Entrepreneurship in the Basque Country: mapping success stories and opportunities

The Basque Country is one of Spain’s success stories thanks to its commitment to innovation, startups and entrepreneurship. Companies like Quantum Mads and Sherpa.io are proof that the District Council understands the future is about supporting talent using a 360º approach

Spain is a country of many contrasts, including where the world of entrepreneurship is concerned. The different communities and regions try to support each area’s talent so that it does not go off in search of new opportunities far from the homeland. The Basque Country, Malaga, Madrid and Catalonia are examples of the fact that the institutions are actively seeking a way to retain entrepreneurs so as to create an ecosystem that benefits both them and society itself, in a reciprocal collaborative relationship.

The Basque Country is one of the most interesting cases in Spain because of certain aspects that make it unique – its geographical position, in the north and surrounded by mountains; its culture, with its own history and language; and its important economic influence within the country, as with a gross domestic product (GDP) of €74.5 billion it is the fifth largest autonomous community.

For years the region has been bolstering its entrepreneurial ecosystem with subsidies, direct assistance, tax incentives and training courses, as well as infrastructure designed to concentrate talent and give tools to those who need them. The aim is to make life easier for the entrepreneurs who are trying to progress their ideas and, while they’re at it, create a sense of belonging that makes their startup loyal to its autonomous community.

Ecosistema fintech pais vasco 2

Quantum Mads, a company that focuses on quantum computing in finances, and Sherpa.ai, a leading artificial intelligence services firm, are examples of local talent that have triumphed while undertaking their activities in the Basque Country. Both companies recognize the efforts made by the District Council and the autonomous community itself to help entrepreneurs.

The District Council and its 360º help for entrepreneurs

The entrepreneurial ecosystem that the Basque Country enjoys today is partly due to the fact that there is real effort on the part of public bodies to support the creativity and ideas that, often, can become business for startups and wealth for the rest of society.

Here’s how Koldo Atxutegi Ajuria, Director of Attraction to Bizkaia, explains it: “From the public side of things we have several ways of helping, and how we do it in the Basque Country is through taxation, to bring it in line with entrepreneurship; financing, seeking alliances and collaboration between companies; and with direct subsidies for those who are starting to work on an idea”.

Our mission is to continue our efforts to modernise the institutions and support innovation

They use different formulae and, after years of applying these measures, the community’s ecosystem has responded well. “We have article 64 bis, which makes it possible to seek financing through R&D&I; an innovation fund; we are bringing ourselves into line with the UN Sustainable Development Goals to support projects that are committed to this vision, and we’re working with the team of Mariana Mazzucato, one of the world’s most influential economists. Our mission is to continue our efforts to modernise the institutions and support innovation,” says the Director of Attraction to Bizkaia. There are numerous companies riding this wave of innovation.

Quantum Mads, computational finance with artificial intelligence

Technological evolution has brought together fields that until now seemed totally different, such as atoms and financial markets. One example of this is the startup Quantum Mad, in which Jon Ander Oribe as Chief Technology Officer (CTO) oversees the creation of new proposals and technological challenges. As a founding partner, Jon Ander believes that without the District Council everything would have been much harder, including now that they are more established.

Quantum Mads works with tech giants like IBM, Fujitsu and Amatech Group thanks to its novel approach of applying quantum computing and artificial intelligence (AI) to real-life problems. They do this in the field of logistics, where they have managed to trace efficient routes in a world dominated by courier and parcel delivery.

Ecosistema fintech pais vasco 3

The CTO recalls how they got started in this area: “We came to light at an IBM hackathon in 2019, at which a group of colleagues – physicists and software engineers – got together to try to respond to the challenges we were presented on solving financial problems using quantum computing. Once that experience was over, and thanks to the synergies that had arisen, we saw that our collaboration could turn into something so we put our noses to the grindstone”.

The Basque Country District Council helped us, supporting us with advice from the very beginning

The team at Quantum Mads still believes that the help they received from the District Council was key to making progress. “We’re very good at what we do, and having that genuine support saved us time on bureaucracy and paperwork, which enabled us to focus more on developing the projects. The Basque Country District Council helped us, supporting us with advice from the very beginning, guiding us to keep growing as a company while the team turned its attention to making our business idea a reality”, highlights Oribe.

Finally, the startup’s CTO offers a piece of advice to all those entrepreneurs with new ideas, which is to “contrast” them with people who know the subject matter and experts who can counter them, “because the more your proposal is revisited and debated, the more solid the idea will become and the greater the chances of success”.

Sherpa.ai, from Bilbao to Silicon Valley 

Sherpa.ai is an example of success born in the Basque Country that now operates around the globe, working with companies like Porsche, Huawei and Volkswagen. Xabi Uribe-Etxebarria, founder and CEO of this startup that also focuses on AI, is of the opinion that, although going outside of Spain may seem the most logical thing to do as an entrepreneur, for customers, opportunities and assistance, there’s something special about staying.

A company like ours could have had an easier journey in other parts of the world, but it’s also true to say that it wouldn’t have been as satisfying

The entrepreneur stands up for the community: “Although it’s a little known fact, the Basque Country has always been very entrepreneurial. Currently it seems that when we talk about entrepreneurship it’s only with reference to technology, but historically the Basque economy has been closely linked to industry. This great ecosystem that we have in the community today is thanks to hundreds of entrepreneurs from all kinds of sectors.”

A promising future with everyone’s efforts

With regard to the work of the District Council, Uribe-Etxebarria recognises that significant efforts are being made to support the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, especially in the very early stages, where there are many young startups. But there’s still “a long way to go for companies in the growth phase, where it’s hard to find funding”.

There’s a long way to go for companies in the growth phase, where it’s hard to find funding

The Basque Country is the fourth community for startups, with 55 of the 854 fledgling companies that Spain has, according to a 2020 report by the University of Navarra’s IESE Business School. The outlook is also promising thanks to private proposals such as Euskalvalley, an initiative unique to Basque entrepreneurs, and BerriUp, a privately backed accelerator that has been financing and training startups since 2015.

As entrepreneurs from the Basque Country and the District Council explain, public-private collaboration, training, infrastructure and economic stimulation are the proven tools to develop ecosystems that represent a future with quality jobs and wealth.

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