In the heart of Barcelona’s burgeoning startup scene, about 70 people work on technology-centered solutions to problems that affect billions, such as alcoholism and electricity shortage.
The cast includes entrepreneurs, specialists and a visual artist, but it’s not venture-capital backed. It’s Spanish phone carrier Telefonica SA’s answer to X, Alphabet Inc’s innovation lab.
Known as Alpha, the former monopoly’s initiative is part of Chairman Jose Maria Alvarez Pallette’s push to experiment with radically new lines of business, a unique fixation in a sector whose track record of losing to the tech giants means that most telcos are now largely sticking to their knitting.
“Alpha is where the future of Telefonica is going to be written,” says Pablo Rodriguez, the unit’s CEO, a physicist who previously worked at Bell Labs. “It’s an endeavor where we are going to increase the level of ambition, where we are going to do things that are meaningful.”
Alpha occupies two floors of the ZeroZero skyscraper that hugs Barcelona’s main east to west Diagonal avenue and overlooks both the city and the Mediterranean. While the building serves as Telefonica’s Catalonia headquarters, Alpha sits at arms’ length from the rest of the company, which doesn’t disclose the unit’s financials.
There’s a creative feel to the office: brightly-coloured notes stick to planning boards; posters adorn the walls; plants cascade off desks; virtual reality goggles are used to test projects.
On any given day, researchers working on so-called moonshot ideas might be taking a Los Angeles field trip to learn from graffiti artists, visiting an Airbus Inc plane factory, building and maintaining a vertical farm or working on an app.