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Lisbon: Rise of the entrepreneurial spirit

Posted by Chad O'Connor  October 10, 2012 11:00 AM

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The World Class Cities Partnership, an international research collaborative of municipal governments and universities headquartered at Northeastern University, is currently leading a delegation of Greater Boston's business, civic, academic and non-profit leaders on its annual Policy Exchange Mission to explore the Azores and Lisbon, Portugal. Portuguese officials are sharing their expertise in waterfront redevelopment, the innovation economy and an entrepreneurial ecosystem. Delegates will bring back their findings and look for opportunities to share and apply them in the Boston area, beginning with the WCCP's annual Chatham Forum.

LISBON – Is the "entrepreneurial city" something that can be created and, if so, is it something that can be sold? Lisbon has answered "yes" to both questions. If it can be sold, is there something that Boston can learn that it doesn't already know? Are we open to that learning opportunity as a great city?

To remain a world-class city, Boston must actively embrace the spirt of the entrepreneur through goal-oriented policy, simple but relevant incentive programs, and workable and practical partnerships between all municipal, educational and private stakeholders.

On day two of the World Class Cities Partnership's (WCCP) policy exchange mission to Portugal, delegates were inspired by a variety of exciting ideas and approaches. These innovative strategies ranged from Invest Lisboa, a powerful partnership of the municipality, Portuguese Chamber of Commerce and the Portuguese business development agency, to Beta-i, a MassChallenge-like organization offering program winners substantial non-cash incentives such as free living accommodations during the incubation period.


WCCP learns about Startup Lisboa

WCCP delegates learned that, more than anything, Lisbon acknowledges "the entrepreneur" as a specific sub-set of the economy with a unique set of needs which are often overlapping but often very different from a traditional, corporate business entity. The city recognizes the importance of good public policy that both increases the rate of entrepreneurship and the success of those companies. Lisbon goes beyond being "business friendly" to being a city that is a "start-up facilitator."

Startup Lisboa is an incubator sponsored by the City of Lisbon and has been created through the "participatory budget" process (see the previous entry in this series), a system that allows citizens to determine what projects should get funded. "I think it's wonderful that Lisbon and its people have embraced the incubator concept," comments WCCP delegate Paul Weisman and President of SMART Conversations. "More importantly, I'm very impressed with how the various start-ups mostly have international teams and how, in each case, that team mix has added tremendous value to the company's overall global outlook."

Delegates met with Paulo Carvalho, General Director for Economy and Innovation, and a member of the Lisbon City Council. Despite Lisbon's economic challenges, the city recently created this new, important position. "Lisbon's strategy is simple," remarks Carvalho. "Lisbon is moving beyond its known identity and its objective is to be one of the most creative and innovative cities in Europe, and we are very focused on partnerships and alliances to make things happen." WCCP delegates could not agree more. "Collaboration and cooperation are the fundamentals of the innovative and entrepreneurial economy," said Phil Johnston, a first time WCCP delegate and President and CEO of Johnston Associates. He adds, "and this means that everybody in the community has a stake in the future, in the creation of a successful economy." Does Boston or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts need an agency or a director to act as the traffic controller, the facilitator, the expediter, the catalyst for a strong innovation-based economy?

WCCP representatives had the wonderful opportunity to listen to presentations from a half dozen Lisbon entrepreneurs who were working out of the Startup Lisboa space. When each was asked "Why Lisbon?" they offered similar sound bites: "Lots of talent," "Low cost talent," "Ease to set up the company," "The city is small enough to use as a test site," "The ability to live in a beautiful city at a reasonable cost." These are the attributes that entrepreneurs value when determining whether to remain in Boston or move their business elsewhere.

"We continue to hear about the importance of a streamlined and 'regulation-appropriate' process to launch a business," said Michael Lake, WCCP Executive Director. "Boston and the Commonwealth have the opportunity to achieve both and become more attractive to entrepreneurs and investors." The delegation met with Nick Gately, a 2010 Northeastern University graduate and entrepreneur currently living in Lisbon. Symbolic of those who have chosen to leave Boston, Nick opened a very successful hostel in Lisbon as well as a walking tour company. He said that Lisbon has embraced hostels, recognizing the power of word-of-mouth promotion among travelers. Is there a more entrepreneur-friendly balance of regulation and flexibility?

Lisbon is working with a "micro-site" concept that will result in a network of eight incubator locations by the end of 2012. In addition to the development of niche sites, they are in the process of developing an online portal system that will connect all of the incubators over time. The portal will provide information on start-up programming and education, information about incubator tenants, opportunities for collaboration, and targeting by potential investors.

Simply put, Lisbon acknowledges the unique needs of the entrepreneur. Building the entrepreneurial city is about leveraging the past, about leveraging what put a city on the map in the first place. It's also about defining and redefining the opportunity, whether it be urban development, an economic engine, talent retention or a combination of some or many more objectives. More than anything, building the entrepreneurial city is about acknowledging the important role that entrepreneurs play in re-positioning the city from what it once was to what it must become. Is Boston ready? I think so...and we seem to be well on our way.

Kevin P. Martin, Jr., CPA, MST, is Managing Director of Kevin P. Martin & Associates, P.C., a Boston-based CPA and business consulting firm specializing in economic development, start-up and technology companies.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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