Contrasting worlds collide in Braga. Past and present, Roman history and nanotechnology, countryside and concrete. Situated among the scenic valleys and rivers of northern Portugal, close to Spain and a 30-minute drive from Porto, it is one of the country’s largest cities with about 200,000 inhabitants.
Despite its rich history, the university-city has the youngest population in Portugal, according to the Institute of National Statistics. It is also ranked as Portugal’s ‘third city’, after Lisbon and Porto, in terms of its number of exports since 2017 and GDP growth since 2014 – at 1% above the national and Iberian average, according to investment promotion agency (IPA) Invest Braga.
Moreover, the city was ranked as the third best location for business in Bloom Consulting’s 2019 Portugal City Brand Ranking. An innovation leader in its own right, Braga files the most patents in Portugal in real numbers, exceeding Lisbon and Porto.
Once a capital of the Roman Empire, Braga is one of the oldest continuously inhabited Christian cities in the world, and boasts the oldest cathedral in Portugal, thereby making it a Catholic landmark and the country’s religious centre. Now the city has evolved into a centre of innovation in Portugal and Iberia.
A degree of success
Following Portugal’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, Braga witnessed explosive growth in its population and economy, especially in the construction and manufacturing industries. However, mayor Ricardo Rio says: “What has had the biggest impact on Braga over the past 50 years was the creation of the University of Minho, which has been a continuous source of population renewal, attracting and producing talent, [research and opportunity].”
The University of Minho, known locally as UMinho, was founded in 1973 as part of a wave of new institutions aimed at modernising Portugal’s education environment and stimulating its economic development. From its inception, the university focused on science and technology, and taught subjects that were previously unavailable to the Portuguese, such as informatics. It now has the leading informatics department in Portugal, according to Rui Vieira de Castro, the university’s rector.
“Being a research university was a clear target for UMinho. It also sought to develop very close links with companies and government agencies. In five decades we have become one of the best in the country,” he adds.
UMinho, a community of 22,000 people, has become a research university of international repute, reflected by its high position in the Leiden Ranking, the Times Higher Education University World Rankings and the Shanghai Ranking.
Of all Portugal's universities, UMinho has received the most EU grants, and is developing some interesting projects with Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon in the US, according to Mr Vieira de Castro. It also boasts the country's only supercomputer. “What differentiates UMinho from other Portuguese universities is our continuous and strong commitment to everything that is around us, especially companies,” adds Mr Vieira de Castro.
Bosch in Braga
Bosch's story stands as a testament to this commitment. The engineering and electronics company has been in Braga since the 1990s, though its growth in added-value activities over the past decade marked a significant turning point for the city.
For two decades Bosch’s Braga branch was assembling fairly basic electronic components, forming part of the wider region's thriving manufacturing industry. “However, in 2010, the company began its partnership with [UMinho]. Since then, the university became an extension of our plant and the growth in R&D has been tremendous. The next phase of research will represent more than €100m into Bosch and our partner universities in Portugal,” says Carlos Ribas, Bosch’s Portuguese representative.
In 2015, the Braga plant employed 1700 people; today, a workforce of 4000 produces electronic products such as car navigation systems. German chancellor Angela Merkel opened the site’s technology centre in 2017, which is now home to several hundred researchers working on sensors and software for automated vehicles.
“Bosch’s evolution leveraged Braga and the university, bringing it attention it didn’t have before. It demonstrated the expertise and the quality here,” says Tiago Miranda, executive director of innovation for bio-sustainability at UMinho. “This started an investment snowball, with large tech companies such as Farfetch, Fujitsu and Accenture setting up here. UMinho’s IT and engineering students are being hired before they end their courses.”
The departure of Braga’s long-serving former mayor in 2013, following a 37-year spell in the job, led to new leadership that set out to transform the city’s business climate. Mr Rio entered office at a time when the financial crisis in Portugal was undermining Braga’s traditional industries, and graduate unemployment in the city was as high as 30%, according to Alexandre Mendes, director of StartUp Braga.
“When Mr Rio arrived, we needed really different solutions and a whole new strategy. So it was really original and effective when he created Invest Braga, [which has been] an engine of growth. He installed an international mindset, telling us we could export knowledge and tech from Braga to the world,” adds Mr Mendes.
Invest Braga was the first local investment promotion agency in Portugal, inspiring Lisbon and Porto to launch their own counterparts. Soon after, Mr Rio set up StartUp Braga, an incubator that has supported 145 start-ups since 2014.
Since its inception, Mr Rio's Strategic Plan for the Economic Development of Braga 2014-26 has attracted significant investment, both local and foreign, such as €256m for the +Industry Programme (which is part of the 2014-2026 plan). Four years after the strategic plan began, 7000 jobs had been created and unemployment was cut by 49% in Braga, compared to 35% in Porto, according to the Institute for Employment and Vocational Training.
Growth has been driven by the city’s key sectors: engineering; innovation and shared services; industry and construction; ICT and electronics; health and medtech; and tourism and culture.
Tourism and special events have played a big part in raising Braga’s international profile, something the city is keen to build upon. The number of visitors to the city grew by 88% between 2014 and 2017, while its accommodation capacity rose by 27%, according to the tourism office. With hotel supply playing catch up, this appears to present a potential investment opportunity. Seven new hotels were opened in 2018, according to Invest Braga.
Braga was also ranked the second best European destination to visit in 2019, after Budapest, by Best European Destinations 2019. The opening of Forum Braga in 2018, the second largest mixed-use event space in Portugal, has boosted visitor numbers and cultural development. For example, it has hosted artists such as Bryan Adams and 30 Seconds to Mars, while the annual agricultural fair attracts 42,000 people over three days. This summer’s international World Dance Cup will host 9000 people.
“I’m from Braga, and there’s a vibrating energy that didn’t exist 15 years ago. Braga’s changed,” says UMinho's Mr Miranda.