As Covid restrictions ease across Europe, the South Summit tech conference returned to its physical format in Madrid this week – open for up to 9,000 attendees from the startup, investment and corporate worlds – with talks spanning five stages and VIPs including the country’s King Felipe VI and Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.
Running three days straight from October 5, the conference was also streamed online as part of the hybrid format that’s increasingly the events norm today. Offline, the talks were spread across five designated spaces, plus a big exhibition hall, in La Nave, a refurbished 12,300-plus-sqm former elevator factory in Villaverde, a working-class neighborhood in the southern outskirts of Madrid.
That’s a lot of space for the participants to wander about – the conference normally welcomes more than 20,000 – but the number was deliberately capped this year for safety in social distancing, one of the key requirements for returning to a physical conference.
“We want to go back to the physical world because we know that networking is not the same [when done] digitally,” Marta del Castillo, CEO of Spain Startup, the company running the South Summit, said in a phone interview. “All the connections and strong relationships are usually built in-person.”
This relationship building, she says, is the very edge that differentiates South Summit from other startup conferences in Europe. “Our focus is in the networking and the business results,” she stressed. “It’s about, how can we get people connected? To make deep connections. That doesn’t come from being seated and listening to talks.
“So, we designed the whole event, with the five stages and all kinds of networking events, small interactions and one-on-one meetings [thrown in].”
The “business results” that del Castillo mentions speak for themselves. The tech conference has moved deals totaling €6.4bn in value to date, nearly quadrupling the €1.7bn total posted in 2018 – after almost a decade since the South Summit was started by Maria Benjumea, who descends from Spanish nobility and the family that founded Abengoa, the renewable energy group. The conference is also where many of today’s Spanish unicorns – Cabify, Glovo, Wallbox, Jobandtalent – first pitched to a large crowd of international investors.
As for the investors that go to the South Summit, they are mostly VCs and CVCs; about 65% of them are foreign, del Castillo said. This year they have €16bn to invest, she added, compared with €5.5bn in 2018. Fewer are attending the physical event this year though, mainly because of the US quarantine rules for citizens returning from Europe, she noted.
Net zero emissions by 2030
Reflecting current trends, South Summit applied for Green Festival certification for this year’s edition, which meant they had to change the way the event was set up and run to become net zero, del Castillo said. She was referring to achieving overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere.
“This year we are betting really hard on sustainability because we believe that crises are opportunities for entrepreneurs,” she explained. “While we’re going through a health-related crisis, we know that the real emergency is related to climate change, it’s an environmental crisis.”
This means that this year’s conference has included a wide variety of green-related topics, such as sustainable investments by VCs, sustainability metrics, and how businesses should adopt a sustainable mindset detailed by long-time climate activist and circular economy startup founder Gonzalo Muñoz Abogabir.
At La Nave, the event spaces had structures made out of recycled materials. Bottled water was replaced by thermos flasks gifted to attendees, who could help themselves to dispensers dotted around the halls.
"We are also asking our whole ecosystem, our partners, to sign our pledge to commit to net zero emissions by 2030, way before the Paris Agreement [deadline of 2050]. So, it’s really about walking the talk," del Castillo said.
LatAm, Asia expansion
Going global is another focus. South Summit has always attracted foreign investors looking to bet on Spanish startups, but increasingly it’s also showcasing foreign startups. This year, for example, over 3,800 startups applied to join the pitch competition – 75% were from abroad, spanning 124 countries. European startups comprised slightly over a quarter of applications, followed by Asia-Pacific (16%) and LatAm (13%). Compare this with 2016, when foreign startups applying to join the South Summit accounted for less than 40% of the total.
South Summit also added Brazil to its event venues this year, after Mexico and Colombia. The partnership with the Brazilian city of Rio Grande do Sul will see South Summit go to LatAm’s biggest country in March 2022, del Castillo said.
“I’d also want to expand to Argentina, and to Miami because Miami is like a window to the US and also LatAm; and for Spain and Madrid to connect with the Hispanic community, it’s like having a bridge for them to come to Europe,” she added.
I’d want to expand to Argentina, and to Miami because Miami is like a window to the US… And for the Hispanic community it’s like having a bridge to Europe
Asia, too, has been on their radar. “We’re looking to Asia, where we’d like to expand because I see that there's a huge opportunity for Asia to have South Summit as a partner to connect to Europe… and to LatAm," she said. “That's still work in progress… which the pandemic has put on hold. But for the next few years, I think we have to invest strongly to get there.”
This year’s South Summit had some morning sessions devoted to expanding into Asia. Speakers included investors based there, such as Oscar Ramos, SOSV Partner and MD of its ChinaAccelerator, and Heriberto Saldivar, Managing Director of Hong Kong-based IoT hardware accelerator Brinc. Both stressed the huge market European startups stand to gain by venturing to Asia. They also debunked myths about the region during an October 5 panel moderated by Cecilia Tham, a Hong Kong-born futurist and entrepreneur based in Barcelona.
Last year, South Summit’s stylish virtual-only conference featuring sumptuous interiors such as the Prado Museum and the Liria Palace, and Spanish celebrities like the actor Antonio Banderas, attracted 42,000 viewers from around the world. It’s a number del Castillo hopes to maintain this year, more or less. “I don't think we’ll have more because I do feel that people kind of have had enough of the digital world… But you’ll never know.”
New CEO role
Spain Startup, the company behind the South Summit series of conferences, also offers customized matching services connecting startups and investors, as well as networking events. Besides overseas conferences, South Summit also runs yearly sector-focused events in Spain: Valencia (healthcare and medtech), Malaga (smart mobility) and Bilbao (clean energy and Industry 4.0).
Using all the data gathered from the Spain Startup/South Summit events and partners, an annual ecosystem report is produced tracking investments, sector trends, founder characteristics, projections and more. The events business remains its main money spinner. For all that amount of work, the company still runs a pretty tight ship.
“We’ve about 25 full-time employees. Preparing for South Summit Madrid, we can go up to 35–40 persons with part-timers and during the event, with interns, we have almost 60 people,” del Castillo said.
South Summit has a culture, a face that has a lot to do with who and what Maria is as a leader
The 40-year-old was promoted to CEO in April this year, after joining the company as COO in September 2020. Prior to returning to Spain, she had spent nearly 10 years abroad, mostly in Paraguay, focusing on impact investing and social enterprise projects. Prior to her five-year stint at Koga Impact Lab, the trained lawyer had worked at the Inter-American Development Bank, Spanish Red Cross and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation on the continent.
“Because Koga was a really small company, working there was like being an entrepreneur… facing risks and uncertainties, and all kinds of problems that have a lot to do with what we do at Spain Startup,” she added. “It has a lot to do with the innovation sector; also it's helped me to learn about different markets, different realities and have an international experience.”
Benjumea, who owns a majority stake in Spain Startup, recognized that appointing a CEO was a way to “expand the leadership” in the company to match its growth. “Maria was President, Founder and CEO, so there wasn’t officially a CEO role [before]. And South Summit has a culture, a face that has a lot to do with who and what Maria is as a leader, and given the great presence that she has,” del Castillo said.
“So we want to keep the culture, because it's great, and the impact that Maria has. But also, we’re trying to be broader, and to build and have new ways of doing things with my role," she added.
“Maria and I are like newly-weds, we have to get used to living together,” she joked before turning serious. “It's still a long way to go, a great adventure, and we’re all really excited.”