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Zoom on Spain

Spain has become a technological leader in fields from mapping to aeronautics to graphene production.

Last October Sergio Álvarez Leiva turned 30. “I’m getting depressed”, he joked. Despite his youth, he has been creating and running successful companies for eight years. The first was Vizzuality, dedicated to visualisation, analysis and cloud-based services for Big Data. And in 2012 he started CartoDB, a company with cool clients that everyone in the start-up ecosystem is talking about.

Basically, CartoDB is a tool that allows anyone to create and share visualisations of geospatial data in the cloud. The interactive map published by The Wall Street Journal on U.S. election night in 2012 was made using CartoDB. Since then, more than 130,000 clients including Twitter, NASA, Google and the UN have adopted this tool for mapmaking. Álvarez and his partner Javier de la Torre recently announced the closing of a $23 million financing round to expand the company. “Our goal is to bridge the gap between science and decision-making,” Álvarez explains as he sits at CartoDB headquarters in downtown Madrid.

Yes, Madrid – the capital of a country with an unemployment rate of 22.3% overall and 48.6% for youth, the worst in Europe after Greece. A country in which the money, time and patience needed to start a business are often in short supply, and where previous failures are not, as in America, admired as proof of initiative and risk-taking.

CartoDB is an example of a successful Spanish company created during – and despite – the economic crisis that began in 2008. It has become the poster child of a vibrant technological sector that ranges from one-person start-ups to global giants.

Spirit of innovation

South Summit, a tech conference focused on start-ups in Southern Europe and Latin America held in Madrid in October, displayed hundreds of examples of this innovation spirit. Spanish-speaking countries overseas have been a powerful market for Spanish entrepreneurs, though, as in the case of CartoDB, they are also focussed on conquering the English-speaking world. “The key is to think big, and always in English,” says CartoDB’s Álvarez, who has a subsidiary in New York.

The telecom giant Telefónica, with millions of customers in 21 countries, is involved in the start-ups phenomenon through an international program developed for funding entrepreneurs (up to $50,000) with the best ideas in the field of technology. This “start-ups accelerator”, called Wayra, offers not only financial support but also a workspace and network of mentors and investors.

Often the difficulty for Spanish entrepreneurs is translating an innovation to the market. One of the pioneers was Avelino Corma, founder of the Institute of Chemical Technology in Valencia more than 20 years ago. Now 150 people work in this world centre for catalysis, photochemistry and new materials. Another is Celia Sánchez-Ramos, recognized by the UN as The Best International Inventor in 2009. She set up the spin-off Alta Eficacia Tecnología, owned by the Complutense University of Madrid, to market products related to patents in optometry, biometrics and neuroscience.

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Deimos 2

Spain’s Deimos 2 satellite is used for mapping and observation of natural phenomena.

Enjoy but don’t touch

Some Spanish technological innovations can only be enjoyed, not seen. The Palencia-based Fundación Santa María La Real develops and installs small sensors that monitor historical sites to prevent damage, save energy and avoid robberies. The Walls and cathedral of Ávila and dozens of Romanesque churches are controlled by the Monitoring Heritage System. Among Spain’s larger successful technological leaders is Elecnor Deimos, which has built a €60 million Satellite Integration and Operation Centre in the heart of La Mancha, where Cervantes located Don Quixote. From Puertollano (Ciudad Real) and Boecillo (Valladolid), the aerospace company operates and controls its high-resolution satellites Deimos 1 (the first Spanish and European satellite funded entirely by private capital, launched in 2009) and Deimos 2 (in orbit since 2014). They are used for mapping, agricultural surveys, observation of natural phenomena and management of natural disasters and humanitarian crises. The U.S. Agriculture Department uses the data taken by this pair of satellites, which were sold in June to Canada’s UrtheCast for €76.4 million.

High-tech production

Remember graphene, the wonder material of the 21st century? When it comes to production of this extremely strong, light, two-dimensional, flexible, carbonbased material, Spanish companies are world-class. Jesús de la Fuente, CEO of Graphenea Nanomaterials, founded in 2010 in San Sebastián, explains that his company sells graphene to more than 400 customers in 53 countries, including technology giants like Intel, Nokia, Philips, Sigma- Aldrich and Infineon. All the graphene produced is used for research: electronics applications, batteries, composites and biosensors. The market is still very small – $12 million in 2014, of which Graphenea’s market share is 10%. But as the market grows – analysts expect $100 million in 2020 – the Spanish player will be there.

“Spain is a bridge to Latin America”

As the founder of Spain Startup, María Benjumea organizes Madrid’s annual South Summit, which showcases innovations from southern Europe, the Mediterranean and Latin America.

Technologist: How important is the Latin American market?

María Benjumea: It’s huge, with big potential. Mexico, Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil are part of a very interesting market, with cultural affinities, but they represent only a part of it. Nowadays there are no language barriers: Spanish start-ups are not focused only on Latin America becausewe do everything in English. On the other hand, investors from northern European countries are very interested in innovations from Latin America and use Spain as a bridge to reach them.

T. Should Spain try harder to keep its start-ups from being bought by overseas companies?

M. B. The market and talent are global so we can’t put a fence around our fields. It’s a good thing Spanish companies are successful, and I’m not afraid that some of them are leaving. Spain is already an attractive country for start-ups, and actually companies from other countries are coming here. I think we should try to make Spain even more attractive for them, simplifying things and creating better fiscal conditions to encourage them to stay.

Sunny success

Known for its sunshine, Spain has successfully developed a world-class solar energy industry. One of the major players is Power Electronics, a family company that has transformed itself into a multinational with more than 1,000 employees, 40% of them with university degrees.

The expansion began in 2001, when Abelardo Salvo and his son Amadeo opened the first branch in Germany. Now they have subsidiaries in the U.S., the UK, India, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and South Africa, not to mention many Latin American countries. “Our growth has always been sustainable and steady”, says Amadeo Salvo, the company’s vice president. “To become a multinational in less than 15 years you need a strategic plan and committed employees”, he adds.

“You have to reinvest 100% of the profits every year, invest huge amounts of money in research and development and build a brand image in every new country.” Salvo laments Spain’s lack of mechanisms to promote technology exports. “To be considered a premium brand we also need to make a bigger effort with our Spanish customers than in countries like the U.S., where the quality of the product is recognised no matter where you come from”.

Sergio Alvarez Leiva, María Benjumea