(from my guest column in the Miami Herald)
A few weeks ago, I had my first-ever opportunity to visit the Miami startup ecosystem. I was visiting as part of Terrapinn Private Equity World, a leading private equity conference for the Latin American technology community. You might assume the event took place in Sao Paolo or Mexico City, but no, it was in Miami, and will be again in 2014.
The decision to host the conference in Miami is hardly unfounded. Miami is one of the fastest growing new startup hubs in the US.
As a VC, Miami is exactly the sort of place I love to invest in: a city filled with entrepreneurs who not only want to be successful in their own endeavors, but also strive to create a sustainable infrastructure for others to succeed after they do. Miami has many of the assets of an entrepreneurial hub, notably a flourishing creative community, and a strong public university system.
I’m particularly interested in Miami’s potential due to its being a hub for immigrants. Immigrants in general are disproportionately entrepreneurial. In addition, Miami is already sometimes called the capital of Latin America, and logically it may soon be viewed as the capital of LatAm tech as well. I saw numerous companies focused on serving the broader LatAm community using Miami as their home base to do so.
For example, we’re a significant investor in Clearpath Immigration, a company based in NY, DC, and Florida which makes immigration process easier and more affordable. Clearpath is revolutionizing the confusing, costly and paper-based immigration filing process, just as TurboTax transformed tax filing. Not only do we think Clearpath has huge business potential, but we love the policy implications of helping more great people immigrate legally to the US.
Miami’s geographic and cultural ties to Latin America and the Spanish-speaking population are crucial in the wake of demographic shifts in the US. Another portfolio company of ff Venture Capital that targets this market is Voxy, a mobile app that creates an immersive experience in teaching English as a second language.
We also are a significant investor in a Florida startup, UniKey, which allows you to unlock your house with your smartphone. This is sophisticated technology being built out of Winter Park (a small city near Orlando).
A number of organizations and initiatives have noticed that Miami is seeing a newfound interest in tech and entrepreneurship. Endeavor is a major non-profit organization whose mission is to bring high-impact entrepreneurship to developing countries. They recently decided to replicate their model for the first time ever in the US, and chose Miami as the logical city to start in. Endeavor recognizes that although entrepreneurial activity already exists in Miami, it remains difficult for founders to reach scale. Miami doesn’t yet have the venture capital and level of depth in all the entrepreneurial disciplines (internet marketing, venture law, etc.) that cities such as San Francisco and New York have built.
The Knight Foundation, a non-profit organization that supports programs in US cities that have yet to reach their economic potential, is investing $2 million in the Endeavor program over the course of five years. The foundation is also funding The LAB Miami, a campus that hosts members of Miami’s creative and entrepreneurial community. The LAB is just one example of Miami’s shared co-working spaces that are cropping up all over the city in an effort to retain local talent instead of having entrepreneurs and engineers relocate elsewhere. LAB is located in Wynwood, an arts district with many galleries, eclectic shops, and restaurants.
At the end of the Private Equity World conference, I served as a judge for the LatAm Start-Up Battle, which took place at The LAB Miami. Founders from ten startups had the opportunity to present in front of a panel of investors and journalists, and we’ve had conversations since with one of them about investing.
We look forward to building a stronger involvement in this burgeoning tech community. I am confident that the best innovation in Miami is yet to come.