Algarve becoming “So Cal” Cool for Startup Entrepreneurs

 In Features, News, Start-Up

Portugal’s popular sunshine holiday destination has the potential to develop as a startup hub for enterprising Americans and Europeans. The Algarve Resident spoke to RedBridge founder Jonathan Littman to discover why.

Text: Chris Graeme Photos: RedBridge

RedBridge, a movement to build a dynamic cross-border CA-Portuguese community of young, talented, and inspired technology entrepreneurs, began in Lisbon, but now is spreading its wings to the Algarve. The creation of Californian and Portuguese founders – Jonathan Littman, Hugo Antonelo, Paulo Gaspar, Nathan Hadlock, and Filipa Pinto de Carvalho – the non-profit club has been building bridges between San Francisco and Lisbon for startups and initiatives, and in a little more than a year has held 14 events at its HQ in the capital’s Rua Victor Cordon, and two at sister club, Shack15 in San Francisco.

Now RedBridge is looking at the Algarve as a potential additional draw for Californian and international entrepreneurs because the region has it all — a wonderful lifestyle, lovely weather, beautiful beaches, and bags of potential to become an innovation Mecca not unlike San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

RedBridge hosted “Bust out of Lisboa: Algarve 2.0” at the club’s Palácio in Lisbon’s Rua Vitor Cordon on July 6 featuring Miguel Fernandes, the founder of the Dengun Startup Studio & Digital Agency, who moved to Faro after living in Macau, China, and Célia Meira, a top marketing manager and brand expert from the region.

Dengun Digital Agency is staffed with talented website creators, designers, marketing specialists, and restless data researchers who design strategies for companies to boost their brands. Meanwhile, the Dengun Startup Studio has deep experience in creating amazing products and simplifying business ideas. “We asked ourselves why, when the Algarve is such a great holiday region with so much to offer, is it so broken with a lack of entrepreneurs trying to build businesses?” Fernandes told the international RedBridge crowd of 130.

A graduate of computer sciences from the University of the Algarve or UAIg), Miguel explained how several years ago he and his group of like-minded innovators had approached the Dean, Paulo Águas, met local mayors and central government figures and ironed out a strategic plan to jumpstart the ecosystem into becoming more innovative: “We managed to get €10 million in funding and with help from the UAIg built the UAlg Tech Campus which was officially launched in March 2022”.

The UALG TEC CAMPUS – Startup Accelerator’s (Algarve Tech Hub) main objective is to boost the expansion of the technology ecosystem in the region.

A less hectic lifestyle

Miguel is not the only professional who sees bags of potential in the region. Célia Meira, Marketing Manger for ROS Retail Outlet Shopping who has been closely involved with Designer Outlet Algarve and its first anniversary celebrations, has watched the Algarve attract talented fashion designers, artists and musicians. Célia hailed originally from Paris, although her parents are Portuguese. Studying marketing and communications at the prestigious Sorbonne she began a career in communications in Paris – then fell in love with the Algarve on holiday.

“I left Paris after 25 years to take a holiday in the Algarve and discovered really lovely people here. I just loved the lifestyle which you simply don’t have in Paris, especially the connection with nature and the people. Yes, it can also be busy and stressful, but it is different because when you want to disconnect you can”, she reflects.

Both Célia and Miguel were invited to speak about their experience at the July 6 RedBridge event sponsored in part by João Ricard Costa, Director of Sales and Marketing of Ombria Resort, who offered two nights free at the Ombria’s Viceroy Hotel from a prize draw.

The 130 or so RedBridge members and their friends chatted and networked in the balmy informal riverside setting where ‘lulas á algarvia’ and other treats were washed down with fine vintages from Arvad Wines of Estômbar, Algarve.

Redbridge – building transatlantic bridges

RedBridge has been busy lately. Early April it joined forces with 42 Lisboa, a programming school, with an event called ‘Darkness and Light: The Journey of a Startup Founder’ at the school’s Lisbon premises in Arroios, and then later that same month, led ‘The Mystery of the Mantas’ at the Oceanário aquarium in Lisbon’s Parque das Naçōes.

In May, members of the San Francisco and Lisbon startup communities shared experiences at ‘Ride Portugal’s AI Wave’ at San Francisco’s Shack 15 – a social space dedicated to entrepreneurship, community, and big ideas — which featured a conversation with the founder of the Portuguese machine assisted translation unicorn Unbabel, Vasco Pedro and RedBridge co-founder Jonathan Littman. RedBridge has become so successful it is now planning The RedBridge Lisbon Investors’ Summit October 23-27 that will widen the scope by bringing in serious tech investors from California, Asia and Brazil to meet top Portuguese startup founders and venture capitalists to discover and engage with the Lisbon tech ecosystem.

Says RedBridge founder and best-selling innovation author Jonathan Littman: “Although we are RedBridge Lisbon, and as such are very much a Lisbon-San Francisco club with most of our evens in the capital, I see the Algarve as Southern California, and I know the attraction among Californians to visit the Algarve is high. It’s a perfect fit for Californians and many internationals from Europe who want the 300 days of sunshine, easy access to nature and the beach”.

Célia Meira was drawn to the Algarve for another important reason. “I wanted to start a family and realised that Paris and the Algarve were too different worlds when it comes to raising children,” she told the crowd. “I am very glad that I made this choice.”

Her first job in the Algarve was at a real estate agency run by English people. “I soon realised that many companies were not paying much attention to their marketing strategies and communication which is my field. When I started connecting with people you start to see developments. My advice is to connect with people, talk about your business, be brave and go for it!”

Célia says the Algarve still has huge untapped potential and really could be the new California dream.

The entrepreneur recognised that fashion, an area she loves and had a close connection to in Paris working in the fashion retail world, was missing in the Algarve. Célia knocked on the door at Lighthouse Publishing – the company that publishes the magazines Vogue Portugal, GQ Portugal and The Wrong Magazine – and suggested shaking up things in the Algarve and making things happen.

Vogue was open to the idea and the result was the 1st ‘Vogue Loves Fashion Festival’ in collaboration with Designer Outlet Algarve which attracted 45,000 people.

Célia moved to the area 11 years ago, and says that today she loves the fact that the Algarve is now all about art and fashion, culture and a cosmopolitan life. “It is really buzzing and a completely different life.”

Building a startup ecosystem

Miguel’s path to the Algarve was also unusual. Born and raised in Cartaxo, near Santarém, at the age of seven his family moved to Macau where he stayed until he was 19. “It was very different from Cartaxo which has 5,000 inhabitants to suddenly be in Macau with a population of 1 million squeezed into a space the size of Faro.

“I started to hate population concentrated metropolises so I returned to Portugal and ended up in the Algarve by coincidence. I was 20 and I’ve stayed here and been successful so far,” he confides.

Miguel had wanted to study computer science at university, but he needed to have both Mathematics and Physics and he only had Mathematics. “The only university that would take me was the University of the Algarve which had been my sixth option,” he admits.

“I had no family or friends in the Algarve, but I felt it was far better and more spacious than places like Malaysia and Thailand which I had the chance to visit but were so crowded and humid,” Miguel recounted. Though just in his teens, he had been building websites since 1993. “I found I could use my experience with technology to help the actual university with websites, and that gave me the confidence to get involved in startups.”

Miguel, who by then had founded the Dengun Startup Studio & Digital Agency, decided to build a startups ecosystem because there “simply wasn’t a community with an entrepreneurial mindset to innovate, so I began to enlist the help of friends with a similar vision”.

Reinventing the Algarve

Jonathan Littman says the Algarve is being reinvented. “It’s no longer just a place for Europeans to retire. There is culture, fashion and art, and from a Californian’s standpoint the Algarve is just two and a half hours driving time from Lisbon, which for Californians is nothing.”

Jonathan, who knows the California tech community in Portugal like the back of his hand, says that they see Lisbon as a new San Francisco and the Algarve as Southern California, adding that he will eventually explore bringing the Alentejo region into the RedBridge fold. “As entrepreneurs we have to be very focused, and while our main focus is in Lisbon, I see partnerships with the Algarve and Alentejo.”

The work that Miguel and others are doing in the Algarve – a magnet for digital nomads – particularly in Lagos, is critical in this process of giving another life to the region beyond tourism and the traditional local expat community. Says Littman: “These amazing local and international entrepreneurs are creating a startups ecosystem that will bring benefits for the Algarve and Portugal as a whole.”

Concludes the native Californian: it is my dream to have more great Portuguese companies on board at RedBridge, and because I am lucky to have a partner like Hugo Antonelo of Funnyhow whose marketing and events agency knows how to stage corporate events in a novel and unexpected way, we can debut more great work from brilliant Portuguese founders.”