Surfing the crest of an innovation wave – Why tech companies are choosing Portugal as a European expansion launchpad

 In News, RedBridge Lisboa, Start-Up, Unicorn Factory Lisboa, Unicorns, Venture Capital

From healthcare and content streaming to sustainable proteins made from bio-organisms, the steady flow of technology startups and scale-ups moving to Lisbon from Europe and the US seems relentless. Essential Business checked out three innovative companies at RedBridge Lisbon last week.

Text: Chris Graeme; Photo: Marie Bacelar

US Entrepreneur and investor Craig Allan Ahrens often tells a story that illustrates how innovative technology — or lack of it — can make a very real difference to people’s lives, particularly when it comes to loved ones within the family sphere regarding healthcare.

His father had suffered from fast-onset dementia but was being taken care of at home with his family rather than in a nursing home.

When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Craig’s father was placed in a facility because he had no other choice. He sadly passed away simply because there were not sufficient nursing staff on duty to tend to him 24/7. “There was no one there when he passed out due to falling oxygen levels and he subsequently died,” recounts the founder/investor of Centre for Healthcare Workforce Innovation and Technology, and Shiftmed

The story illustrates a very real example of how nursing staff can impact family daily. When someone needs to be there to take care of the sick and elderly in whatever situation, but are often left alone because of staff shortages with all the potentially fatal consequences.

It is one of the reasons why Craig is so passionate about society, not just in the US or Portugal, to take care of and respect families and their sick and infirm relatives in any situation. And with the use of technology, particularly AI, such tragic situations might never have to occur.

Portugal as an AI centre for healthcare

Craig says that there are many places in other areas of the world looking for the kind of highly skilled labour Portugal has, and such people do not even have to move to another country; they can work remotely using tools such as Administrative Overhead for HR and Finance. And there will always be need for a skilled workforce since artificial intelligence models need people and processes to learn from.

“AI is only as good as the data it is fed, and it will take years for that to develop and be perfected. Organisations will still need to retain a workforce if only because of the information they are creating that AI is based on.”

Craig predicts that there will be a transition or migratory process and that he is looking for a place in Europe that leads in AI and thinks Lisbon would be an excellent choice for both AI centres and the healthcare organisational workforce.

The global AI in Healthcare market has been valued at US$20.9Bn (2024) and is estimated to reach US$148.4Bn by 2029 according to the report ‘AI in Healthcare Market – Global Forecast to 2029’.

With an estimated Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 48.1% for that period, the growth of AI in the Healthcare market is being driven by the generation of large and complex healthcare datasets, the pressing need to reduce healthcare costs, improving computer power and declining hardware costs, and the rising number of different domains in the sector, as well as a growing need for improvised healthcare services due to the very nature of the imbalance between the healthcare workforce and patients that Craig refers to from his own very personal story.

For example, Craig points out that Madeira has an AI hub – Startup Madeira Smart Islands Hub. “There are a lot of synergies and developers in Portugal and Lisbon and there’s an opportunity to do some good and help leverage the skilled population here and build an AI hub to service other areas of the world,” he said.

The impact of streaming on businesses

Fhabyo Matesick, the EU Territory Manager of Watch Labs, a scaleup that offers end-to-end technology for streaming, (It began life as a spinoff from streaming technology solutions company Watch), is another entrepreneur, this time from Brazil, who came to Lisbon, returned home, and is now back.

Fhabyo points to Portugal’s tremendous development and transformation over the past 20 years into a “more open and multinational country”.

“I was away from Portugal for 15 years and when I returned in 2017 with a startup that I founded on the back of Web Summit (based in Lisbon), I saw a completely different Eco-system and economic situation (Portugal had suffered badly during the Great Recession between 2007-2014) and returned in 2019.

“We saw an opportunity to bring this streaming technology and business to Portugal, and we believe that we are strategically placed here in Lisbon – as a Brazilian company we naturally have no language barrier — for the rest of Southern Europe, and even for Africa, and I think that all of us are riding the crest of a new wave and we want to be here to surf that wave”, he says.

Watch Labs offers a distinct combination of propriety product development and strategic partnerships with industry giants and has established an ecosystem that directly tests and implements solutions and technology.

This collaborative approach involves engaging with an extensive base of over two million potential clients actively using its technology daily.

And Watch Labs has partnered with RedBridge to launch their expansion from Brazil and Latin America via Lisbon where they are setting up a streaming hub.

But how can streaming have an impact on different kinds of businesses? Fhabyo says that streaming has created a “democratic movement for content producers” and soccer, for example, is one of the most powerful content producers in the world.

“We are seeing Portuguese global teams like Benfica and Sporting starting to change the way they negotiate with the TV channels to broadcast their games. However, they are not yet able to effectively exploit this streamed content,” Fhabyo says.

And adds: “With streaming you can create your own space to stream your content. In the case of football, it can be your matches, training, interviews, or behind the scenes footage, and all this can be organised in one space where the fans can access exclusive first and playback content for a reasonable price.”

Fhabyo also points out that it provides a great opportunity for the players to cash in on this content. “The fans are hungry to have exclusive content and will pay to see the matches. They often already pay to see Cable TV and with streaming they can forge a much deeper experience with their club.

The time is now!

With the growing need for sustainable protein world-wide, MicroHarvest is aiming to produce nutritious, sustainable proteins to create a resilient food system for the future using microorganisms, considered the world’s most efficient protein factories.

Luisa Cruz, the co-founder, and CEO of the biotech company MicroHarvest, which opened offices and labs in Lisbon in 2022 with the support of its partner Madan Parque and has ambitions for the company to become a future unicorn, is an example of positive action.

The Hamburg-based German startup she set up with partners Jonathan Roberz and Katelijne Bekers has built a pilot factory to produce proteins in Lisbon after netting €8.5 million in Series A investment led by venture capital companies Faber, Astanor Ventures, Happiness Capital and FoodLabs, which also supports startups committed to companies with a commitment to revolutionise the food system and human health.

Born and raised in Lisbon, Luisa spent 14 years in the Netherlands and returned to Portugal with “fresh eyes” after hearing so many foreigners saying great things about the city; “positive sides of Lisbon that I, born and raised here, but because I had been away for so long, hadn’t seen”.

After a spell in corporate companies, Luisa and her co-founders wanted to produce large amounts of alternative protein for the market and all from sustainable food sources.

They started in Germany because of the investors network, particularly for the highly developed food space, was so advanced, although Germany, while still growing, does, she says, still have talent limitations in this specific sector.

“It’s very challenging hiring in Germany, whereas in Portugal you can harness very creative talent with mastery of several languages, while offering Portuguese expats an opportunity to work on and exciting and innovative projects back home,” explains Luisa.

“We have experienced a lot of foreigners, including Germans, wanting to work in Lisbon. I realised Portugal had changed a lot and had become this vibrant hub in the high-tech software development market, but also with a willingness to create new foods for industry, and this was the right time to jump in and bring our partners from abroad,” she adds.

Having had experience recruiting both in Germany and Portugal Luisa thinks that in terms of education, particularly technical engineering, Portugal has some great universities, not just in Lisbon, but in the regions of the Minho, Aveiro, and Porto, with top quality graduates with excellent technical skills.

From the very start MicroHarvest, which is based in Hamburg but has a subsidiary in Lisbon and sells to the world’s markets, has placed an emphasis on English language skills. “Everyone we recruit in Portugal has a good fluency in English and we do get a lot of applications from abroad, meaning that if we need people with experience in certain fields that we can’t readily find in Lisbon, it’s been relatively easy to attract people from abroad who are willing to take a risk on a startup and join us.”

A unique multi-cultural talent source

Craig Ahrens, whose Center for Health Workforce Innovation and Technology is based in Colorado, and is also CGO of Washington-based ShiftMed, the latter offering on-demand healthcare by building internal ‘float pools’ leveraging a network of over 350,000 credentialed healthcare professionals, agrees that Lisbon is the perfect talent pool.

The US investor in health tech says he has chosen Portugal in which to live part time when not in the US because of the hospitality of the people and the “unique multicultural aspects that are difficult to find anywhere else” in terms of the confluence between Africa, Latin America, and Europe.

“The amount of talent of all different ages from diverse backgrounds, sharing ideas, a culture of openness, one that is innovative, and that does not expect upfront renumeration, is unique. It is something that San Francisco had 15 years ago and is incredibly special”, said Craig encapsulating some of the myriad reasons why technology startup and scaleup companies move to or open a branch office in Portugal.

But Craig says that while all of this has “inspired” him, it is not just about business, but also art and culture.

“The energy and mix of cultures are visible in Lisbon and that convergence of people leads to creativity and opportunities. But the key is how do we harness those opportunities?” He asks Craig who in the US developed and refined the ‘Uberisation’ marketplace approach for workforces in healthcare systems, defined as an on-demand, clinical workforce marketplace approach and platform to increase flexibility, reduce costs, and create a stable workforce ecosystem in the face of demographic demand trends.

Lisbon, he says, has created an environment with the potential to harness a unique point in history where people from all over the world are moving to the Portuguese capital for all manner of reasons, thanks in part to various governments which have fostered an open-door policy to investors and creative talent.

Craig admits that shift has caused some problems and challenges — the skyrocketing price of housing pushing locals out of the market may certainly one of them — but stresses: “It’s our job to change some of that and I’m seeing optimism, sincerity and a practical nature here in Lisbon to solve some of these issues”.

About RedBridge

The event ‘The Hot Tech coming to Lisbon You Haven’t Heard About’ was organised by RedBridge Lisbon and moderated by Portuguese journalist and author Marta Dhanis.

RedBridge Lisbon started in 2020 to connect tech startup founders, entrepreneurs and creative professionals between California and Lisbon (and the rest of Portugal). Founded by best-selling author and writer Jonathan Littman, marketing guru Hugo Antonello (FunnyHow) and Nathan Hadlock (Pela Terra Fund), and Filipa Pinto de Carvalho (co-founder AGPC|HERE Partners), its vibrant community includes founders, lawyers, artists, authors and journalists.
The community currently has 140 members and different informal networking events with panel speakers, some of which are based at Redbridge’s Lisbon HQ on Rua Vítor Cordon and Shack 15 in San Francisco. The community is now building bridges between Portugal, the US, UK, France and Brazil. Since last year, it has partnered with Lisbon’s LX Unicorn Factory, Startup Lisboa, and partners with Unbabel (the Portuguese language and automated translation unicorn), 42 Lisboa (a coding school), and LBC, HERE Partners, HealthTech Lisboa, and AGPC.