Salamanca — startup university?

It’s been an interesting year taking startups across Europe with European Commission’s Startup Europe while at the same time trying to work towards an entrepreneurship community in Salamanca.

A small university town, it doesn’t get a lot of press on startups and entrepreneurship (in fact it seems most of my Google results are about Startup Olé) and certainly not in English, so I’ll take a shot at it.

Does the old inspire the new?

Salamanca, with a bit over 100 thousand people, a beautiful museum-like town on the UNESCO World Heritage List, is better known for its university (one of the oldest in Europe) which hosts around 30 thousand students in various areas — from humanities to hard sciences. In fact, the entrepreneurship division I was inserted in is part of the research group for bioinformatics, AI, smart cities, e-health and so on.

Naturally, the university plays a big role in the ecosystem. Entrepreneurship education programmes like Yuzz run yearly, providing space, support and a chance to get a trip to Silicon Valley for motivated students. The Scientific Park provides physical space for ambitious companies, spin-offs and startups, from Aracnocoptero, Sidisel and ViewNext (an IBM subsidiary) to the controversial MEGA founded by Kim Dotcom.

Salamanca coming together during Startup Ole’s 2016 startup fair

Salamanca is not just the university however — public institutions are trying to catch up on entrepreneurship support through their economic development agency (ADE) with accelerators and other programmes; the Fundación Bases has also put together already some interesting entrepreneurs; coworking spaces have come and gone, with the notable exception of the more holistic Serendipity, that goes for the living space concept, with a nice café, plenty of activities and “also” a working space.

More importantly, community-led initiatives are worth noting: Betabeers has enjoyed some success (noting that Salamanca is always hungry to hear about new developments — if the setting is a bar); Charrosfera’s ambition is to be the entrepreneurship community representatives of the city, with monthly informal meetings, maintaining a calendar and overall just connecting newcomers; makers also have a home at La Caja Maker Space Salamanca — a friendly group who’s always willing to come and show off their creations at our fairs, to the delight of geeks and general public alike.

La Caja Maker @ Startup Ole 2016

Stepping a bit out of entrepreneurship, Salamanca’s cultural and alternative movements make the city quite dynamic, probably owed to the restlessness of students compared to the rest of the population. For example, the hip neighbourhood of Barrio Oeste has an association that brings people together by organising markets, workshops, sports activities, etc.

Some notable success stories from Salamanca would be:

Wayook, an on-demand home cleaning platform, was initially developed by ADE2020’s accelerator programme and then by the renowned Wayra, active in over 40 Spanish cities and competing with big names like Helpling.

BEONPRICE, launched in 2012 in the first of edition of the Founders Institute in Madrid, is a revenue management system specialised in hotels and now with more than a 1,000 clients distributed through 26 countries.

WELCOME’s success story for BEONPRICE

Overall, Salamanca shares many characteristics with Madrid, considered to be the 12th best city for startups in Europe out of 35 in the European Digital City Index 2015. Business environment isn’t great, investment in digital sector is growing but still lacking and the most promising market for Spain is either Europe or Latin America — as English is a weakness for Spanish businesses overall.

Salamanca’s biggest difficulty lies in talent retention: as the city’s attractiveness for job opportunities and young people is outshined by Madrid, graduates move out and many promising projects get sucked to the hub. On the upside, connections between both cities are improving and Salamanca’s cost of living and running a business is still significantly lower. Entrepreneurship culture is still weak and local industry is traditionally based on agriculture — mostly known for Jámon — cured ham.

How to pave the way forward?

Firstly, ecosystem needs a bit of coordination: various initiatives (university tech transfer events, betabeers, technical workshops) are hard to find. There’s no “one place” to figure out the ecosystem and very real need for a player who’s really taking the responsibility of engaging both the community and policy makers to make it grow to the next level.

Secondly, the main raw material in Salamanca are its students and the university can do much more to reinvent its own traditions and promote a connection between academia and enterprise, stimulating tech transfer beyond the “soundbite”, engaging companies to get more involved, essentially taking a more committed role to the ecosystem.

Thirdly, Salamanca needs to position itself strategically in its region. With Madrid, it risks continuing a one way relationship when there are plenty of possibilities of making it a win for both. It also can serve as stronger connection within the region Castilla y León, one of biggest in Europe, with nearby cities like Valladolid and Zamora, regions like Galicia or Andalucía (both with stronger startup culture) and even neighbouring Portugal.

Wishing Salamanca the best of luck, it’s been a pleasure!