The past decade has seen Braga become an innovation hub for Portugal and the wider Iberian peninsula through its thriving start-up ecosystem and world-class specialisms in medical technology and automotives, to name a few.

In other words, Braga has talent. The city files the most patents in Portugal in real numbers, exceeding Lisbon and Porto, and has the country’s second highest rate of higher education students in science and technology, according to Portugal’s Institute of National Statistics.

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Talent machine

The backbone of Braga’s talent pool is the University of Minho (UMinho), one of Portugal’s leading research universities, ranked among the 150 best in the world for institutions under 50 years old, according to the Times Higher Education’s 2018 ranking. 

UMinho accounts for about 10% of Portugal’s scientific research, a higher figure than the university’s proportion of national researchers, according to Invest Braga. The clinical research centre 2CA, based in UMinho’s medical school, hosts 40% of Portugal’s clinical trials.

The city is also home to the International Iberian Nanotechnology Laboratory (INL), an inter-governmental research centre. For three consecutive years, INL has submitted more patents to the European Patent Office than any institution in Portugal.

Triple helix

Braga is also an example of the ‘triple helix’, where innovation and economic development are led by university-industry-government collaboration. Triple-helix ecosystems accelerate R&D through knowledge transfer, application and financial support.

The mayor of Braga, Ricardo Rio, has pushed this agenda since taking office in 2013. “[My] biggest impact [has been to gather] public, private and academic players around the same table, and align the strategy of the city’s growth,” he says. This led to the creation of Invest Braga, Startup Braga and other initiatives to bolster growth and internationalism.

Mr Rio has built on Braga’s existing culture of industry partnerships. For example, UMinho was founded in 1973 with the express desire to develop close links with companies and government agencies, according to Dr Rui Vieira de Castro, the university’s rector, something it has successfully achieved.

Collaborative labs

UMinho recently partnered IBM [and INL], within the quantum field of ‘computation’ as part of the university’s collection of ‘collaborative laboratories’ aimed at developing research for the needs of companies, such as IKEA and Renewal, according to Mr Vieira de Castro.

“[Accenture Portugal] has partnerships with other Portuguese universities, but UMinho is probably the best university in working directly with industry and companies. It is very open to this, whereas others can be inward looking,” says Susana Mata, managing director of Accenture Portugal.

This is no surprise, since northern Portugal – especially Braga’s Minho region – is known for its commerciality and industriousness, according to Tiago Miranda, executive director of UMinho’s Institute of Bio Sustainability.

UMinho’s partnership with Bosch, which dates back to 2010, has drawn particular international attention. “[The university] became an extension of our plant and the growth in R&D has been tremendous,” says Carlos Ribas, Bosch’s Portuguese representative.

The company’s facility employs almost 4000 people producing electronic components such as car navigation systems, and has several hundred researchers working on sensors and software for automated vehicles at Bosch’s Technology Centre, which was opened in 2017. Technology produced at Bosch Braga is used in 80% of all new vehicles, worldwide, according to Invest Braga.

Crisis solved?

Braga’s tech ecosystem has also been nurtured by Startup Braga, an incubator set up by Mr Rio to assist start-ups in reaching international markets, and within three areas: nanotechnology, health technology and digital economy.

“These three [sectors] are where Braga can be most competitive for international standards, driven by the huge tradition in Portugal, specifically in Braga, to develop IT companies. Many of the largest were born in Braga or [have been started by] UMinho’s alumni, [such as tech unicorn Farfetch],” says Alexandre Mendes, director of StartUp Braga. He adds that Braga was hit hard by Portugal’s financial crisis and, in 2014, when Startup Braga was established, graduate unemployment in the city was as high as 30%, so creating jobs through innovation was a solution.

Startup Braga has supported 145 startups since its inception, creating 400 jobs and raising €26.9m. The organisation does not finance these start-ups, but provides office space and expertise though its network of industry partners, such as INL. This network is what distinguishes Startup Braga from the 145 other incubators in Portugal, in another example of Braga’s ‘triple helix’ approach in operation.

“[Thanks] to the mayor’s alignment strategy, what makes Startup Braga unique and effective is our huge alignment between the city’s 24 largest stakeholders, companies, the national employment service, and UMinho,” says Mr Mendes.

One of the most successful companies to come out of Startup Braga is Swordhealth, a provider of remote physical therapy based on sensor technology. It now operates in the US, and recently secured about $8m from in funding Khosla Ventures. Startup Braga’s record has earned international recognition, with applications from 12 countries in the latest round of its acceleration programme.

Welcome to Braga

Indeed, Braga’s flourishing tech ecosystem has attracted numerous foreign companies. For example, Japan’s Fujitsu employs 500 people in the city, and Ireland-based Accenture opened a technology delivery centre in 2017, now home
to 250 people providing support to clients in Europe, Africa, North America and Latin America.

“[We invested] in Braga to benefit from [UMinho’s] high-quality technical skills and Braga’s young population, [with many people aged between] 20 to 30 years old. Also the cost of living, compared with Porto or Lisbon, is very attractive, as is the proximity to Oporto Airport,” says Ms Mata at Accenture Portugal.

“Although young, our Braga branch has a good reputation. An area that we are developing is robotics and artificial intelligence, and we’re going to work with OutSystems in Braga,” she adds.

OutSystems is one of Portugal’s most successful software companies – a platform for web and application development – now headquartered in the US, similar to Portugal-founded Farfetch, which is now a London-based online fashion retailer valued at more than $1bn. Both companies have R&D centres in Braga.

London-based cybersecurity company In:technical is planning to move to Braga due to the talent and industry cluster in the city, while Israel’s Checkmarx, also in cybersecurity, already employs 200, says Mr Mendes.

Bringing locals home

With so much business coming to Braga, alongside the global war for tech talent, will the small city of Braga run out of tech wizards?

“Talent supply is currently our biggest challenge. That’s why we launched the ‘Talent Project’, in which we gathered Braga’s 25 largest companies to [discuss their employment needs]. Separately Braga [is benefiting from immigration]. We have received more than 10,000 Brazilians in the past two years, on top of attracting people from Portugal,” says Mr Rio.

Moreover, Braga is seeing increasing numbers of Portuguese citizens remaining in the city, or returning from abroad as the national economy continues to recover, according to Mr Mendes. Little wonder Invest Braga’s marketing slogan is: “Mom, I’m staying in Braga. Don’t worry.”