is quite blurred. While its public backing means you would expect mere incubation, it is also fairly active in helping startups find financing and grow internationally – hence the trips to Silicon Valley it organizes, among several other activities.
According to Rocio Espartero, it makes sense for Barcelona to help its companies expand abroad; ultimately, the Catalan city still hopes to retain part of their talent and R&D centers. Who was saying public authorities are too narrow-minded to help entrepreneurs?
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