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When innovation resides in a building: the past, present and future of the Torre Bizkaia

From the former headquarters of BBVA in Bilbao, the B Accelerator Tower entrepreneurship centre serves as a meeting point for financial institutions, entrepreneurs and investors. A space for conceiving the services and solutions of the future that does not forget its past: the walls of the Torre Bizkaia bear witness to the innovation of the last few decades.

In 1969, shortly before Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon, the people of Bilbao had already cast their gaze into the sky over their city. Inaugurated on the 23rd of April of that year, the Torre Banco de Vizcaya (Bank of Biscay Tower) was at 88 metres an impressive 21-storey building located near the river and a striking feature of the city skyline. It stood at number 1 Gran Vía in Bilbao, the site of the former headquarters of the Banco de Vizcaya (Bank of Biscay), founded in 1901. Designed by architects José Enrique Casanueva, Jaime Torres and José María Chapa, the building’s facade had tinted glass to give it an elegant and innovative look.

At that time, the Banco de Vizcaya was consolidating its position as a modern financial institution with a global reach, opening offices in Mexico and New York in 1968 and 1970, respectively. The new structure, a symbol of economic reinvention, combined the dimension that the institution had acquired and the expansion that it would develop during the following years thanks to the merger with the Banco de Bilbao (Bank of Bilbao) in 1988. In 2009, ten years after the merger of BBV with Argentaria and the creation of BBVA, the approval of BBVA City in Madrid, a sustainable and avant-garde epicentre was announced, which confirmed the transfer of the bank from its headquarters in Torre Bizkaia to the capital.

In 2018, the entity sold the building to Talus Real State, and it was renamed Torre Bizkaia, but its ties with the building were never severed. Proof of this is that a few weeks ago, the B Accelerator Tower (BAT) entrepreneurship centre opened its doors after a thorough refurbishment of the building's facilities, including its facade. Dubbed the 'Guggenheim of entrepreneurship', more than 100 national and international venture capital firms, more than 40 startups and another 30 corporations, including BBVA Next Technologies, the bank's software unit, work within the walls of the three floors that make up this space.

"Just as the Guggenheim certified the evolution of a new industrial model, this project will allow us to take a leap in the development of the innovative ecosystem"

Thus, more than half a century after its construction, the characteristic glass of the Torre Bizkaia shines again to reflect the innovation and entrepreneurship of the present and future. "Just as the Guggenheim transformed the Bilbao estuary and certified the evolution of a new industrial model, this project will allow us to take a leap in the development of the innovative ecosystem" says Eriz Sainz, general manager of BAT.

The future of innovation at BAT

Understanding the innovative and entrepreneurial gene that runs through the current Torre Bizkaia is impossible without remembering how the former BBVA headquarters became a pole that attracted various innovations that revolutionised the financial sector, as revealed by the bank's historical archives. In 1969, the Torre del Banco Vizcaya hosted the autobanking service, a kind of booth where customers could cash their cheques without getting out of the car.

Autobanking service at Banco Vizcaya Tower - BBVA Historical Archives

These were the first signs of an innovative trend that also took shape through the installation of electronic computers to carry out technical studies in financial matters, as well as some primitive programs of reskilling (acquisition of new skills) and upskilling (development of already acquired skills) that, at the time, were intended to reinforce the training of employees "through the most modern techniques", as stated in the bank’s 1969 report.

Today, BAT's facilities also have the technological feel of the then Torre Banco de Vizcaya. The current centre, promoted by the Provincial Council of Biscay and the City Council of Bilbao, is managed by the firm PwC in collaboration with Impact Hub, one of the leading global networks of impact ecosystems with consulting services in entrepreneurship, innovation and sustainability, and Talent Garden, which also offers coworking spaces for innovators and a technological ecosystem, to become a new hub where startups, investment vehicles and organisations contribute to promote disruptive projects.

"Now we all have to work together, startups and other corporations, to make it a hub that generates connections, innovation and long-term value"

"We have a consolidated economic system, in addition to cooperation between corporations and public bodies to carry out actions to boost entrepreneurs and international connections," says María Ocariz, head of the innovation and entrepreneurship consulting area of Impact Hub. "Collaborative ecosystems such as BAT are key for stakeholders to work together for the growth of the project. It's certainly a good breeding ground".

One of the agents behind this project is BBVA Spark, the bank's new business unit supporting the entrepreneurial ecosystem and one of the building's collaborating partners. This position allows the company to meet the main innovation players, establish itself as a key partner for the local ecosystem and encourage new connections through initiatives like 'Demo Day', networking events or 'Fast Track'.

Construction of the Banco de Vizcaya Tower - BBVA Historical Archives

"At BBVA Spark we want to be the bank for technology and high-growth companies throughout their lifetime. We do this thanks to a team that's 100% dedicated to understanding the problems of customers and by offering banking and financing products that adapt to their specific needs at each stage of growth," says Roberto Albaladejo, head of BBVA Spark.

The foundations are in place: the work to innovate starts now

Among the startups already present at BAT is Oreka, a company that fights against food waste with the support of other companies. Among them, BBVA, which donates the surplus food from the canteens at its headquarters in Madrid. Denis Ugalde, CEO of the company, agrees that the union of agents at BAT "is a great starting point for the consolidation and projection of the entrepreneurial ecosystem". However, he is aware of the road ahead. "Now we all have to work together, startups and other corporations, to make it a hub that generates connections, innovation and long-term value". To achieve this, startups located in the tower have the opportunity to generate connections through services and programmes, such as networking plans, training and access to public support.

The tints of innovation that have permeated Torre Bizkaia for years have not been the only favourable factor for the opening of B Accelerator Tower. The centre is located in the Basque Country, one of the most active entrepreneurship ecosystems in Spain. It is the birthplace of companies such as Quantum Mads, a company that works in the field of logistics by applying artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing, or, which specialises in predictive digital conversation assistants. Precisely, the latter, with its headquarters in Bilbao and Silicon Valley, raised more than 8 million euros in funding in 2021.

BAT has only just started, but there are already plans for growth. According to Eriz Sainz, from PwC, the entrepreneurship centre, which is currently present on three floors of the Torre Bizkaia with an occupancy rate of 80%, will expand its space with the opening of five new floors. An expansion that will provide 4,000 square metres of additional space for innovative initiatives to have a place to develop.

More than half a century has passed since Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and the Torre Bizkaia rose to crown the sky of Bilbao. However, the walls of this building still hold the same essence for startups and entrepreneurs to continue leaving their mark in the field of innovation.