Over the past five years, Portugal has climbed the European Innovation Scoreboard, which ranks EU member states’ research and innovation performance. In 2020, it joined the second-highest grouping alongside Germany, France and Ireland. This progress is reflected by exporters’ tech advancements in everything from engineering to artificial intelligence (AI), machinery to digital transformation. 

In the case of MTEX NS — a company headquartered just outside of Porto which develops and manufactures digital printing technology — it has even led to breakthroughs in fighting Covid-19. “Last year, we directed our knowledge and resources towards the creation of a disruptive and unique equipment line in the cleaning industry for the disinfection of fabrics and objects,” says chief executive Eloi Ferreira. 

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Phys sterilisation cabinets’ ability to inactivate Sars-Cov-2 has been certified by Spain’s University of Zaragoza and is a revelation for clothing outlets needing to keep garments virus-free. The technology’s effectiveness depends on an exact balance of ozone gas, temperature and time, and took many iterations to finalise. 

Industry 4.0

Phys would not have been possible without the firm’s research and development (R&D) operations which, unlike its competitors, are not outsourced. “We’ve made a substantial investment in R&D and doing it in-house is the key to success,” says Mr Ferreira. “Within days, we can take a product from idea to assembly. This speed to market is what differentiates us.” And it is also helping Portugal compete with digital printing leaders, Italy and Japan. MTEX NS recently developed a digital textile dyeing machine for Spanish group Nextil, which will dye fabrics to be used by Adidas.

Since 2019, all MTEX machines have been configured for Industry 4.0 which, Mr Ferreira says, is crucial for any quality product in the sector today. “They are self-sufficient, intelligent and can be serviced remotely,” he adds. “I know how our machines in the US are operating, how many pages they are printing, and so on, which means we can do preventive services.” Indeed, the US is its biggest market, followed by Spain and the UK. 

Another sector with big Industry 4.0 ambitions is plastic injection moulding — the invisible yet vital process behind myriad everyday and specialised objects. Despite its small size, Portugal is a leader in the area of precision manufacturing. And based on the vision of José Carlos Gomes, chief executive of local business GLN, the sector is not resting on its laurels. “My vision is to put sensors inside the moulds, connect them with the injection machine and robotics, and then automate the entire process,” he says. “This is Industry 4.0 and we are investing in it because we believe it will be the ‘new normal’ for our sector.” 

Despite being a small to medium-sized enterprise, 42% of GLN’s capital expenditure this year is dedicated to innovation. “Once you enter down this path, you must be willing to invest a lot,” says Mr Gomes. The firm has partnered with research centres to develop products involving augmented reality. For example, GLN has collaborated with CEIIA, Portugal’s Centre of Engineering and Product Development, to create a surgical helmet which allows doctors to view X-rays, communicate with colleagues and — thanks to an air conditioning solution — keep cool during surgery.     

Taking on the US

A start-up making waves internationally is DefinedCrowd, a one-stop-shop for training data for AI systems, including chatbots, virtual assistants and everything in-between. Founded by Portuguese-born Daniela Braga and headquartered in Seattle, DefinedCrowd collects data from more than 300,000 people spanning almost every country via its crowdsourcing platform Neevo. 

“We collect our data following best industry standards and using an interface that connects with people on a large scale,” says Ms Braga. “That gives us diverse and unbiased representation of demographics in the data, which is crucial to recognise individuals of different ethnicities and dialects.” It also means users are paid and fully-informed about how their data is used.

Clients include BMW, Mastercard and IBM. For the latter, DefinedCrowd is improving speech recognition engines for its much-touted Watson Assistant. This requires inputs that reflect the firm’s business clientele. “As a B2B company, we need to ensure the content is specialised by sourcing people who have that knowledge or can simulate those scenarios,” says Ms Braga.  

DefinedCrowd is already a leader in conversational AI, which is growing at a compound annual growth rate of 30%, and 45% of its investment is in R&D. The goal is to become a world-recognised, industry-agnostic brand.

“We can already supply governments, banks, education — anything really,” says Ms Braga. “Last year, we realised we are no longer a company with one product. Instead we offer a suite of products for all training data for all the world's AI needs. That is an important milestone.”

Other milestones include a string of accolades, most recently including a nomination for Digital Europe’s 2021 Future Unicorn Award.

Europe, South America and beyond

Another Portuguese tech firm with a truly global offering is Readiness IT, which helps businesses digitally transform their operations and improve customer experience. Just six years after setting up shop in three Portuguese cities, it has opened offices in Chile, New Zealand and Peru, and worked in more than 50 countries. 

Its clients include Ericsson, T-Mobile and Verizon, testament to Portugal’s telecoms expertise which is leveraged by 150-plus mobile operators worldwide. But Readiness IT is working with all sectors, serving the likes of Hewlett-Packard, BMW and Oracle.

One solution which chief executive Adérito Ferreira describes as a “game-changer” for one client is a so-called ‘omnichannel’ platform which gives retailers a single, holistic view of each account. “Any customer can now choose the buying channel that suits them best, and be assured that they will have a great customer experience,” he says. “It offers flexibility for our clients to reach new markets and customers without having to support the costs with big call centres, back-offices or sales force.” 

Be it telecom services or machinery, tech advancements are bringing Portuguese exports to the fore. “Dependence on the Chinese market is no longer a must,” says MTEX NS’s Mr Ferreira. “We can create the same valuable products here, and with all the assurances and precautions provided by European law.”

This article first appeared in the February/March print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.