Wayra: Start-up accelerator like no other

Spanning Latin America and Europe, Wayra, Telefonica's new baby, is hoping to nurture the entrepreneurial talent of today and tomorrow. Altruism meets capitalism - but will it work?

by Rebecca Burn-Callander
Last Updated: 19 Aug 2013

It's the latest start-up incumbator/accelerator/hub/birthing pool to hit the capital. Wayra, which has already been launched in eight countries (Colombia, Argentina, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela) today made its debut in the ninth territory on its global map: Capper Street in London's West End.

Telefonica, owner of the O2 mobile operator, is hoping that the giant, open-plan space, featuring futuristic blue uplights and dead white walls will become home to the UK's own tech superstar, the next Facebook or Google, within the next few months. Ambitious? Definitely. Achievable? MT will let you decide.

The idea, dreamed up by José María Álvarez-Pallete López, Telefonica's chairman and CEO, is to allow entrepreneurs and - more specifically - young people to take their great ideas into development and eventually to market with a helping dose of cash and free resources courtesy of Telefonica. And Telefonica isn't just rounding up all the smart folk and sticking them in a US incubator. It wants these companies to blossom in their native countries.

'We have an entrepreneurial deficit in the EU,' explains José María. 'It's not part of the mindset. If we do nothing, all the talented people will emigrate to the US and innovation is not going to happen in Europe. If you look at the biggest listed technology companies in the world, none of them are based in Europe. It's worrying.' He's got a point. In the last six months alone, technology pioneers Aloqa, Pixable, Soundcloud, Madvideo, Cabify, and many more have upped sticks to the US...

So here's how Wayra works. Anyone with a decent technology idea can submit it for consideration - the call for London entries is now open, closing on April 22. A shortlist of 30 inspirational and brilliant applications is drawn up and these entries are then sifted through by a judging panel. Not just Telefonica bods either, bona fide UK entrepreneurs and business leaders are being recruited as we speak. They whittle the shortlist down to just 20. These lucky few are then given between €50,000 - €70,000 in return for a 10% stake (according to MT's maths, this values the idea at half a million or more, before it's even a business) and installed in Capper Street with superfast broadband and access to all the technology Telefonica has at its disposal. All the Wayra academies have been launched along the same blueprint, and they are all linked up via Skype and free to swap ideas and e-socialise. High-growth companies can then go on to a second-stage academy called Talentum, where venture capitalists will be brought into play. But the details on this level are still sketchy.

The best bit about the Wayra academies? Successful companies will be allowed to market to Telefonica's 300 million customers worldwide. That's quite the leg-up.

Of course, Telefonica isn't staking all this cash into emerging talent for the good of mankind. Even if, as José María is keen to stress, it's no big deal for a company of its size. 'It's not nearly as expensive as some of our other campaigns,' he states baldly. No, this is an investment in the future of Telefonica, a form of future-proofing if you will. It will get first dibs on the best cutting-edge technology coming out of these innovation hubs, and some may turn out to be nice little earners. 'If just one of the companies that will sit where you are sitting becomes a success,' says José María, 'We will have made our money back.'

'We have macroeconomc headwinds and Europe is going through a tough period,' he continues. 'Spain is back to the GDP per capita it had in 2004. We have to do something.' And Telefonica's profits have taken quite a battering too. Its net profit halved in just 12 months to €5.4bn in 2011, down from €10.1bn in 2010, mostly through falling sales in the EU.

This whole scheme has been launched in just three months - unbelievable speed for an international corporate. As Simon Devonshire, UK head of SME for Telefonica, says of José María, 'He thinks in weeks not months. The man is all about pace.' But the speed of delivery means certain details have yet to be worked out. Who will Telefonica's venture capital partners be? Who will manage all the 10% stakes? The first Wayra graduates will emerge from the Bogota academy this month, so the world will get a chance to see whether the format is working for the entrepreneurs involved. And MT will be keeping a close eye on developments. So far, though, the project is fascinating.

As one gobsmacked journalist cried at today's press conference, 'It's so inspiring!' 'No,' replied the charismatic José María without a hint of irony, 'it's historical...'

Oh, and in case you were wondering, 'Wayra' means 'wind' in Quechua...

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