Could Portuguese startups make it in Pittsburgh?
Entrepreneurship is the answer to Portugal’s economic woes. This means that Portuguese entrepreneurs have to get their startups beyond the border and into some broader markets. In Portugal startups face the constraints that come with being in a small geography. Of course, the rest of Europe is one opportunity. Another is Brazil (common language). But the US is the vast opportunity ocean. So a third option is Pittsburgh.
Why Pittsburgh? Pittsburgh is a great soft landing base from which to expand throughout the US. In general, Pennsylvania has a lot in common with Portugal. The two are about the same size and same population. Whereas we have Philadelphia and Pittsburgh as the two anchor cities, east and west, Portugal has Lisbon and Porto, south and north. Pittsburgh offers a climate of innovation, partnership and support of entrepreneurship that foreign startups cannot find in other cities. Plus landing some startups that already have customers, revenues and a clear US market entry strategy could be important to us and to our regional economy. We pay attention to these companies, working closely with them to understand their needs, which in turn drives value creation. In other US cities, such foreign startups might be one of many, and they risk getting lost in an over-populated entrepreneurial ecosystem. So, last week, several Portuguese companies visited Pittsburgh to explore setting up operations here. Who are these companies? They are software; they are healthcare; they are social media: faces.in, FeedZai, Observit, and TreatU (featured last fall in New Venturist).
Why Portugal? It starts with the Carnegie Mellon-Portugal Program, which links CMU to the nine major technical universities in Portugal (located in Aveiro, Coimbra, Lisbon, Madeira, Minho, and Porto). In addition, a Portuguese government-sponsored initiative called the University Technology Enterprise Network (UTEN) partnered with CMU, Harvard, MIT, and UT Austin to stimulate entrepreneurship in this small but vital country. UTEN brought several of us involved in entrepreneurship at CMU over to Portugal during 2011 to give seminars and workshops. These trips made us aware of two fundamental things:
- The Portuguese have entrepreneurs and the entrepreneurial spirit in abundance; BUT
- The Portuguese do not inherently know how to position themselves for the hyper-competitive US market.
Several posts on New Venturist plus profiles of Portuguese entrepreneurs emerged from these realizations. As entrepreneurs we recognized the need, knew that we could solve the problem, and so we started something new: a CMU-Portugal Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) program. And CMU embraced this program as a pilot for future relationships around entrepreneurship in other countries. CMU has a vast international reputation, and increasingly an international presence. So perhaps Portugal is the first of other such EIR programs that foster entrepreneurship around the globe and increase an international contingent of startups in Pittsburgh?
The Portuguese were here. For the Portuguese onsite last week, my colleagues, Tara Branstad (of CMU’s tech transfer office) and Dave Mawhinney (of the Don Jones Center for Entrepreneurship), and I set up meetings with immigration attorneys, lawyers specializing in international corporations, regional resources, funders and, most importantly, one-on-one interactions with potential customers, investors, and strategic partners.
Two key events framed the visit. Last Wednesday evening, AlphaLab hosted Innovation Happens, which is a regular program to introduce startups and big companies. Managed by fellow entrepreneur Sean Ammirati and several others, this event featured the four Portuguese companies, plus another company, Orka, founded in Bosnia by a PhD student in the CMU-Portugal program. Each company speed pitched for five minutes as groups of potential industry partners, funders, and fellow entrepreneurs moved from table to table to listen to all five. The next Innovation Happens event will be held on March 29 at AlphaLab (more info and to register at http://www.pittsburghinnovation.us).
Last Friday afternoon, the visit closed with a reception at CMU and an International Showcase where the four Portuguese companies, plus two companies by students in the CMU-Portugal program, presented investor pitches hoping to secure some seed capital to come to Pittsburgh for more than a visit.
The companies in a nutshell:
- TreatU solves the problem of chemotheraphy side effects in breast cancer by providing a novel drug delivery mechanism that both bombs the tumor and starves it to death.
- Observit has a comprehensive video surveillance software system and has penetrated 25% of shopping centers in Portugal and has begun to make inroads in Brazil.
- FeedZai solves big data problems with Pulse, a real-time data management software system, targeting utility and energy companies.
- Orka provides solves problems of document management through an enterprise-level content management platform.
- faces.in leverages an existing partnership with Vodafone in Europe to provide a fast and fun way to discover friends nearby using geo-location and social networking on both smartphones and legacy phones.
What’s next? We sent the companies home to Portugal on Saturday with lots of things to consider: Do they set up a corporate entity in the US? In Pittsburgh? Who is on the ground here? How do they springboard from Pittsburgh across the nation? The entrepreneurs have follow-up phone calls, Skype calls, emails and mailings to conduct. They have to talk to their shareholders, boards and founders. They have a lot to think about because we, Pittsburgh, knocked their socks off, entrepreneurially speaking!
This article appeared in PopCity on Wednesday, February 15, 2012.