The former captain of the Spanish national team and Real Madrid, and the head of digital business at Telefónica have reinvented themselves: they change football and hacking for the world of innovation to help entrepreneurs make their projects a reality.
They apparently have nothing in common. Iker Casillas comes from football, a sport in which he started when he was a kid, which has taken him to the top for almost 30 years and has given him moments of glory with a World Cup, two European Championships, five Leagues and three Champions Leagues - these last won with Real Madrid- . Chema Alonso comes from the computer world, an area in which he has developed several projects and in which he is considered the best in his field: hacking. "This discipline has always been understood from its positive meaning, which is the ability of hackers to manage computers to take care of their security," Alonso clarifies. "We are not cybercriminals," he insists.
They are two profiles at opposite poles who have discovered that they have a lot in common. The first thing is their origins, since both were born in the Madrid municipality of Móstoles, where they took their first steps in each of the fields in which they have excelled. Another aspect that unites them is that they radically changed their professional life: Iker hung up his goalkeeper boots and gloves, retired and sought new directions in the venture, launching an accelerator in 2021, SportBoost.
Chema Alonso, for his part, went from the dark side of computing - "always speaking of its positive connotation" - to signing for a large company like Telefónica, which he joined in 2012, where he has led different projects and in the who currently holds the position of digital director.
Now that similarity between the two is even closer. They met at a meeting in which they were introduced and from which the collaboration between SportBoost and Wayra, the operator's innovation hub, emerged: they have closed an agreement to support start-ups that develop technologies linked to sport.
A few days ago they presented the first call for this initiative, open until April 20, to all interested projects, which will obtain up to 700,000 euros jointly between the two companies, or up to 350,000 from one or the other. Initiatives linked to esports, the metaverse, streaming sports or home training will be looked at. "This collaboration is a winning combination", both underlined in the presentation of the agreement, where they stressed the value of innovation to transform the sports business: "Technology has come to revolutionize sport".
From now on, they will work conscientiously, together with their teams, to select the best projects that in the future will have financing and especially firm support from professionals and mentors, helping entrepreneurs to start them up.
For Iker Casillas, what led him to move from football to the world of entrepreneurs was a heart attack suffered while training in Portugal with his team, Porto, where he ended up after leaving Real Madrid. "That changed my personal and professional schemes. He nipped my professional career in the bud and made me put it in my head that football was over. I had to start another path."
Then the pandemic would come, "which forced us all to spend a lot of time at home, to think and rethink things."
Learning about the project of an entrepreneur like Manuel Marina -Idoven-, with whom he immediately empathized, made him interested in the world of technology applied to health and in the entrepreneurs who made these innovations a reality. "I started thinking of ways to help these people get their projects off the ground, helping them and giving back everything the sport had given me for so many years."
SportBoost was born from that concern, an initiative that also managed to involve the Esic business school and LaLiga. In addition to Idoven, two more start-ups have joined the accelerator, with ideas related to sports: "Kognia, a company that has developed software to analyze matches or training sessions in real time, which is being used by coaches such as Xavi Herrnández , Unai Emery or Paulo Sousa in their different teams. Fly-Fut, for its part, applies drones and artificial intelligence to the recording of football matches to be able to see them in maximum detail".
To enter SportBoost, entrepreneurs have to present projects related to sports, "the branch that my team and I understand, that have to do with sports health and that help make it easier to practice the different disciplines."
For Chema Alonso, the leap between his previous projects and his current job at Telefónica came years ago. He says that he started messing with computers when he was a kid and that's when he saw that his passion was computing. "Watching Tron, the Disney movie where the programmers were gods, blew me away." Since then, he loves technology, programming and databases.
He studied computer systems engineering at the Polytechnic University of Madrid, which years later recognized him as an honorary ambassador. He taught classes and directed the master's degree in information security at the European University of Madrid. His entrepreneurial adventure began when he set up his own company: "With Rodol, my lifelong friend, I launched Informática 64, specialized in computer security. We came to this specific matter when we saw that there was a vulnerability that affected the databases that we had to address. That's how I fell in love with IT security and began to dedicate myself to it in depth".
His first contact with Telefónica took place with a visit to the Wayra facilities, located in the company's emblematic building on Madrid's Gran Vía.
"There I was able to see how the entrepreneurs worked in this innovation hub and the different projects they were promoting," he says. The then president of Telefónica, César Alierta, tempted him to join the company: "he finally convinced me", explains Alonso.
He assures that the change from his previous job as a hacker to the activity in a large corporation was not as big as one might apparently believe: "They are not so different worlds because here, at Telefónica, I continue to work with technology and innovation. We look for the corners of technology that no one has come up with. This is a lot like hacking. My life is still very similar."
Since joining the company in 2012 to promote a support program for young talent, Talentum, he has seen how Wayra has evolved in the Spanish entrepreneurial ecosystem. Last year the open innovation hub celebrated its tenth anniversary, a time in which it has invested in 800 start-ups, of which 250 have worked or are working with Telefónica. In 2021 alone, 6.7 million euros were invested in 49 firms in Europe and Latin America. Artificial intelligence, fintech, wellness, health, cybersecurity and sustainability are the major areas of interest in innovation for the group.
After passing through different departments of the company, Alonso currently holds the position of digital director of the company.
He considers that Spain is well prepared in cybersecurity matters, both from the Administration and from the companies. "There is more fear now about a possible cyber war derived from the conflict in Ukraine, but there is no need to increase the concern more than we could have previously. Spain has made great progress in cybersecurity in recent years. We have a single command of the Government in this matter, in addition to different cyberterrorism units, specialists and teams working for security".
At the business level, he considers that the companies are well prepared. They are investing in cybersecurity and have the appropriate security mechanisms in place. He highlights the innovation, research and talent of experts in Spain to develop projects related to cybersecurity, many of them born in universities. Although he believes that everything can be improved, he considers that we are on the right track.
"Another thing is that a computer security incident may arise in a company. Here the key is knowing how to properly manage this unforeseen event, not prevent it from happening. I always say that it is the same as when you educate a child: you can teach him to react with a problem, but you can never prevent it from having it.
Alonso works every year with many young entrepreneurs who want to make their ideas come true. Many of them fresh out of college. When asked if he perceives sensitivity in the classrooms for entrepreneurship versus the option of signing up for a large company, he sees a clear change: "Now in the faculties things are taught such as what an investment round is, how a company is financed or how a business or sales plan works. When I was studying I would have liked to learn that kind of thing".
According to Alonso, this new reality makes many young people dare to undertake: "I always encourage university students to set up a business before joining a large company. It's very nice and they learn a lot. It is essential to educate them for failure. You have to recognize mistakes and know how to rectify and move on."
Alonso maintains his blog A computer scientist on the side of evil, which he started years ago and in which he continues to write. "The bad side of the internet are cyberbullies, those who cause bullying, technologies that create anxiety in people, computer attacks... There are many things to correct on the internet. This can only be achieved by putting humanist values at the center of the construction of technology", he concludes.
A year after suffering a heart attack while playing for his team, Porto, Iker Casillas learned about the project led by cardiologist Manuel Marina, Idoven. It is a platform that collects data on the behavior of the heart, helping athletes and people to control their constants and improve their health. "From the personal experience I had, I did not hesitate to get involved in this company. They could help many people like me. Their positive impact on society was clear," Casillas highlights. He not only gave visibility to the project, he also became an investor in the firm. Thus he contributed to Idoven's technology incorporating improvements. The next boost for this 'start up' came last year from the hand of Wayra: Telefónica's innovation 'hub' participated in the 2 million euro round raised by Idoven, which was also attended by Accel Partners, Enisa and several 'business angels'. "With artificial intelligence we have taught software to control the heart and diagnose heart problems", highlights Manuel Marina, CEO of Idoven.
Around the star technology at the moment, the metaverse, Chema Alonso sees a whole world of possibilities. "It seems that the social worlds linked to communication and entertainment, be they games or not, will be the ones that will expand the fastest
For this reason, social platforms such as Facebook (Meta Now) are the first to have advanced their proposal in this vision", emphasizes the manager.
He also sees many possibilities in the services around the crypto economy. "Without a doubt, there are going to be other winners: everything associated with 'exchangers', 'wallets', 'blockchain' platforms and cybersecurity in the Web3 world". Online commerce businesses based on the metaverse will also be talked about.
In his opinion, they are going to change the field of 'retail', but he also notes that "the future is not written, so we will see how this new world develops."