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Hatching a tech hub in South Florida: Momentum builds but challenges remain

By Nancy Dahlberg


TecheggThe vision: Entrepreneurs find many places to meet and mingle, maybe run into an investor or two. Accelerators accept the best and the brightest start-ups, which in turn stay and grow their businesses in South Florida. Tech companies and serial entrepreneurs open their doors to mentor others. Robust university systems supply the talented technologists and entrepreneurs in the making. Healthy
angel networks fund many early-stage companies.

That’s what a healthy ecosystem for start-ups is all about, and some leaders say the vision is within reach for South Florida. “It’s about growing great entrepreneurs. They need to have a community supporting them,” says Susan Amat, executive director of the University of Miami’s Launch Pad entrepreneurship center and one of the leading advocates of the entrepreneurial movement here.

Last week, Launch Pad announced it will open a community accelerator in January at the Terremark/NAP of the Americas building in downtown Miami. The companies selected for the Launch Pad Tech Accelerator will participate in a three-month program of intense mentoring designed to grow the businesses quickly, receive $25,000 grants, and get mentoring and office space for the year. The Miami Downtown Development Authority has committed $460,000 in funding over two years for operations. Miami-Dade County is kicking in $1 million over four years to fund the grants to entrepreneurs.

And that’s not all. Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg is hoping to include a required course on entrepreneurship for every undergraduate. New events, companies, nonprofit initiatives and funding groups have been springing up to support the entrepreneur. Consider:

• The Knight Foundation has announced a major new program to promote and fund entrepreneurship projects in South Florida. The nonprofit Enterprise Development Corporation, under new leadership, recently expanded its incubator in Boca Raton and is at work on an incubator at Broward College. The University of Miami Life Science & Technology Park is gaining traction as a community hub for tech and the sciences, with co-working space, shared lab space, new restaurants and frequent events, in addition to a growing number of technology tenants that call it home.

• A wave of co-working spaces is expected to sweep in this fall. These include Pipeline Brickell opening in a couple of weeks, and a huge expansion of the recently opened LAB Miami in Wynwood set for early winter. Also scheduled to open in October: RightSpace2Meet’s co-working space at UM’s Life Science & Technology Park, and in Boca Raton, Caffeine Spaces. All plan to feature programs and services geared to the entrepreneur. (See related story here.)

• Tech calendars runneth over, with 60 to 70 events every month in South Florida. The weekend-long AT&T Mobile App Hackathon drew a record 200 people in August, and regular monthly meetups for Refresh Miami in August and September packed in 300 people. Silicon Valley’s Lean Startup Machine rolled into town and has vowed to lead quarterly workshops. Two weekends ago, hackers took over the Bass Museum to develop apps for the arts, and coming up Oct 12-14 Startup Weekends will be held at both UM’s Launch Pad/Terremark space and at the incubator in Boca Raton. In what could be a yearly tradition, Miami will host WebCongress, a huge Internet marketing conference formerly held in Spain. The Latin America-themed program will be Nov. 29 and 30.

• On the horizon: FIU’s third Americas Venture Capital Conference is set for December, a few days after Art Basel, and will be redesigned to be more like a TED conference, with thought leaders brought in from around the world, plus a shark tank, hackathon and more focus on networking. SuperConf will be back in late February, linking investors from inside and outside the region with South Florida’s start-ups. The nonprofit Entrepreneur’s Organization, or EO, is bringing its global annual meeting to Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau next spring. Manny Medina, who founded, grew and  exited Terremark, is spearheading a community effort to establish a large tech conference in Miami beginning in May 2014.

“We’re about to hit the point where the ecosystem takes off. We’re seeing a lot of momentum,” says Brian Breslin, who has led the largest tech meet-up group in South Florida, Refresh Miami, since 2006. To sustain the momentum, he believes, government, the private sector and the entrepreneurial community need to come together and make growing a tech ecosystem a priority.

To be sure, start-up ecosystems have been sprouting up all over the country far from the mecca of Silicon Valley. Notable ones include Boulder, Austin and New York City. “We can take a page from their playbook,” says Juan Pablo Cappello, an entrepreneur, investor and lawyer who recently co-founded a local angel network and is leading other efforts to bring investors and entrepreneurs together.

No doubt a healthy ecosystem to nurture the creation of high-growth technology businesses is needed, with the economy still underperforming, unemployment in South Florida higher than the state and national averages and brain drain still a key concern.

Read the full story here.