Technological ‘start-ups’ that nest in the emptied Spain | Technology
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In Caunedo, a town of 42 inhabitants embedded in the Somiedo Natural Park, Daniel Suárez had to talk to the mayor to have fiber optics installed. This was before Zapiens, his start-upwhose artificial intelligence software is used by clients such as Microsoft, Vodafone or Ikea, will operate from the Asturian valleys, where cows and green meadows abound, but not technological entrepreneurship.
Caunedo is one of those towns that, far from large urban centers, have lost population and economy to gain in average age and oblivion. Apparently, it is not a conducive environment for a start-up cutting-edge technology. The data from the study prepared by the analyst firm Informa D&B are clear. From the set of start-ups Spanish —80% of them would be based on high technology services— there are 60% in the Communities of Madrid (27%), Catalonia (almost 23%) and Valencia (10%).
In Asturias, according to the document, only 1.37% of the start-ups from the country. Communities with a wide extension of territory have a much lower rate of entrepreneurship than the large economic poles. In Castilla y León there are 2.24% of startups, in Castilla-La Mancha there is 1.91% and Aragón has 1.86%.
One of the exceptions is Roams, an online comparator that has prospered in recent years from Palencia (where one of the most visited websites in Spain, Forocoches, is also based). In 2021 they served more than 16 million users and invoiced around 1.5 million euros. They began by analyzing telephone rates, redirecting potential customers to brands and now they have been introduced into financial products, electricity and gas contracts, alarms or video games. They have also expanded internationally, to Mexico, Colombia and the United Kingdom.
Why was Roams established in Palencia? Eduardo Delgado, founder and CEO of the company, gives the simplest answer: “Because I am from Palencia”. He explains that running his business from a small town has its advantages. “Palencia has given me many things. The first one is to be focused on this project. Because when you’re in a big city it’s very easy to get lost. Opportunities arise that you have to take or lose. And that throws you off track,” he notes.
The economic question appears early in the equation. “Palencia has also allowed me to assume very low operating costs. Both the cost of an office and the cost of the people who were there, all of them young, that we could have more broad sleeves when betting on this long-term project. If we had done it in Madrid, no one could afford to live there for two pesos”, says Delgado.
Daniel Suárez, CEO of Zapiens, also gets tongue-tied when he talks about the benefits of running his start-up from Caunedo. “Going to nature, to a quieter place, has allowed me to get out of the maelstrom, the rush and running around all day with my backpack. It has allowed me to stop and think again”, she sums up.
The Somiedo Natural Park has “8,000 cows and 500 humans”, as Suárez says, with a mixture of sarcasm and pride. In his case, the pandemic gave him the push. He was returning from the United States to Spain on March 8, 2020 to sign a contract with a client and was surprised by the declaration of the state of alarm. He decided to go to his town while he waited for things to calm down. And until today. From time to time he travels for work and spends some time in San Francisco or Seattle, but then returns to the Asturian valley.
Moreover, Caunedo has become something like the de facto headquarters of the start-up. Of the 23 people who work at Zapiens, there are five who already live there. “It’s where we make the withdrawals. Once a quarter, the whole team comes for a week”, highlights Suárez. “And we bring customers here. Instead of us going to a tower, to the 70th floor, where they can’t think because they’re all stuck, they come for two days, drink some ciders, relax and you can talk to people and not to the characters”, he quickly sums up , with clear ideas.
Creating a business or running it away from the economic poles has its challenges. The report Spanish Tech Ecosystem, of the consulting firm Dealroom.co, indicates that most of the investment in start-ups Barcelona and Madrid take it, with a lot of difference with the rest, 4,600 and 2,800 million euros respectively, between 2015 and 2021. Valencia is the third, with 506 million, and the rest are much further away. In the ranking of 12 cities with the highest investment presented by this study, there is only one Castilian-Leonese (Salamanca, with 56 million) and there is no La Mancha, Aragonese or Asturian city.
Another difficulty that is often mentioned is the problem of finding talent. In this aspect, the CEO of Roams has his own opinion of him. Palencia is 40 minutes away by bus from the University of Valladolid, so there is no shortage of graduates. But his company also has a different approach. “Palencia is not going to give you the best server scalability expert. But if you know you need it, you can subcontract it for a while, to train your team and to audit your work for a few months,” says Delgado. “The important thing is to learn from the best. And of these there are many that provide advisory services, so we have opted for training”.
A vibrant ecosystem of digital professionals is another benefit that big cities offer. But in Caunedo they have provided means to create their own. “As CEO of Zapiens, I am also interested in digital nomads coming, because you meet talent and generate collaborative networks,” says Suárez, who chairs the Sustainable Rural Entrepreneurship Association. Through it they have brought a gym to the town, a co-working and a supermarket. And now there are activities like yoga classes or after beers. Not even in terminology do they have anything to envy a startup incubator in Madrid.
The idea is that the experience in Caunedo serves as a pilot project. Next year they want to expand the model to other towns.
The role of public institutions
Regarding the support of public administrations for this type of emerging companies, Delgado has a severe point of view: “The lip service is 100, the reality is 0. Promises have been made to us from all institutions”, the entrepreneur leaves the phrase in the air to indicate that they are not usually fulfilled.
However, the institutions can help solve the lack of resources. This was verified by Suárez when he managed to bring fiber to Caunedo. That happened four years ago. He promoted a meeting with the mayor and two private companies: LP, Eléctrica de Portugal, which has a power plant near the town and were clients of Zapiens, and the operator Telecable.
“I spoke with them and told them ‘hey, since the fiber reaches the plant, throw it ten more kilometers and the whole town already has it’.” He convinced them that this way they could attract digital nomads already start-ups. And Zapiens could set up an office there. For now the plan is fulfilled. And, furthermore: “Fiber is better for me in my town than in San Francisco,” says Suárez. “Because the whole joint arrives and there are not a million people consuming it, so we have all the bandwidth for four geeks.”
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