Lisbon’s Big Players Combine Forces To Create Super-Accelerator: Smart Open Lisboa

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Bashara Hinnawi, Program Director at Portugal's newest accelerator Smart Open Lisboa, spoke to us about how joining forces will influence Europe's startup scene:

Smart Open Lisboa is a vertical accelerator run with the purpose of “upgrading city life”. Initiated by the Municipality of Lisbon, this accelerator is distinguishing itself from it’s competitors through its list of highly connected partners: Cisco, Portugal Telecom, Tourism board of Portugal (Turismo de Portugal), Beta-i and Startup Lisboa.

I sat down with Program Director, Bashara Hinnawi, to discuss what makes their program unique and how it could affect the future of Lisbon’s and – possibly – Europe’s startups:

What makes Smart Open Lisboa (SOL) different from any other accelerator?

One of main factors that makes SOL unique is the fact that it was initiated by partners that have a great deal to contribute with regards to technology, contacts, resources etc. Most acceleration programs have a real problem with implementation; having the buy-in of customers, creating a pilot and getting proof of concept in a short period. But we have these great partners which means that we can provide our startups with the right data and connect them directly to the optimal clients. This way, startups can achieve tech and marketplace validation more quickly.

The startups are connected with their clients and this drives the process to be faster – they can’t just sit and wait around because the client is demanding results and pushing them to test and amend their model. It all happens at a very fast pace.

Could you give us an overview of what SOL is and what it focuses on?

Smart Open Lisboa is an implementation program for startups that work within at least one of four areas: Sustainability, Mobility, Citizen Engagement, or Tourism & Culture. The main objective of the program is to “upgrade city life” for everyone.

We attended a number of open-data meet-ups before hosting a hackathon from which we selected the top 8 startups that we wanted to continue to work with.

At which stage would you say these startups were at?

It was a mix: During the hackathon we weren’t really analysing the ideas and were more focused on the teams that were working together. We focused more on the team because we believe that if the team is strong, it doesn’t matter what idea comes out, (in most cases) it will be good and implementable. We selected 8 out of the 27 teams that participated. In addition we scouted 2 additional teams from other events we attended.

We matched the teams to our partners which helped by providing valuable data and necessary clients. The startups were then given a 6-week experimentation phase where they were able to use the city of Lisbon as their laboratory, validating their models with key partners and potential clients.

Can you tell us more about one of the success stories?

One of the startups we met through the hackathon, Visor AI, created a bot that helps respond to Frequently Asked Questions. During the experimentation phase they were able to develop a solution and implement it with the municipality of Lisbon. Working with municipality during the experimentation phase, they were able to save the municipality 70% of time spent with these communications. That’s a huge amount of resources that can now be redirected to other projects.

Smart Open Lisboa seems like it’s an especially good model for startups that need large buy-in from clients like the local government. Is the model just for public issues or can it also be applied to other areas?

I do not agree that this is only for the city. If you take any startup and let them pass through all the phases that happen through SOL in a different environment, you are able to get more or less the same results.

What do you think can be achieved when all these partners join forces to foster startups?

I think that, on the partners’ side, there is a still a learning curve. They don’t know yet what they can achieve together and we are, through these programs, able to show them what is possible.

There are other issues in terms of open data; One of the initiatives of the municipality is to get open data from these companies/partners – at the moment most of large companies are trying to sell this data with little success. But I think eventually they will see that they are able to gain much more by releasing this data freely and getting back from the startups and the ecosystem.

Do you think that will eventually happen?

Yes, I do! I’m the most sceptical person, so when I say “I do”- it’s because I have been proven wrong in past.



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Photo credit: Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi via Visual Hunt / CC BY-SA