Gary’s name might remind you of an actor from the 1960’s, but he isn’t one, in fact Gary Stewart runs the Spanish branch of Wayra, Telefonica’s accelerator program aimed at cultivating startups (more in article), which has gone to help several startups become successful, which in turn have created jobs in their societies. Graduated with first honours from the Yale University (Political Science) and then he went on to graduate from one of the most prestigious Law schools of United States, the Yale Law School. He is not only academically successful, but also as an entrepreneur with his startup Nuroa (property search engine) that has raised over €3m in financing. He can be seen attending one of the many startup events around Spain, where he would be scouting for the next Wayra success story and helping them to get Spain on its feet. Follow him on Twitter!
This past week, we celebrated Wayra Spain’s two-year anniversary. “Celebrated” is actually too strong a word. Like an old married couple, we reminisced about how it all started without otherwise indulging in ostentatious celebrations.
I still remember when I was first introduced to Wayra. It was in May 2011, and I was running the Venture Lab at IE Business School. I was intent upon trying to plug the top-ranked business school into the international entrepreneurial ecosystem, so I had invited speakers from Israel, Jordan, Singapore, the US, the UK, Germany and France, among other places, to IE’s Venture Day. Luckily, I’d also invited Carlos Domingo, the CEO of Telefonica I+D, to participate on a panel on corporate innovation. He asked me if he could invite Gonzalo Martin-Villa to the dinner that we hosted for the speakers, and I said: “Of course!” Later, they invited me to “Distrito C”, Telefonica’s corporate headquarters. They told me that Telefonica wanted to launch an accelerator and asked somewhat discreetly if I knew of anyone who might be interested in running it in Spain.
I must admit I was a bit skeptical and certainly did not see myself working for Telefonica. “Surely, this must be some sort of marketing ploy”, I reasoned. Working in a large multinational had never particularly appealed to me, and I could not understand why Telefonica wanted to get involved with start-ups. For me, Telefonica was a huge “elephant” not particularly identified with start-up innovation and thus had never previously entered into my consciousness, except for when my monthly bill from Movistar arrived. Also, being from the U.S., I’d never taken the time to appreciate fully Telefonica’s size or wealth. Luckily, one of my mentors, Jesus Encinar, advised me not to underestimate Telefonica. Chastened by his recommendation, I did my research and discovered that Telefonica is one of the world’s largest telecommunication companies, present in 24 countries with a staff of 130.000 professionals, approximately €29 billion in consolidated revenues and 317.3 million customers. Given this scale and power, I figured that Telefonica had a better chance than most to stir the Spanish entrepreneurial ecosystem.
Two years later, I am happy to report that Jesus was right. Since that initial conversation, Wayra has launched 14 “academies” in 12 countries and invested €9.4 million in 295 start-ups. In Spain, 28 start-ups have graduated from our academies in Barcelona and Madrid with 20 more currently being accelerated. Of those 28, 20 have received €6.1 million in third-party financing.
And we’re just getting started.
When we are no longer being politically correct, many people often ask me if Spanish start-ups can truly compete globally, and my answer is an unequivocal yes. I have certainly had my more pessimistic moments (see here or here), but I think that times are a-changing, thanks in part to Wayra and Amerigo (VCs funds in which Telefonica has invested heavily). When I first started, many Spanish start-ups did not have global aspirations and/or tended to focus on cloning US start-ups. After having reviewed more than 2000 applications to get into Wayra Spain, I can now say without a doubt that the main problem for Spanish start-ups is not a lack of creativity, but rather has been a lack of role models and success cases that inspire them to believe that they too can conquer the world.
This is no longer the case. We now have a pioneer first generation of digital start-up “success stories” such as Zaryn Dentzel (a Wayra coach who sold Tuenti to Telefonica for approximately €80 million); Gustavo Garcia Brusilovksy (a Wayra mentor who sold BuyVip to Amazon for about €70 million); Iñaki Berenguer (a Wayra mentor who sold his company, Pixable, to SingTel for about €20 million); and Miguel Arias and Francois Derbaix (two Wayra mentors who sold their companies, Imaste and TopRural, for reportedly more than €10 million in each case). Slowly but surely, Spanish start-ups are seeing that “yes, we can”.
And even though we are way too young to begin extensive conversations about exits, the early indicators of success of Wayra start-ups such as Marfeel (which raised €1.6 million from Nauta, BDMI and Elaia) and Cognicor (which raised €700.000 and was voted the best start-up in the EU) are encouraging. These companies are already launching internationally, taking advantage of the reach of their international investors, including Telefonica.
What’s more, I now understand that far from being a marketing ploy, Wayra arguably portends to the future of Telefonica, which is to “Be More” than a company that offers telecommunications infrastructure.
So as I stop reminiscing about how it all started and return to the present day, I am more optimistic than I have ever been about the future of Spanish start-ups. I now know that Spain has the talent, the start-ups and increasingly the networks and support from leading multinationals like Telefonica that will allow it to attract global VCs and acquirers. Nothing is life is guaranteed, but I like the odds.
Written by Gary Stewart and Bosco González del Valle