Iker Marcaide is one of Spain’s most energetic entrepreneurs. Since retiring from Flywire, the first Spanish startup to go public on Nasdaq, Marcaide has focused on impact investing, creating new startups with his company Zubi Group, building a school and designing an eco- quarter.
In 2021, Forbes named him one of the 100 most creative business people in Spain.
Iker Markaide. Photo credit: Zubi Group
Marcaide meets us on a 60-acre tree-lined property on the outskirts of town Valencia on a sunny, cool January morning. This is La Pinada, where he will build a sustainable neighborhood (“barrio” in Spanish) that includes homes, schools, co-works, and community spaces.
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Today, the wooden shacks on the site are filled with people working on Zubi Group startup projects. The Imagine Montessori school, which Marcaide opened in 2016, can be seen across a wooden bridge between the trees.
The Imagine Montessori School. Photo credit: Zubi Group
As an advisor to TNW’s first conference in Valencia, Marcaide will be speaking on Impact Investing at our event in March. In the meantime, we’re here to chat with him about the founding of foreign currency payments platform Flywire, his reasons for leaving and his ambitions for Zubi Group.
Born out of frustration
The idea for Flywire (then PeerTransfer) came to Marcaide in 2009 while he was doing his Masters in Business Administration (MBA) and Engineering at MIT. He didn’t see himself as an entrepreneur at the time, nor did he have an entrepreneurial background, but he wanted to start businesses that “are in some ways aligned with me and my needs, things that I’ve experienced firsthand.”
At the time, he was experiencing the stress and expense of having grant funds transferred to MIT from a Spanish foundation.
“I thought, ‘That’s unfair, because the people with the least purchasing power are actually paying all these bank fees… What if we could create a cheaper, more reliable, better alternative to bank transfers? just?'”
Marcaide decided that while they would need local sales and business development teams in different markets, it would be wise to consolidate functions globally and decided Valencia as the main office for things like administration, engineering and product development.
The company is headquartered in Boston and has since grown into a leading provider of cross-border tuition transfers for universities. It has also branched out into travel, healthcare and other businesses. Flywire went public in 2021 at a valuation of $3.5 billion.
So what led to Marcaide stepping down as Flywire CEO in 2013, when things were really exploding?
“It was a big decision, but there were a lot of things to do at the time,” he says. “I realized that you can only be the CEO of a company, and given that you want to be involved in solving various problems, being the CEO of a company would not be an option.”
“Whenever I start a business, I always think that it has to be not only your baby, but also have a life of its own,” he adds. “Not becoming a bottleneck as a founder is your main role, so to speak.”
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 could also play a social or environmental role.
His first major venture in 2014 was venture builder Zubi Labs, which creates technology companies from the ground up that focus on social or environmental impact. Two years later, he founded the private Montessori school Imagine on the same property that will house the La Pinada eco-district.
Impression of Barrio La Pinada. Photo credit: Zubi Group
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 founded Zubi Capital to invest in external companies as the first impact fund targeting venture debt in Europe. All of these companies and business units are part of the Zubi Group, which has over 200 employees.
Possible impact of Valencia
Born in Boston, raised in Granada and lived in Madrid, London and the USA, Marcaide rightly considers himself a citizen of the world. Now that’s his dream Valencia becomes a hotspot for impact and sustainability.
“You can start something great from anywhere in the world, but you have to be very well connected. Spend time internationally for me, then be there Valencia Being part of a global company opened my eyes to what it means to be globally connected,” he says. “It’s all about connecting and networking with like-minded people, of which there are many.”
He thinks so Valencia may not become the largest technology center in the world, it could become the most articulated, connected and functional – at least that’s what he wishes.
“When I came to Valencia When I first got to know the ecosystem in 2010, I kind of lacked this sense of global connectedness and global ambition – I think that has completely changed,” he says.
field of dreams
Marcaide says he would like to break ground on Barrio la Pinada tomorrow but is awaiting building permits from the Valencian authorities. At the moment there is no planned date when the entrepreneur’s idea would open its doors.
La Pinada was conceived as a self-contained, carbon neutral community. The Zubi team consulted with people on how they would like their everyday life to be organized and realized that everyone wanted things to be simpler when it came to how they live, work, pick up children from school and so on.
Impression of Barrio La Pinada. Photo credit: Zubi Group
“Cities aren’t organized that way, you usually live somewhere else, you work somewhere else, the school is somewhere else and you spend half the day on the move – a lot of social and environmental problems derive from that,” explains Marcaide.
The Pinada project has created opportunities for new startups that could support this dream, working in areas such as energy, waste and circular economy. In addition to housing, schools, co-working spaces, living quarters and a broad community mix of young and older people, professionals, families and singles are to be created.
“At Zubi Group, I think we’ve gotten to that hockey stick point where you start putting the pieces together and delivering value much faster,” says Marcaide. “We have built a lot of foundation and team, so in 10 years Zubi will be much more global, a different scale than today.”
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