BY NANCY DAHLBERG
Four organizations focus on building the South Florida entrepreneurial ecosystem
Here is a look at the strategies of four organizations working to nurture the entrepreneurial ecosystem:
THE LAB MIAMI
In a year, The LAB Miami has grown from one room to a 10,000-square-foot space in Wynwood, with 130 members representing 85 organizations, four or five events every week, more than 9,500 visitors to date and a growing roster of educational programming open to the community.
From hosting hackathons and civic “idea jams” to teaching a coding class or showing a film series, the aptly named LAB is constantly testing new events and classes at the artsy co-working center that intermingles all the creative industries. Wifredo Fernandez and Danny Lafuente, co-founders of The LAB, said their members are also stepping up to host events and hold classes, and corporations have been taking an interest, too.
“Look around at what Wifredo and Danny have built here,” said Peter Martinez, co-director of Refresh Miami, at a recent “Tech Swizzle” networker hosted at The LAB for people in tech, music and the arts. “This is a real community. This is a place where everyone wants to be.”
Going into the next year, look for a greater focus on the skills needed in the marketplace, youth development and corporate innovation, said Fernandez. In physical space, The LAB, a for-profit center funded by the Knight Foundation and a group of local angel investors, is just about at capacity. “We want to grow within Wynwood,” he said, adding that The LAB may add a space nearby for events and more offices.
As for The LAB’s educational efforts, expect more multiweek classes on specific skills needed in the tech marketplace, said Fernandez. “We’ve been testing out lots of topics: Ruby on Rails, 3D printing, Python web development. Now we are interesting in having more focused courses startups and technologists need in South Florida — courses like digital marketing, product management. Some training will come from a digital platform developed by member startup LearnerNation.
“We want to create a talent loop — the talent comes in and receives training here for eight to 10 weeks and then will have job opportunities,” Fernandez said.
The LAB is also working with LearnerNation and another local startup, DemoHire, to create a project around talent development and jobs, he said. “Everything we do here is a collaboration.”
The LAB has held workshops for middle and high school students, such as all-day coding classes called Code Fever and Hopscotch, and it wants to do much more in this area. These could be after-school events or Saturday workshops, he said.
Another trend is corporate innovation. “We are seeing corporations that want to innovate; they want to plug into the startup community and the creative community, and this is a turnkey way for them to do so,” Fernandez said. Companies like Akerman Senterfitt, MasterCard and Discovery Channel have become members and are planning events for the membership. He sees more corporations setting up “innovation labs” at The LAB.
Longer term, Fernandez would like to find a way to house more startups at all three stages — early, middle and late. For now, he points to successes like DemoHire. “Tamara [Brenes, founder of DemoHire] found her first programmer here, her first investor here; she grew her team to seven or eight and then moved out but is still very involved as a member.”
Other changes to expect: The LAB will be crowdfunding the garden project soon. It also plans to install a cafe in the entrance area and a video production studio.
Susan Amat believes that one of the keys to growing and sustaining a strong ecosystem is starting young — very young.
So beginning in January, Venture Hive will be opening a high school magnet school for technology entrepreneurship in a partnership with Miami-Dade County Schools. That’s a big development for the accelerator and incubator that opened its doors in January. But it turns out it’s always been part of Amat’s plan.
“We’ve developed a robust curriculum so high school students entering the program will have well-balanced exposure to tech entrepreneurship — everything from the developer mindset to the design mindset to business, communications, PR. We want to give them a strong view of what the rhythm of that world looks like,” said Amat, who founded Venture Hive.
This year’s pilot program, called Venture Hive Prep, will include 20 students in grades 11 and 12. The students will spend their mornings at their schools in regular classes, and then join Venture Hive in the afternoons for intense entrepreneurship and tech programming and will work alongside Venture Hive’s resident entrepreneurs. The application process will be announced soon.
Amat’s dream is to eventually offer a K-12 program.
“I am creating this for the 15-year-old me,” said Amat, a serial entrepreneur who dropped out of high school to start her first business before eventually returning and earning her doctorate. “I want to be able to give a ray of hope to kids who are full of passion — they may see something no one else sees. We are going to take them seriously. … Entrepreneurship is not about showing someone you can do it, it’s about realizing your vision.”
In effect, the students will be part of the next accelerator class. “Whatever they are looking for, we will find a way to facilitate it. They may want to intern with an existing company — we have them. If they want to intern for a startup, that’s fine, too, but if they have a concept and they want to build it out, we’ll provide all the resources they’ll need to be able to do it. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kids.”
And other big changes are in store as Venture Hive prepares to enter its second year. In its short life, Venture Hive companies have created 34.25 jobs at an average salary of $40,360, according to its report published in May. It has also been responsible for 13 business relocations and three new business formations, the report said. Venture Hive, a nonprofit, is supported by the Miami-Dade County mayor’s office and the Miami Downtown Development Authority, which together committed $1.5 million in funding.
The accelerator works with entrepreneurs finding solutions in industries that are strong in Miami-Dade — healthcare, tourism/hospitality and the creative industries (film, music, the arts, design). For the next class starting in January, trade/logistics will also be included. The 10 accelerator companies chosen will again receive $25,000 grants and free office space at the Hive for a year.
Venture Hive will be taking applications on venturehive.co through Nov. 1 for the accelerator. Like this year’s class, in which half the teams selected were from Latin America and moved here, Venture Hive is seeing large interest from international companies, even from as far away as Asia and Africa, said Amat. She said Venture Hive is not a typical accelerator: “The goal is not to come for three months and leave, the goal is to stay. We will have the majority of our first class here as mentors and colleagues — that’s key.”
Next year, Venture Hive will be adding a Knowledge Partners program with 10 hand-picked corporate partners from a range of industries and specialties. Venture Hive will also be continuing its incubator, which accepts companies from all industries. As of now, about 100 entrepreneurs from 28 companies call the 35,000-square-foot Venture Hive home; about a third of the teams are from Latin America. Amat expects to host about 50 companies in about four months.
Amat is also talking to universities both locally and abroad and will be announcing some international partnerships in the coming months.
“Venture Hive is really about full ecosystem development,” said Amat. “Everything we do here is really about changing lives.”
The eMerge Americas conference is just one part of the vision of the Technology Foundation of the Americas, the nonprofit started by tech entrepreneur Manny Medina earlier this year to help accelerate the tech hub movement in South Florida.
“There is this transformation, this wave going on … What I want to do is get Miami in front of this wave,” said Medina at a recent tech talk at Pipeline Brickell.
Medina says he wants South Florida to take advantage of one of its greatest assets — as the gateway to Latin America — and eventually be the technology hub of the Americas. The first step in the battle is to put on a great conference that shines a light on everything going on here. eMerge Americas is scheduled for May 4-6 at Miami Beach Convention Center, and organizers hope for attendance of 5,000 or more.
Medina and Diane Sanchez, CEO of the Foundation, say many more details about the conference will be coming out over the next couple of months. But they have said dozens of tech giants — including Cisco, Oracle, IBM, Microsoft and Univision — have expressed interest in participating, and already Canada, the United Kingdom, Spain, Guatemala, Colombia and Chile are committed. The team also has been working with Latin American organizations, including 21212 in Brazil, 500 Startups and Angel Ventures in Mexico, INNpulsa in Colombia and Start Up Chile, to showcase the “best and brightest” emerging companies from the region, Sanchez said recently from Bogota, where she was meeting with companies.
Most important, the conference will be a showcase for South Florida’s tech corridor — one that embraces Latin America but also encompasses all three counties and their many assets. “Our strength is tri-county. We’ll be showcasing 40 or more local emerging growth companies, many will be from Broward and Palm Beach. The idea is to bring VC interest to invest in these companies. This is bigger than we are,” said Sanchez.
There will be pavilions with themes like healthcare, smart cities and media and entertainment. Through the efforts of the TFA, local industry advisory groups have formed to help guide the conference and the greater tech hub movement. “What we are finding is that the stakeholders are rallying behind creating centers of excellence. No one wants to be left out. That’s a great problem to have,” said Sanchez, using the example of the recent HealthTech Showcase at the UM Life Science & Technology Park as an example of public-private partnership success. The TFA is also partnering with the South Florida Technology Alliance on some initiatives.
Like the South By Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, and Miami Beach’s Art Basel, eMerge will incorporate lots of music, culture, celebrities and private parties, the organizers say. There will be auxiliary events, too, including Florida International University’s Americas Venture Capital Conference. Just before eMerge, there are plans for a mayoral summit involving officials from many Latin American, European and U.S. cities. The idea is that there will be a Miami Tech Week — a full week or more of activities.
“The hope is that this conference will be the spark — some of the VCs open shop, some of the companies establish themselves here, education happening, that’s the plan. It’s a gargantuan plan,” said Medina.
“We are evolving into a tech corridor, and this is the first event to show what we have and what we are working toward, and we’ll keep building every year,” added Sanchez.
While Miami has a long history of being highly entrepreneurial, there’s an economic problem: The great majority of the businesses stay very small.
The number of micro-businesses (10 or fewer employees) in the Miami metropolitan area has increased more than 200 percent from 2000 through 2012, while the numbers of medium and small businesses increased only slightly — roughly the same rate as population growth in the metropolitan area during that time. The number of large businesses dropped by more than 20 percent from 2000 through 2012, which indicates that few small and medium businesses are growing to replace the large businesses that have been lost, according to Endeavor research based on Dun & Bradstreet data.
Endeavor is all about the scale-up. The nonprofit selects high-impact entrepreneurs to mentor and gives them the network and resources to help them grow fast, adding hundreds of jobs to the economy.
“There are a lot of initiatives for the startup community, and the Knight Foundation’s work is a critical piece … but there’s no organization that coaches from startup to scale-up in a systematic fashion,” explained Danny Echavarria, director of Organización Corona and vice chair of Endeavor Miami. “Endeavor brings best of breed mentors and a global network for the scale-up process.”
To be chosen as an Endeavor Entrepreneur, there are three ingredients, said Laura Maydón, Endeavor Miami’s managing director. The entrepreneur must be a leader and potential role model who wants to stay in Miami and give back to the community. The business model should be be high-growth and proven and the timing must be right — the company needs to be at an “inflection point” such as ready to grow internationally.
Before opening its doors in donated office space in Open English’s Coconut Grove headquarters, the organization assembled a local board who then hired the managing director. Endeavor Miami, backed by a combined $5 million commitment from The Knight Foundation and Endeavor’s board, literally launched last week.
“We spent a lot of time thinking about our founding board,” said Adriana Cisneros, CEO of the Cisneros Group of Companies and chair of Endeavor Miami. “The challenge is that Miami can be transient. We wanted board members who were committed to Endeavor and Miami for years and years to come.”
Endeavor Miami hopes to assemble a small group of South Florida’s highest-quality entrepreneurs to present at the Endeavor Global selection panel in Dubai in December. Next year there will be several opportunities to present more. In the past 15 years, Endeavor Global has selected more than 800 high-impact entrepreneurs. In 2012, these entrepreneurs generated $6 billion in revenue and had created 225,000 jobs, according to Endeavor. “We couldn’t be more thrilled to be at this moment,” Matt Haggman said about Endeavor Miami’s launch. The Miami program director for the Knight Foundation initiated the talks to bring Endeavor to Miami.
The goal for the first year, Maydón said, is to find Endeavor Miami’s first high-impact entrepreneurs. “I will focus on those entrepreneurs who are defining their strategies here in South Florida, and most importantly that they really want to stay here and give back. I hope that five years from now we will look back and we will have so many success stories,” said Maydón, who welcomes high-impact entrepreneurs from all industries. “We will find those great stories.”
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg. South Florida startup and technology news can be found on the Starting Gate blog on MiamiHerald.com/business.