‘Sweden is not a place to come and try your luck’

Rosario, Argentina, is about as disconnected from Sweden as it gets according to Anibal Brunelli, who swapped his home nation for the Scandinavian country four years ago.

'Sweden is not a place to come and try your luck'
Smart-farming entrepreneur Anibal Brunelli. Photo: Private

He has a point: the South American city, perhaps best known as the birthplace of Lionel Messi, is 7,787 miles (12,531km) away from Stockholm as the crow flies, and travelling between the two places requires at least two transfers.

“I've made the trip to Stockholm about 12 times, maybe 13. Tickets are starting to get cheaper, but one thing you can't avoid is it takes around a day. Between leaving Rosario, getting to Buenos Aires, then from there to London, Madrid or Barcelona and another flight to Stockholm, plus the change in time zone. 24 hours is a lot to be travelling. Many people may want to do it, but it's so far,” he emphasizes.

It's perhaps no surprise then that knowledge of Sweden is pretty low in the city on the shore of the Paraná River.

“People ask 'how are things in Switzerland?'” he laughs. The fact that the word for Sweden (Suecia) is so similar to the word for Switzerland (Suiza) in Spanish doesn't help.

“It's so far away that people don't even know where it is on the map. The climate scares your average Argentinian too, plus changing money is also a problem: our peso is very weak so Sweden is extremely expensive. Very far, very expensive, very cold.”

“What people do know however when you speak about the Nordic countries is they're places that are very well developed, very liberal, have a lot of money, the people are well educated, it's very cold, and they're very cold. Those are the preconceptions. And with time I have discovered… yes, everything they say is true,” he chuckles.

Brunelli in Barcelona. Photo: Private

Despite the differences, there is one big similarity between the two countries: they both have strong agricultural sectors. It's in that area that Brunelli was able to tie together his experiences in both nations, through his startup BMP Innovation, which specializes in non-invasive smart farming solutions.

The idea was born while he and the other co-founders were working at a different company in Sweden.

“I was representing a Swedish company in Latin America, Spain and Portugal, in the tech sector. A couple of colleagues and I started to talk about our own project taking inspiration from the systems we were working on – non-destructive tests for industry – and applying it to a completely different field. We realized you could do testing like this but for agriculture,” he explains.

“Argentina has a lot of plantations, with corn for example. I realized I could find out quite a lot of information there as I know a lot of farmers, and the other guy I was working with pointed out that there's a big smart-farming movement in Sweden, of people trying to apply technology to their systems of production.”

The founders gradually quit their day jobs as the startup progressed. While the company originally focused on detecting fungal infections in plants, a conversation during a visit home in Argentina changed everything – for the better.

“I spoke to someone from the countryside, told him about the project and he said 'OK, that's interesting, but do you know what would be a life saver for us and we'd save a lot of time and money on? Knowing when a cow is in the right season to be inseminated artificially'. I asked him to tell me more and he told me one dose costs 40 dollars, and in 100 attempts 70 fail.”

“So you lose a lot of money, a lot of time in the process, and the poor cow ends up stressed as the process is very invasive. When he said that to me, I went back and told my partners: guys, forget about detecting fungus in plant, we need to come up with a way to detect when a cow can be inseminated,” he continues.

With that concept, the fledgling company applied for a European Commission grant in conjunction with Sweden's Board of Agriculture (Jordbruksverket). Their application was approved, meaning a major step forward.

“They said it was interesting and we got the grant. We were then able to take a small salary, rent an office. We had needed some investment specifically at that moment, and that happened. It was a turning point, and that's something that often happens for startups: you're going in one direction and your scope changes completely, but within the same field.”

The strict process of applying for the grant also had the added benefit of forcing the company to make sure its house was in order:

“We had to give them a lot of extensive details about the project. It helped us to learn how to develop a good business plan, something many startups don’t have to begin with. And investors had more confidence in us too.”

Citing his own experience, the Argentinian argues the image of Sweden as a haven for startups is accurate.

“In Sweden people don't ask you for anything in exchange. It's not like 'OK, I'll approve this but you have to do this for me'. Everything is transparent, which allows us to believe we can expand. In Argentina there's more regulations and bureaucracy, and there are also issues with corruption. If you know a politician you may get a subsidy very quickly, while a different business that doesn’t back a political party could end up isolated. In Sweden that just doesn’t happen.”

“The real difference though is that the country doesn't have as many resources, and has five times more people than Sweden. It's a bit like if you have a cake and divide into 50 pieces you know you’ll get a small piece. If you have the same cake and divide it by five, it'll be a lot bigger. Then in Argentina, the support is both smaller, and more highly divided. There's also a lot more need for it,” he elaborates.

With friends in Stockholm. Photo: Private

While there are clearly differences between the two countries though, he feels that people in Sweden have the wrong image of Argentina.

“People can eat, they're healthy, it's not the image some people have of South America. Argentina is very Europeanized – Buenos Aires is like the Paris of South America, and Argentina has inherited a lot from Europe – France, Spain and Italy. I'd like there to be more bilateral relations for business. I'd like to do that between Argentina and Sweden. Back home there are a lot of really talented people, engineers, architects etc. But they're limited because they’re far from the rest of the world and isolated, so the good side of globalization is you can open up the world to them. If Sweden could break into the Argentinian market it would be great.”

The already existing links between Europe and Argentina played a big role in easing Brunelli’s establishment on a new continent, thanks to his dual nationality, which many Argentinians have. Anyone without a European passport hoping to emulate his move should think long and hard about it though, he warns.

“If you're Argentinian, don't know anyone from Sweden in terms of a partner or a company that will give you work, it's not the place to come and try your luck. It isn't a place to come and go 'let's see what happens'. Because I'll tell you what will happen: you won't find somewhere to live – in Stockholm that's super difficult. You won't get work quickly because you'll need your personnummer (personal identity number). As an Argentinian that process takes a long time.”

“Then after that's done you won’t have a single penny left, and you'll be suffering from the cold – it's not the place to come and try out your luck,” he reiterates.

“So I'd say: make a CV, do your research, look where there are openings, start doing applications and try to come through a company. I mean look, if you said to me 'I'm going to Barcelona to live'. I'd say, mate, get a backpack and go, because you'll find everything. The climate, the people. Within a week you’ll be working at a beach restaurant. In Sweden, it's not like that. People who don't know what they want to do shouldn't come here.”

That doesn't mean he wants to put people off coming to Sweden: far from it. The entrepreneur likes the place so much he would choose to pay his taxes here even if he one day is in the luxurious position of being able to pick where to live during different times of the year.

“My idea is to in some way be able to maintain my business activities in Sweden, and eventually be able to live some months of the year in Argentina. For example: eight months in Sweden, four months in Argentina, that's the plan. I still have my family, cousins, brothers in Argentina, and being in Sweden between November and February is difficult.”

“I think even the Swedes struggle with the winter. That's the other side of living in Sweden. But if you said to me: 'where do you want to be as a professional, have your business, pay your taxes, retire?' Sweden, of course. Things are much more fair, much better developed, perfect.”

“The hope is to continue working with this startup in Sweden, which has a big chance of growing, then eventually begin doing business overseas, and entering the Latin American market, which needs this kind of improved technology a lot. That would be my dream,” he elaborates.

Happier cows? Photo: Private

In the nearer future, Brunelli and BMP Innovation are already thinking of more ideas for how to develop, including branching out into robotics.

“We have the funds (from the grant) until next year, and we're thinking of something more, we haven't relaxed. We're in contact with a lot of big companies, people who make robots for example, talking to big players in that market. Hopefully we can act on all the ideas we have – we don't have the resources yet, staff numbers etc to take on them all – but we feel Sweden is the best environment for startups to grow in.”

Away from the world of smart farming, he also has one big business idea that someone would perhaps be smart to act on.

“Swedish culture hasn't registered in Argentina, which I've pointed out to friends. One has a bakery, so I told him 'if you could make cinnamon buns you’d sell a heap of the things'. He said 'oh but you know, people don’t like cinnamon here'. No! Of course they do, it’s just no one offers it!” he concludes.