Iker Marcaide is one of Spain’s most energetic entrepreneurs. Since parting ways with Flywire, the first Spanish startup to go public on the Nasdaq, Marcaide has turned his attention to impact investing, creating new startups with his company Zubi Group, building a school and designing of an eco-district.
In 2021, Forbes named him one of the Spain’s 100 Most Creative business people.
Marcaide meets us on a 60 hectare piece of land dotted with trees on the outskirts of the city valencia on a sunny, chilly January morning. This is La Pinada, the place where he will build a sustainable neighborhood (‘barrio’ in Spanish) with homes, schools, co-works and communal spaces.
Today, the wooden shacks on the property are filled with people working on Zubi Group start-up projects. Over a wooden bridge between the trees, the Imagine Montessori school, which Marcaide opened in 2016, is visible.
As advisor to the first TNW conference in València, Marcaide will speak about impact investing at our event in March. In the meantime, we’re here to talk to him about the creation of the foreign exchange payment platform Flywire, why he left the company, and his ambitions for Zubi Group.
Born out of frustration
Marcaide came up with the idea for Flywire (then called peerTransfer) in 2009 while studying Business Administration (MBA) and Engineering at MIT. He says he didn’t consider himself an entrepreneur at the time, nor did he come from an entrepreneurial background, but he wanted to create businesses that “somehow resonated with me and my needs, things that I’ve experienced firsthand.”
At the time, he was experiencing the stress and expense of transferring scholarship money to him at MIT from a Spanish foundation.
“I thought, ‘This is unfair, because the people with the least purchasing power are actually paying all these bank fees… What if we created an alternative to wire transfers in a way that is more cost-effective, reliable, and fair?'”
Marcaide decided that while they would need sales and business development teams on the ground in several markets, it would be smart to consolidate functions globally, and opted for valencia as the headquarters for things like administration, technology and product development.
The company is headquartered in Boston and has since grown to become a leader in cross-border college tuition transfer. It has also branched out into the travel, healthcare and other business sectors. Flywire went public 2021 at a valuation of $3.5 billion.
So what prompted Marcaide to step down as CEO of Flywire in 2013, when things were really heating up?
“It was a big decision, but there were a lot of things lined up at the time,” he says. “I realized that you can only be CEO of one company, and assuming you want to solve several problems, being CEO of one company wouldn’t be an option.”
“When I start businesses, I always think it should not just be your baby, it should have a life of its own,” he adds. “As a founder, becoming a bottleneck is not your most important role.”
The Zubi Journey
The entrepreneur was already thinking about venture building and how he wanted to focus on companies that not only offer good financial opportunities, but can also play a social or environmental role.
His first major project was venture builder Zubi Labs in 2014, which creates technology companies from scratch that focus on social or environmental impact. Two years later, he founded the private Imagine Montessori school, on the same land that will house the La Pinada eco-district.
In 2017, the concept and plans for La Pinada began, followed by the creation of an open innovation center for sustainability, called La Pinada Lab, in 2020.
In 2021, Marcaide launched Zubi Capital to invest in outside companies as the first impact fund focused on venture capital in Europe. All of these companies and business units are part of the Zubi Group, which employs more than 200 people.
The impact potential of Valencia
Born in Boston, raised in Granada and living in Madrid, London and the US, Marcaide rightly considers herself a citizen of the world. Now that’s his dream valencia becomes a hotspot for impact and sustainability.
“You can start something great anywhere in the world, but you have to be very connected. For me, spending time internationally, then being there valencia being part of a global company opened my eyes to what it means to be globally connected,” he says. “It’s just a matter of hooking up and connecting with like-minded people, and there are a lot of them.”
He believes that while valencia may not become the largest tech hub in the world, it could become the most articulate, connected and functional – at least that’s what he’d like to see happen.
‘When I came to valencia in 2010 and when I met the ecosystem I was missing that sense of global connection and global ambition – I think that’s completely changed,” he says.
Field of dreams
Marcaide says he would like to break ground in Barrio la Pinada tomorrow, but is awaiting building permits from the Valencian authorities. At the moment, there is no planned date when the brainchild of the entrepreneur would open its doors.
La Pinada was designed as a self-contained, carbon neutral community. By consulting people about what they would like their daily lives to look like, the Zubi team realized that everyone wanted things simpler in terms of how they live, work, pick up kids from school, and so on.
“Cities are not that organized, normally you live somewhere, you work somewhere else, school is somewhere else and you spend half your day on the road – a lot of social and environmental issues have arisen right from that,” explains Marcaide. .
The Pinada project has created opportunities for new startups that can support this dream, such as companies working in the fields of energy, waste and the circular economy. In addition to housing, the goal is to have schools, co-working spaces, living spaces and a broad community mix of young and old, professionals, families and single people.
“I think we’re at that hockey stick point at Zubi Group, when you start putting the pieces together and delivering value much faster,” says Marcaide. “We’ve laid a lot of the foundations and the team, so Zubi will be much more global in 10 years, a different order of magnitude from where we are today.”
If you want to experience the Valencian ecosystem for yourself and listen to Iker Marcaide on stage, we have something special for our loyal readers. Use the promotional code TNWVAL30 and receive a 30% discount on your business conference pass for Applied Sciences Valencia.