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Q&A: Natalia Martinez-Kalinina weighs in on Miami’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

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By Nancy Dahlberg / ndahlbergbiz@gmail.com

Two years ago, Cambridge Innovation Center announced it would be expanding to Miami, taking most of the space in the University of Miami Life Science & Technology Park, which is now called Converge Miami. And at that time it made a bold prediction: that it would quickly become a hub for entrepreneurship in Miami.

Natalia Martinez-Kalinina, an organizational psychologist and strategist focused on merging innovation, entrepreneurship and community impact, led the expansion as general manager, and CIC Miami opened about a year ago, taking up nearly 80,000 square feet for offices, co-working and events. It plans to expand another 50,000 feet in future buildings planned for Converge.

CIC already houses more than 220 organizations, a vibrant mix of startups, small businesses and nonprofits in multiple sectors. Thursday evenings have quickly become a networking hub with CIC’s nonprofit partner Venture Cafe typically hosting a dozen or so community events that are free and open to the public.

As its first year comes to a close, CIC Miami and UM have launched Converge Labs, shared wet lab spaces available to university startups and researchers. The spaces will be available to the greater community as well after Jan. 1.

CIC also now has an arts program, a Latin American soft-landing program with Chile, Colombia and Argentina signed on as partners, and it is getting ready to launch a Corporate Innovation Program that is focused at connecting corporates with startups and vice versa.

“It is something that CIC in other cities is known for, and we are taking a different spin at it here in Miami,” Martinez-Kalinina said.

“The objective of CIC Miami is not to build a building or a set of buildings, but to build a community, create a true place of convergence, and add tangible value and momentum behind our city’s progress. As such, our walls should feel permeable for anyone, not just our clients. Although a chunk of our programming is internal, most of it is either fully or partially open to the public, so we hope that any participant in the innovation, entrepreneurship, or research sectors in Miami can benefit,” she said.

The Herald spoke with Martinez-Kalinina recently about CIC and the Miami entrepreneurial ecosystem, and followed up with questions via email. Here are excerpts of the conversation.

You have said you hoped CIC Miami would become an engine of innovation and a hub of collaboration in Miami. How do you think CIC is doing?

We have a long road ahead, but are very proud of the first year that both CIC and Venture Café have had in Miami. Both organizations have designed an inclusive, comprehensive vision that is largely informed by our trajectory in other cities over the last 18-plus years, but also very specific to the moment of growth stage that Miami is in.

The feedback we have gotten from our partners, visitors, and other stakeholders has reinforced that our mission is coming to life, and our high net promoter score (88) has been an indicator that our clients feel they can thrive and grow with us.

Year one was marked by experimentation, in which your team tried many new programs. What exceeded your expectations that will most surely be continued?

The focus of our first year was all about piloting, bootstrapping, and adjusting from feedback. Fortunately, several initiatives have truly exceeded our expectations.

One was the launch of our Latin American collaborations and closed agreements with both public and private entities in Argentina, Chile, and Colombia. Since then, we've advised entrepreneurial missions, connected startups to investment opportunities, helped to soft-land entrepreneurs, and provided other resources to our partners.

Since opening, we have launched a long list of CIC-led internal and external programming, including our ongoing “Future of” series on Fintech, travel/hospitality, health, education, law, corporate social responsibility (CSR), et al. The communities that are forming around each of these topics and the high level of engagement they have brought have signaled to us that this was truly needed and is adding real value.

Along the same lines, seeking to connect South Florida’s entrepreneurs with investors, we have done several recurring events and workshops (such as AntiPortfolio) focused on activating/educating more local investors, as well as provided ongoing investor office hours.

After hearing a lot of talk about how the arts and business sectors need to come together and learn from each other, we launched The Creator’s Lounge to provide artists, makers and performers the resources they need to bring their talents to market, collaborate within diverse industries, and build the supportive community they need.

And what was most surprising or challenging?

In other cities where CIC is located, we have seen remarkable engagement from corporations. They not only house portions of their innovation, small business, or R&D groups within CIC for proximity to the entrepreneurial scene, but move significantly beyond that by designing programming that places them front and center in these conversations.

In Miami, we heard about a much-talked about disconnect between how our enterprise sector engages with innovation, and we can attest that working at this interaction has been slower than we expected.

For this reason, we have launched a Corporate Innovation program, based on a history of fruitful experiences at other CIC locations and aimed at plugging in our local enterprises into the startup ecosystem.

What’s ahead for 2018?

If 2017 was our year of experimentation, 2018 will hopefully be the year of us growing and deepening across all of our objectives. The Converge Labshared wet laboratory pilot has been so successful within its first three months that we are doubling it in size. Our investor initiatives will continue to grow, connecting local startups and entrepreneurs with more and more national and international investors via our virtual office hours and visiting programming.

Most notably, our established partnerships will begin to bear fruit. Our Latin American collaborations are due to ramp up in the volume of startups we see, joint events we execute, and the creation of our digital resource library for Latin American startups (to be housed within our Why.Miami project). And 2018 will be the first year that Babson College’s expanded graduate curriculum is operational in Miami.

More broadly, how do you see the South Florida entrepreneurial ecosystem developing?

First and foremost, I believe our next chapter will be defined by how well we learn to collaborate; this goes for our universities, institutions, public-private touchpoints, corporations, entrepreneurs.

Secondly, I see us challenging ourselves and each other to think bigger with our ideas and push outside of Miami and Florida more aggressively with funding and scaling strategies. We need to define what success looks like outside of our own backyard earlier and better.

Thirdly, I see us learning to better optimize our resources into real strategic advantages. This includes truly taking advantage of the demographic/migration patterns in South Florida and better delivering on our position sandwiched in the hemisphere. It also includes elevating the innovation narrative and focusing resources around disrupting and advancing the industry verticals that are already our strengths (logistics, health, hospitality, real estate, et al.)

From CIC sitting in the middle of the health district, have you and your team seen a need to expand programing or services for this industry?

Yes, of course. In fact, one of the pillars of our strategic plan is to be a place of convergence between the life sciences/health sector and the rest of the innovation corridor in our city, both physically and figuratively. It is the reason why have wet laboratory facilities for chemical and biological research in addition to our office and coworking spaces. It is also the reason we piloted the shared Converge Lab with The University of Miami, which has expanded to include referrals from other universities and will be open to non-university affiliated research startups starting January 2018.

Lastly, since more than 60 percent of the companies housed at CIC are life sciences or health related, we have designed ongoing programming focused on their needs — from health investor in-person and virtual office hours and working groups and sessions with pharmaceutical, hospital, and institutional representatives to our ongoing “future of health” public-facing events in collaboration with Health 2.0.

In your view, what one or two ingredients are still needed in the entrepreneurial ecosystem?

We need a much larger and more engaged/capacitated class of local pre-seed and seed investors willing to fund South Florida based companies and be active in their development. We also need more local/state government support. Strengthening innovation and entrepreneurship should be a priority for our local public sector, and that entails the deployment of funds to incentivize talent creation, new initiatives, and direct investment.

Local government should co-lead how we connect and collaborate with innovation hubs across the region in substantive ways. Several city and regional governments around the world are setting a high and thoughtful bar for these priorities, and Miami needs to follow suit.

How best can universities play a role?

Universities play several truly invaluable roles. First, they educate the entrepreneurs, professionals, thinkers and creatives of the next generation. The impact they can have by not just inspiring, but training 21st-century and entrepreneurial skills is not just important, it is imperative for the workforce of the future.

Secondly, universities should be leaders in the commercialization of research, thus helping nudge existing markets, as well as create new ones. This is part of why we are excited to have The University of Miami as such a closer partner in the broader mission of the Converge Innovation District, and are looking forward to moving this larger vision forward in 2018.

Thirdly, it has been CIC’s experience that successful innovation clusters such as Cambridge and increasingly The Cortex Innovation District in St. Louis, are heavily anchored in not just one university, but multiple institutions that choose to align, incentivize innovation, drive capacitation, and — sorry to sound like a broken record — collaborate.

Lack of diversity has been huge topic in tech nationally. From where CIC sits, quite literally, how could CIC play a role to make Miami a role model for inclusive collaboration?

CIC takes a variety of approaches to this topic, and they are different in each city, but guided by a commitment in social engagement. In Cambridge, we run the largest private high school internship program in which nearly all participants are of color. In St. Louis, we are working directly with Forward Through Ferguson to bring innovation-focused gatherings, activities and opportunities to Ferguson.

At CIC Miami, we have taken a couple of approaches to this topic thus far, from supporting/housing several initiatives that accelerate and train low-income entrepreneurs or focus on resources for minority-led businesses and creating educational programming focused on female founders, to co-designing roundtable discussions focused on the role of immigration and partnering and designing a cohort program that supports veterans in entrepreneurship (launching Q1 2018).

One of our primary avenues for engaging in each city is Venture Café, our partner community development organization, which spun out of CIC. In Boston, Venture Café has launched targeted initiatives such as Roxbury Innovation Center in addition to inclusive, large scale projects such as District Hall. In Miami, Venture Café has already become a leading convenor of gatherings, conversations, entrepreneurial support specifically focused on diversity, among a long list of other community-facing and difficult topics.

From where we sit, Miami has a unique opportunity: as an adolescent and rapidly evolving entrepreneurial hub, we can take to heart some of the lessons learned across more seasoned hubs like San Francisco and New York and leapfrog over those hurdles. That said, we can only do so if we are intentional about the access, opportunities, and resources we deploy.

Tell us one thing about you that your colleagues may not know?

I believe very strongly in the value of adult learning, and one of the ways I do this is to pick up a new hobby every year. Over the last years, these have included horseback riding, archery, and tango; stay tuned for next year’s hobby du jour!

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.

NATALIA MARTINEZ KALININA

Age: 31

Current: General manager, Cambridge Innovation Center Miami, leading the CIC’s expansion to Miami. She is also the founder of Awesome Foundation MIAMI and Aminta Ventures, and is on the Governor’s Commission on Community Service, a body that oversees the administration of $32 million in federal, state, and local funding to deliver high-impact educational and volunteer programs in the state of Florida.

Previous experience: Chief innovation and technology officer for Roots of Hope, a nonprofit focused on Cuba, as well as one of six product strategists for Ultimate Software.

Education: Bachelor’s in psychology and government, Harvard; master’s in organizational psychology, Columbia.

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