Barcelona-based Alpha, a Moonshot facility established by Telefonica, adopts Google X’s mentality to change the world
Not that long ago, in this very galaxy, Google came up with the concept of Moonshots. They’ve been using this semi-branded neologism to refer to most of their innovative projects rolling out of the Google X lab. Moonshots are ambitious projects requiring large amounts of investment with little to no hope of immediate returns, but with the ultimate aim to change the world for the better. According to Google’s definition, Moonshots, which get their name from 1969 Apollo 11 mission that landed the first men on the Moon, address huge problems, propose radical solutions and use groundbreaking technology to present those solutions. Sounds like something that only the Googles of the world could ever dream of getting into, right? Not quite.
Believe it or not, there is a lab in Barcelona called Alpha that has been building these immense, disruptive tech projects for two years.
They’re a company backed by the telecommunications giant Telefonica that functions very much like a startup. If you tried googling them, it would be difficult to find out where they came from and virtually impossible to uncover what they’re building: all you’d get is a cryptic website that reveals little more than the core missions of their first two Moonshots: Health and Energy.
Despite all the mystery, Alpha is surprisingly active behind the scenes of the Barcelona tech and startup community, especially when it comes to social impact projects. They’ve collaborated on and sponsored countless events and initiatives. They even have their own meetup series called AlphaBeers, which they’ve created to reach out to the community, exchange ideas and connect with bright minds – but they’re very careful not to let on too much about their own projects. As part of their efforts to open up and share a bit more about themselves, they invited me to their offices. You can imagine how thrilled I was to be welcomed into the hideout of this secretive bunch. And secretive is an understatement.
I’m greeted by the lovely Patricia Pereda (Global Talent Acquisition Manager) and Alex Rodriguez Vitello (Barcelona Explorer & Curator, a title that’ll begin to make sense as you read on) on the 12th floor of the Telefonica building. As they start showing me around the office, they half-jokingly ask me to look away from the whiteboards full of undecipherable scribbles that cover the walls.
We start with the lunch area: this is the heart of the home where they all get together every day to “eat together and do Lunch & Learns a couple of times a week,” Patricia tells me. The Alpha Moonshots work as separate companies and they practically have their own CEOs – the Moonshot Captains. So it’s super important to have a space and a time when and where everyone – scientists, researchers, engineers, etc – has a chance to talk to each other, even though their teams may not be working together directly. “We are growing exponentially, and there will be no change in pace for the next few years. You’ve caught us at the beginning of the curve,” Patricia explains.
The office looks like a typical tech startup playroom – bright and minimalistic design, comfy lounge areas and an entire wall of unnecessary snacks – but there’s one room that stands out. It’s an odd laboratory-workshop-studio space that looks like an arts and crafts toolbox exploded all over it. There are cogwheels, wires, pipes, goggles, welding torches and the like scattered everywhere, not to mention the bizarre, half-built inventions left on the tables. If it wasn’t for the penthouse-style glass walls that provide a magnificent view of Barcelona, you’d mistake it for a mad scientist’s lair. “If someone walked in from outside and saw what we do here, they’d think we’ve all gone insane,” Alex jokes with a hint of self-irony. Should someone decide to fly a drone next to the tall windows and peek through, they’ll be in for a surprise.
This quirky workshop perfectly captures the playfulness that characterizes Alpha: a team of young, brilliant people who love to explore, create, build and let their ideas run wild. To find out more, I grill Patricia and Alex about the way they work, how much freedom they have to explore and go crazy with their ideas, and how they’re reaching out to the Barcelona community to empower them to change the world.
Could you walk me through the process of how a Moonshot is born?
Alex: It all starts with the Ideation Team. We work by getting together and exploring. The 17 sustainable development goals that the UN set up are an important focus point for us: they serve as a guiding light to understand what’s needed in the world and what problems are affecting our planet. At the same time, we’re contrasting what we find with relevant science and technology that exists not only within that field but within adjacent fields, or completely new technology that could be extrapolated in order to try and solve these problems. We don’t focus on solutions. A good part of the beginning of the year is spent searching for problems. We go to certain places to seek out the ailments of this planet, and see how we can make a difference.
We come up with 100 ideas, which we then start narrowing down. These ideas can come from anywhere at all, even from somewhere like a dream that someone in the team has. There are no wrong ideas, because if you start killing things right at the beginning, you’ll never see where they might go. To become a Moonshot, an idea has to have the potential to impact hundreds of millions of people and become standalone, billion-dollar businesses, so no small task!
“Is science fiction predicting the future? Can we reverse engineer it?”
How do you stimulate your brain to come up with new ideas and to develop them?
Alex: We do crazy workshops. We build prototypes. We have amazing people from all over the world come in and inspire us. We make a very conscious effort to create a nourishing environment where all ideas have a cradle to grow in.
One of the techniques that we use is future-casting. We try to predict what the future will look like from a sci-fi – or rather, a real-fi – point of view. Is science fiction predicting the future? Can we reverse engineer it? We meet experts of the subject matter from all around the world, we visit relevant places, like hospitals, trying to figure out what the state of the art science and technology is, and trying to future-cast that. What is that technology going to look like in 8-10 years? Can we use it? Can we create something disruptive out of it?
So what happens when you arrive at a stage where you need to start cutting down on those 100 ideas?
Alex: Any ideation process is made up of divergence and convergence cycles. First you explore and diversify, then you refine and select. But we never kill ideas. We always shelf. And every time we do that, there’s a rigorous process behind it. We go down to 60, then in a few months we arrive at 30, and so on. With the new batch of ideas that we’re working on, we just recently went from 6 to 3.
Patricia: Then comes the critical stage of turning the idea into reality. Once we select The One, the Launch Captain starts managing the entire Moonshot and performs the role of the Moonshot Captain. The person who was leading the idea continues to work on it. This year, we will decide on our third Moonshot idea and will present to our board of directors at Telefonica; so when the Moonshot is approved, we can start bringing people in.
Alex: And then we start all over again. The Moonshot branches off and the Ideation team starts thinking of 100 ideas again.
“We’ve got our own Alpha DNA. It’s such a unique and advantageous position.”
What is your relationship with Telefonica? Once they approve your Moonshots, do you get a free hand at whatever you want to do?
Alex: Telefonica established Alpha to create new companies and technologies that will hopefully grow to be billion-dollar businesses in their own right, whilst solving immense global challenges. Alpha was deliberately created outside of Telefonica in order to create a new culture that would help us reach these goals. This means we are in a great position, having the backing and the infrastructure provided by Telefonica whilst having the freedom to try new things.
Patricia: We are a completely separate company from Telefonica. Our culture is completely different. We’ve got our own Alpha DNA. It’s such a unique and advantageous position. And Telefonica empowered us to be like that! We report to them on a quarterly basis, and they are super interested in and excited about what we do. But we also know that our ideas have to have the potential to become successful businesses and this helps us focus our efforts.It sounds like a crazy balance to have, but it works.
Why all this mystery? You haven’t revealed any specifics about the projects you’re working on, but you are very engaged with the community in Barcelona and you’re starting to open up a bit more. Why now?
Patricia: It’s mostly because we’re still a super young company. We’ve only been around for two years. At the beginning, we focused on trying to get the foundations of our company right. And now that we have a company with departments that are well defined, and we have a mission established for the coming years, we want to start sharing that with our community.
Alex: We didn’t want to share anything that we hadn’t validated. Once we know something works then we’ll be very excited about sharing it!
You sound like you’re convinced that it’s working. Have you released anything that you can see work?
Patricia: We cannot disclose any details about products, but we can tell you that in-house, we see that it’s working. And the fact that we’re getting incredible people to join us – people from top tech companies world wide and the best universities – also speaks for this. Once they find out more about what we’re doing, they’re very keen to join us.
Alex: We collaborate with a bunch of different universities and groups of young talented people like Global Shapers. We’re actively engaging with giant groups of changemakers, and having their support helps us to understand that we’re on the right path.
“We get to do things on a planetary level right here in Barcelona.”
How do you engage with the community here in Barcelona? What’s in it for you and what’s in it for them?
Alex: One of the reasons why we’ve targeted Barcelona is because of its high potential. It’s still open. There are no walls built here like there are in Silicon Valley. There’s such a great entrepreneurial scene, such fresh energy, and we want to be able to add to that energy in a non-selfish way. Events and sponsorships are one of the many ways that we’re reaching out to the community. We know that feeding our environment also feeds us. We can’t solve the world’s biggest problems by ourselves. We need the city’s help. And by helping us, you’re actually helping the planet. So we’re trying to figure out: how can we crowdsource knowledge? How can we work with the brains that are around us, and not only in this building?
The idea is not to make this an ivory tower where all the knowledge exists, but to spread out through the entire city. We recently partnered with Harbour Space University and did a hackathon with them. The prize of the winning team was that they got to come here for two weeks to execute their idea. We gave them an opportunity to taste what this life of making a difference means.
We also work a lot with AI, and we wanted to empower the community in Barcelona to learn AI. We co-built schools called AI Saturdays to teach anybody from any background how to program AI over the course of six months on Saturdays, and then we invited them to visit us here.
Another great event we sponsored was Startup Weekend Social Impact. It was designed to have a social element specifically with us in mind, and the three teams that won created extremely relevant projects.
Patricia: Another big driving force is identifying talent – lots of talented people go to these events so they can be interesting from an employer’s point of view. We also partnered with Sónar, and we managed to meet really talented people who will be join the company soon at the Sónar Innovation Challenge.
Why is Barcelona a great place to change the world from? You mentioned you think that Silicon Valley has its limitations.
Alex: I think that within this world, it’s the new world. There are infinite possibilities. Roads haven’t been paved yet, you can build anything you want. We have tremendously talented people at this company, supremely talented people that could be working anywhere in the entire world, but they choose to be here. It’s fresh for the picking from the science and technology point of view as well as from the community’s perspective. That’s what motivates us, that you can build the future from here, because there’s nobody in your way. And we’re providing something that has never existed here before: this giant idea of creating moonshots is something that only exists at Google in Mountain View. We get to do things on a planetary level right here in Barcelona.