7th December 2022
Unicorns in the Algarve? Local entrepreneur believes the region has what it takes to attract start-ups, investors and digital nomads

The region is already attracting remote workers and digital nomads. And a community is sprouting to create a series of structures to welcome, attract and keep them.

In layman’s terms, unicorn companies are those that reach a valuation of $100 million in the fields of innovation and technology. Miguel Fernandes, co-founder and CEO of Dengun Startup Studio & Agência Digital, an Algarve company that helps innovators succeed in this competitive world, believes that the region has the potential to welcome more and new start-ups. And, who knows, maybe turn one of them into a global “unicorn”.
Not long ago, Fernandes welcomed in his office, at the Penha campus of the University of the Algarve, “people who make investments in start-ups of between €500,000 and €2 million a month, who have moved to our region, and who have come to talk to us about what we have at hand in terms of new ideas to invest in. And, above all, to give them guidance”.

This is because Dengun has two major purposes: “To help businesses grow by improving their digital presence and strategy, which involves improving websites and ecommerce platforms with an integrated and holistic digital marketing strategy”.
“We have over 1,000 clients and have been doing this for 15 years. The other branch is the Startup Studio to systematically create new digital ventures. Of course, what pays our bills are the services we provide, but since we opened, we have channelled and reinvested all the money into developing start-ups, staff training and furthering our knowledge. Many companies have grown from our employees working today in various unicorns globally,” he says.

As for the Algarve, Fernandes believes it is a very attractive region to live and work in. “It’s the best place in the world, in my opinion. Portugal has visa programmes for those who want to come and work, study or do business here. I think we should present these to the world as a great asset”, especially for remote workers and digital nomads. “We want to attract people with an entrepreneurial mindset, with know-how and who bring with them knowledge to create new things. And we have to organise those as a community. A lot of people may want to go to Lisbon or Porto if they feel that there isn’t a critical mass here, or that the region is not cosmopolitan enough. We have to show them everything that is happening here to combat that feeling,” he says.

Algarve Tech Hub Summit is a new event that aims to “foster a sense of community”

“Right now, we have an event to attract these people, the Algarve Tech Hub Summit, which allows anyone from the region or from outside to understand the regional ecosystem. We present ourselves with a single voice. And there will be news in 2023. This event is starting to foster a sense of community,” reveals Fernandes. For those who come with their families and school-aged children, “there are educational resources at UAlg, the ETIC_Algarve technical school and the new Geek_Lab, and there are schools with curricula in English” in Loulé, Vilamoura, Lagoa and Lagos.

“We have already had international businesspeople come here and tell us that it ‘smells’ like New York”

On the other hand, one of the new regional infrastructure developments to host start-ups is the new UALG Tec Campus building, in Faro, managed by the Algarve STP Association, where Dengun has one of its offices, alongside multinational companies such as Deloitte. “In my opinion, it is already starting to show results. We have already had international businesspeople come here and tell us that it ‘smells’ like New York. It is good and refreshing to be able to represent the Algarve in this light. But it is just one infrastructure; there are others” in the region ready to receive entrepreneurs.

As for the quality of research and development works in the Algarve, Fernandes gives Dengun’s track record as an example. “We have worked with companies from Silicon Valley, from New York and, more recently, from Austin, Texas. We have worked with a number of unicorns and helped them grow from here, from the Algarve to the world. One such company is 15Five, which is one of the largest start-ups in the world in the Human Resources Tech area. This is extremely important because it proves that there is intelligent life here,” he stresses.
“When I met the CTO of 15Five on one of my trips to the US, we started doing very sporadic work and helping them with the more complex programming part. We were subcontracted to handle all the logistics, the backend, and server configuration. We also did the website. Aside from making us very proud, all this gave us great visibility in the world of start-ups from several perspectives. They liked our work so much that they kept asking us to help more and more. Today we are one of their only partners, apart from the internal team. I think that in the last investment round, they got another €50 million,” he points out.
Fernandes also argues that new start-ups wanting to set up their business in the Algarve in the STEAM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) should also consider aligning with local strategic themes, such as RIS3 Algarve (Regional Research and Innovation Strategy for Smart Specialisation), Sea and the Blue Economy, among other niches. Even in tourism. “I can list some activities of people who have come from abroad in the last five years. For example, The Modernist project. A couple of entrepreneurs who came directly from Paris to Faro with their family, who saw in the city’s Modernist architecture a giant communication potential to boost their Local Accommodation units. They are employing people and generating wealth,” he says.
“The path to follow, according to the strategy we have planned with various stakeholders, is part of the Algarve Tech Hub brand. There is a plan with 60 proposed actions that, in an open-source concept, open to contributions, allow us to reach a kind of technological hub in the next five to 10 years,” he details. “Obviously, our aim is to create the conditions to attract new companies.”

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