Today the city is a leading hub for innovation that has become the gateway to southern Europe for international investors. Over the last ten years, a powerful network of successful start-ups, skilled at attracting the finest talent from around the world, has turned the city into a leading technology centre for the Mediterranean.
“Barcelona has increasingly taken up the mantle of a trade and finance centre for the western Mediterranean region, as well as becoming a platform for Latin America for non-Spanish-speaking groups”, says Daniel Masferrer, head of the International Business Centre of Grant Thornton Spain. “Right now we are seeing a surge in trade and financial activities across various industries. The city’s entrepreneurial culture has led to a significant increase in investment flows and trade, specifically in the mid-cap market in which Grant Thornton is especially well-positioned”.
The Catalonian capital, with stable GDP growth of 2.2% in the third quarter of 2019, has the best strategy for promoting and attracting foreign investment of any European city over the last two years. In 2018 alone the city promoted 106 projects with international capital, which raised more than €1.4 billion. The Financial Times named Barcelona as the best region in southern Europe for foreign investment for the third consecutive year in 2020.
Barcelona, a safe bet
Its innovative spirit and its open city culture make it an ideal location for businesses. “Barcelona has a consolidated business sector with research and innovation centres and numerous other actors that have created a tangible professional network and make it a safe bet for business”, says Isabel Perea, Audit Partner at Grant Thornton Barcelona.
Companies such as the Swiss firm Zurich have invested in the city in recent years, in its case with the opening of its global big data centre with an investment of €448 million and creating 200 jobs; or the €193 million and more than 1,500 jobs created by Amazon’s new logistics centre in Prat de Llobregat – another example of how the city appeals to large multinationals. The city also has an extensive family business sector, which are often leaders in their respective industries and have international presence.
The industrial sector is the main area attracting investment in Barcelona, accounting for 40% of the total in Catalonia. The automotive and chemicals industries, electrical material and equipment, and the food and drink industries are all important.
The city has clusters of companies from diverse sectors, which offer a competitive advantage and promote business opportunities in their respective fields. For example, Mercabarna is home to more than 700 companies specialising in retailing, processing, importing and exporting fresh and frozen products and is one of the leading European fresh food markets.
In the field of innovation, the city is ranked as Europe’s 4th most innovative city and 21st among the world’s top 500 cities, according to figures from Barcelona City Hall. Barcelona has become a powerful ecosystem of technology start-ups looking for inorganic growth, making the city an excellent location for technological talent. Holaluz, Badi, eCooltra, BYHOURS, Housfy and Tiendeo are just some of the start-ups currently based in Barcelona. It is also home to three unicorns, namely eDreams, Letgo and Glovo.
The main funding rounds in recent years included those carried out by Letgo, raising €431 million, or the €150 million raised by the Catalan start-up Glovo from various funds and companies. It is estimated that the city’s start-up ecosystem has attracted around €2.8 billion in private investment over the last five years from around the world.
Barcelona is not only a hub for technology and innovation, but also has a unique position in many other areas. According to the International Congress and Convention Association (ICCA) ranking, the city is ranked fourth in the world for organising international congresses, and hosts the Mobile World Congress, an event that has made it the global capital for new technologies.
“It is also a city for educational excellence in the field of business, with two educational institutions (IESE and ESADE) that have been ranked among Europe’s top ten best business schools for decades. This situation consolidates the city’s position as a hub for business education that attracts talent from around the world”, explains Jordi Santamaria, Commercial Law Partner at Grant Thornton Spain.
Barcelona quick facts
- Location: Southwest Europe
- Time zone: Barcelona (GMT+1)
- Population: 5.5 million
- GDP: €72.355 billion (2017) 
- Industrial strengths: automotive, chemicals, electrical materials and equipment, food and drink, pharmaceutical
- Growth sectors: digital environment, start-ups