This article was published on February 24, 2023

València’s first unicorn founder wants to build a global hub for impact tech

Iker Marcaide talks València, venture building, and eco-barrios

València’s first unicorn founder wants to build a global hub for impact tech

Iker Marcaide is one of Spain’s most energetic entrepreneurs. Since stepping away from Flywire, the first Spanish startup to go public on the Nasdaq, Marcaide has focused his attention on impact investing, creating new startups with his company Zubi Group, building a school, and designing an eco-neighbourhood.

In 2021, Forbes named him as one of Spain’s 100 Most Creative business people.

Iker Marcaide Flywire
Iker Marcaide. Credit: Zubi Group

Marcaide meets us in a 60-hectare plot of land dotted with trees on the outskirts of the city of València on a sunny, chilly January morning. This is La Pinada, the site where he will build a sustainable neighbourhood (“barrio” in Spanish) comprising homes, schools, co-works, and community spaces.

Today, wooden cabins on the site are filled with people working on Zubi Group startup projects. Across a wooden bridge through the trees, the Imagine Montessori school that Marcaide opened in 2016 is visible.

Imagine Montessori school
The Imagine Montessori school. Credit: Zubi Group

As an adviser to TNW’s first conference in València, Marcaide will be speaking about impact investing at our event in March. In the meantime, we’re here to talk to him about founding the foreign-currency payment platform Flywire, why he left the company, and his ambitions for Zubi Group.

Born of frustration

Marcaide came up with the idea for Flywire (then called peerTransfer) in 2009 whilst studying for his Master’s degrees in Business Administration (MBA) and Engineering at MIT. He says he didn’t think of himself as an entrepreneur back then, nor did he come from an entrepreneurial background, but he wanted to create companies that “in some way resonated with me and my needs, things I experienced first-hand.”

Back then, he was experiencing the stress and expense of getting scholarship money transferred to him at MIT from a Spanish foundation.

“I thought, ‘This is unfair, because the people that have the least purchasing power are actually paying all these banking fees… What if we create an alternative to the banking wires in a way that is more cost effective, more reliable, and more fair?’”

Marcaide decided that while they would need sales and business development teams on the ground in different markets, it would be smart to consolidate functions globally, and chose València as the main office for things like administration, tech, and product development.

The company is headquartered in Boston, and has since grown into a leader in cross-border tuition payment transfers for universities. It has also branched into travel, healthcare, and other business sectors. Flywire went public in 2021 at a $3.5 billion valuation.

So what led Marcaide to step back as CEO of Flywire in 2013, when things were really soaring?

“It was a big decision, but a lot of things lined up at that time,” he says. “I realised that you can only be CEO of one company, and assuming you want to be engaged in solving different problems, being CEO of one company would not be an option.”

“When I create companies, I always think that besides being your baby, it has to have a life of its own,” he adds. “As a founder, not becoming a bottleneck is kind of your number one role.”

The Zubi journey

The entrepreneur was already thinking about venture building and how he wanted to focus on companies that, beyond being good financial opportunities, could also play a social or environmental role.

His first big project was venture builder Zubi Labs in 2014, which creates from scratch tech companies that focus on social or environmental impact. Two years later, he founded the private Imagine Montessori school, on the same land that will house La Pinada eco-neighbourhood.

Barrio La Pinada
Impression of Barrio La pinada. Credit: Zubi Group

In 2017, the concept and plans for La Pinada began, followed by the creation of an open innovation centre for sustainability, called La Pinada Lab, in 2020.

In 2021, Marcaide launched Zubi Capital to invest in external companies as the first impact fund aimed at venture debt in Europe. All these companies and business units are part of Zubi Group, which numbers over 200 people.

València’s impact potential

Having been born in Boston, raised in Granada, and lived in Madrid, London and the US, Marcaide rightly sees himself as a global citizen. Now his dream is that València will become a hotspot for impact and sustainability.

“You can start something amazing from anywhere in the world, but you have to be very connected. For me, spending time internationally, then being in València as part of a global company, opened my eyes in terms of what it means to be globally connected,” he says. “It’s just a question of plugging in and connecting with like-minded people, of whom there are many.”

He believes that while València can’t perhaps become the biggest tech hub in the world, it could become the most articulated, connected and functional one — at least, that is what he would like to see happen.

“When I was coming to València in 2010 and meeting the ecosystem, I kind of lacked that sense of global connection and global ambition — I think that has changed completely,” he says.

Field of dreams

Marcaide says he would be happy to break ground on Barrio la Pinada tomorrow, but is awaiting building permits from the Valèncian authorities. At the moment, there’s no scheduled date of when the entrepreneur’s brainchild would open its doors.

La Pinada has been designed as a self-contained carbon-neutral community. By consulting with people about how they would like their daily lives to look, the Zubi team realised that everyone wanted things to be simpler in terms of how they live, work, pick up kids from school, and so on.

Barrio La Pinada
Impression of Barrio La Pinada. Credit: Zubi Group

“Cities are not organised that way, normally you live somewhere, you work somewhere different, the school is somewhere else, and you spend half of your day moving around — a lot of social and environmental issues are precisely derived from that,” Marcaide explains.

The Pinada project has created opportunities for new startups that could support this dream, ones working in areas like energy, waste, and the circular economy. As well as housing, the goal is to have schools, co-working spaces, living spaces, and a broad community mix of young and older people, professionals, families, and singles.

“At Zubi Group, I think we’re at that hockey stick point, when you start putting the pieces together and delivering value much quicker,” Marcaide says. “We’ve been putting in a lot of the foundations and the team, so Zubi in 10 years will be far more global, a different order of magnitude to where we are today.”

If you want to experience València’s ecosystem for yourself and listen to Iker Marcaide speaking on stage, we’ve got something special for our loyal readers. Use the promo code TNWVAL30 and get a 30% discount on your conference business pass for TNW València.

Get the TNW newsletter

Get the most important tech news in your inbox each week.

Also tagged with

Back to top