August 26, 2016

Finova Financial raises $52.5 million for lending platform

By Nancy Dahlberg /

Finova Financial co-founders Greg Keough and Derek Acree launched the cloud-based company to give consumers in need of emergency cash a loan  alternative to the triple-digit, punitive offerings in the traditional “payday” lending marketplace. The West Palm Beach-based fintech company focused on the auto-title lending industry recently announced it has raised $52.5 million in a combination of equity and debt.

The funding round was led by Silicon Valley and international venture capital firms including MHS CapitalRefactor CapitalMetamorphic Venture and 500 StartUps, as well as leading fintech entrepreneurs such as Sam Hodges, co-founder and managing director of Funding Circle, Jake Gibson, co-founder of NerdWallet and Al Hamra Group, a private company owned by the ruling family of Ras Al Khaimah, United Arab Emirates. CoVenture provided the credit facility to support the enterprises’ growth. “Finova has earned great traction, and we look forward to working closely with them as they scale rapidly, giving consumers the opportunity to get back on track financially.” said David Lee, co-founder and managing partner of Refactor Capital, in a statement.

Finova Financial_Greg Keough (2)The funding will be used by Finova to grow the all-digital lending platform serving the auto title loan marketplace while delivering up to 70 percent lower cost to consumers.  Finova Financial’s  online Car Equity Line of Credit (C-LOC) product and lending platform offers consumers a significantly less expensive auto title loan alternative, with 12 months to repay, an opportunity to repair their credit score, and a chance to earn performance points that can be used for grace periods in the repayment process, the company said.  This is in stark contrast to traditional lending models and it's the first in a series of products planned to address the needs of the hundreds of million of unbanked and underbanked consumers globally. The company successfully piloted its product in Florida.  

“Finova Financial was launched to help consumers get critically-needed cash without the traditional barriers of high interest rates, inconvenient application processes and restrictive payment terms of the auto title lending industry,” said Keough (pictured above), Finova’s CEO who has led a number of fintech ventures including MFS and RegaloCard. “As a company committed to social impact, we see Finova Financial as being an advocate for consumer financial well-being through improved access to credit, better repayment terms and lower costs.”



August 08, 2016

Startup Spotlight: Octopi making waves in maritime industry

Cetus Labs 01 EKM

Company: Octopi (formerly Cetus Labs)

Headquarters: Venture Hive, 1010 NE Second Ave., Miami

Concept: Octopi builds and sells a modern and smart Terminal Operating System (TOS) that helps seaport terminal operators manage operations, track cargo, and communicate electronically in real-time with their commercial partners.

Story: Ninety percent of everything around you was carried over on a shipping container before it reached you. It’s the industry that puts food in your plate, clothes on your back and enables the success of e-commerce globally. Yet, very few companies are trying to solve the hard problems facing this industry, says Octopi co-founder Luc Castera.

“Our company was built with the mission to help the key players in this industry operate more efficiently using modern software. We are a team of software developers with lots of experience in developing modern software tools,” Castera said.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping, about 90 percent of world trade is carried by the international shipping industry, and the United Nations estimates that the maritime industry contributes about $380 billion to the global economy. It’s also one of Miami’s dominant industries.

“When we started learning about the shipping and maritime industry, we saw that there was a big opportunity to help companies in that space be more efficient using technology,” said co-founder Guille Carlos. “Everybody is impacted by the shipping industry so we feel like we can have a meaningful impact in the world by helping the players in this industry be more effective.”

Launched: Octopi went live with its first customer in October 2015.

Management team: Luc Castera and Guille Carlos [pictured above], who have more than 20 years of combined experience developing software. Previously, Castera was CTO of Intellum and Carlos was the first tech hire of FiveStreet, which was acquired by in 2013.


Financing: Bootstrapped. The co-founders said they are not in need of funding now but have had conversations with local investors and are building relationships with them in case they decide to raise funds in the future.

Recent milestones reached: In October 2015, Octopi went live with its first customer. In May 2016, the company signed a contract with Caribbean Port Services (CPS), which manages all the terminals at the port of Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. With that contract, about 85 percent of all containerized cargo going to Haiti now goes through Octopi. In June 2016, Octopi completed its billing module, which allows the software product to interface with accounting software such as Quickbooks Online or Microsoft Dynamics GP.

Octopi (then called Cetus Labs) was also the winner of the 2016 early-stage Startup Showcase competition at eMerge Americas in April, winning $50,000, and it participated in the 2016 Venture Hive class.

Biggest startup challenge: Focus. Carlos says: “We see so many problems we could solve in the shipping and maritime industry but we must remain focused on the problem we are currently solving for terminal operators, and not get distracted by other product ideas.”

Next steps: To continue improving the product. “We love to work closely with new customers and involve them early as possible as we develop our product. This ensures that we are solving their problem and we are not developing software in a vacuum. As such, we are always looking for container terminals that have a forward-thinking executive team and that are willing to build a strong alliance with their software vendor. It’s a win-win situation: They help us build a great product, and they get a better software at a better price,” Castera said.

Mentor’s view: “This is exactly the type of startup we need more of in Miami,” said Mike Lingle, who mentors the team at Venture Hive. “My favorite thing about Luc and Guille is that they've built a sustainable business with real revenue and customers, and they don't need to raise money. They both write code, but they also take the time to learn how to run the business, drive sales and marketing, etc. ... The next step is to focus on sales and build a predictable revenue stream. B2B sales cycles are often long and involve multiple stakeholders, so it's important to focus on this sooner rather than later.”

Read more: Mediconecta brings telehealth to emerging markets.

Read more: Why Hope Solo is partnering with this startup.

Read more: Need a ride? Freebee revs up to expand

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.

August 01, 2016

Startupbootcamp Digital Health announces inaugural Miami cohort

Selection days

Startupbootcamp, Europe’s largest family of innovation programs, on Monday announced the 10 teams that will join its Miami-based digital health accelerator. A diverse range of solutions – from pre-natal remote monitoring to Latin America’s largest telehealth provider – were selected.

“We are proud that our inaugural class includes a diversity of founders, product category, stage and geography. We focused our selection on later stage companies with real revenue and traction poised to scale across our network of healthcare customers. We are hopeful that Miami will soon become recognized as a global hub for healthcare innovation," said Christian Seale, founder and managing director of Startupbootcamp in Miami.

After reviewing close to 300 applications from over 40 countries, Startupbootcamp invited 15 digital health companies  to attend Startupbootcamp’s Selection Days this past weekend. Over two days, the companies were evaluated by executives from the Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, University of Miami Health System, Jackson Health System, Memorial Healthcare System, Aetna, Abbvie, Univision, Microsoft, GE Healthcare and top-tier healthcare investors.

After the two-day selection process, the following program finalists were invited to form part of the 2016 cohort.


Babyscripts (US) - The first mobile, clinical solution to seamlessly provide remote monitoring of an OB’s patient population in-between visits.

CareAngel (US) - Care Angel has developed ANGEL, the world's first Artificially Intelligent Caregiver providing device-free care management and telemonitoring via telephone.

Mediconecta (Venezuela/Miami) - The largest telehealth provider in Latin America. Currently operating in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile and expanding to the US. [Read more here.]

QoC Health (Canada) - QoC Health helps health organizations take their digital health ideas to scale / commercialization with its patient-centered technology platform.

TruClinic (US) - A modular cloud-based  telemedicine platform that combines video collaboration with clinical workflow management solutions to help healthcare providers better serve their patients.

VoiceITT (Israel) - A voice-translation technology platform for people with speech disability;  compiling a propriertary sound bank of unintelligible speech for research purposes.


Aces Health (US) - The first end-to-end clinical trial management app for patients and researchers. (US) - A healthcare automation intelligence company that makes it easy for providers to control the apps and web services they use to deliver care and communicate with patients.

Keep Livin (US) - A patient engagement platform with a mission to eradicate health disparities that adversely impact racial/ethnic communities.

LineHealth (Portugal) - A hardware company helping you to take the right pill at the right time, leading to a longer and healthier life.

The 10 companies have raised $13.85 million and are valued at over $48 million collectively.

Startupbootcamp is also welcoming two Entrepreneurs-in-Residence: Carevoyance of Miami, a data analytics platform that helps medical device companies expand their market, and Personomics, a healthcare company founded by Jordan Kavana to revolutionize consumer-driven wellness by providing health, diet, beauty and lifestyle solutions based on your DNA.

The selected companies are provided with seed funding, matched with an international network of healthcare customers to accelerate sales and given access to a network of top-tier venture investors to raise seed-Series A financing to scale their business. The accelerator program will begin Sept. 6 and culminate with a Demo Day on Dec. 1.

Startupbootcamp launched in Miami late 2015 with $2 million in Knight Foundation support  and a diverse group of founding partners including Microsoft’s BizSpark Program; Miro Ventures LLC; Nicklaus Children’s Hospital; Univision;  Maurice R. Ferré, executive chairman of Insightec and co-founder of MAKO Surgical; Jaret Davis, co-managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig; and Michael Simkins, president and CEO of Innovate Development Group leading the Miami Innovation District project. 

“By focusing on health, [Startupbootcamp] is really building out the ecosystem for innovation," said Dr. Narendra Kini, CEO at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital. "We hope to see the next major healthcare players originate in Miami.” 

The program offers startups access a mentor and alumni network from across the globe and partnerships with leading hospital systems, insurers and investors  to accelerate and scale their businesses. The program also aims to focus its companies on the eradication of healthcare disparities.

"We look forward to seeing how the program’s model, previously successful in Europe, will bring new energy and talent to Miami’s innovation ecosystem and provide a fresh avenue for startups to grow and thrive in our city,” said Matt Haggman, program director for Miami at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Startupbootcamp programs are currently active in 13 other cities across the US, Europe and Asia, with other cities and vertical programs to soon be announced.



Read more on Startupbootcamp here.

Read "Prescription for economy: Healthcare startup energy" here.

Selection days2

Photos were taken during Startupbootcamp's  Selection Days in Miami July 30 and 31 at At top, Christian Seale addresses crowd; above, one of the teams meets with selection panelists.


June 10, 2016

FIU faculty leads program for Cuban entrepreneurs

Fiu image

By Cynthia Corzo / FIU

A group of 15 small business owners from Cuba this week became the first cohort of InCubando@FIU, FIU’s first-ever customized program designed to sharpen the managerial skills and business savvy of young entrepreneurs from the island.

During the six-week program, College of Business faculty will deliver courses in Spanish covering small business management, accounting and finance, access to capital, sales and marketing, corporate social responsibility, and business plan writing. Participants will also receive intensive English courses offered by the FIU English Language Institute.

“The goal is to promote grassroots entrepreneurship and empower a new generation of business owners in Cuba,” said Carlos Parra, marketing and Information Systems and Business Analytics professor at FIU. He will discuss proactive stakeholder engagement and strategic alliances in the InCubando@FIU curriculum.

Marta Deus, owner of an accounting and financial consulting venture in La Habana, welcomed the exchange of business practices and networking that InCubando@FIU offers.

“The business landscape in Cuba has many unique features that business-owners here might find interesting,” said Deus. “I want to benefit from the hands-on experience and new opportunities we’ll receive so I can apply them to my business and watch it grow.”

InCubando’s participants are all under the age of 40, have a self-employed (cuentapropista) license issued by the Cuban government and have been operating a business on the island for at least one year.

Yorgis Morejon explained he’s anxious to learn about business management and the U.S. consumer market to help expand his Matanzas-based fly-fishing business. His dream: “to become the Bass Pro Shops Cubano.”

As part of the program, participants will also meet with local entrepreneurs who will serve as mentors and make field visits to high-profile businesses including Western Union and a Carnival Cruise Lines ship at the Port of Miami.

“Cubans have an amazing intuition for business and they seem to be eager to learn about different approaches to business decision-making,” said Parra.

InCubando@FIU is a partnership between StartUp Cuba, part of the Roots of Hope organization, and FIU’s Cuban Research Institute, College of Business, and English Language Institute.

February 22, 2016

Atlantico: A premium rum company grabs its ‘moment’


By Nancy Dahlberg /

What does a feisty young Miami spirits company do to get the attention of a huge celebrity?

If you are Atlantico Rum, well, you send rum. But not just to any celeb: You send it to one you know really likes fine rum.

Atlantico2That would be Enrique Iglesias, the recording artist and record producer — the Gulliver Prep grad who became the King of Latin Pop. He now includes the rum in nearly all his performances.

Atlantico co-founder Aleco Azqueta reached out to the star after finding out, from a mutual friend, that Iglesias is a rum aficionado. Atlantico didn’t hear from Iglesias right away. But on YouTube a short while later, the team was surprised to see the star hoisting an Atlantico Private Cask bottle as he toasted an audience member he invited on stage to sing with him during a Madison Square Garden concert. That was four years ago.

“It was a surprise to us,” Azqueta said. “We were hoping he would have it backstage; we had no idea he would use it on stage. It was a very organic moment, very natural.”

Within a few months, Azqueta and his co-founder Brandon Lieb met with the performer and asked him if he would like to be involved with Atlantico. Iglesias told them he doesn’t do many brand sponsorships but he likes the brand a lot, it fits with his lifestyle and he wanted to be involved on an owner level, Azqueta said.

Since then, Iglesias has continually used the onstage toast — and the Atlantico brand — in his shows. And these “Atlantico Moments,” as they’re now called, have gone viral on social media.

That kind of authentic product placement is priceless.

Iglesias is an investor and full partner in the company. The star has certainly helped get more people to learn about the brand. “His follower base is slightly larger than ours,” Azqueta quipped during an interview at Sweet Liberty, a craft spirits bar in Miami Beach. “He is the No.1 Latin artist of all time, he has sold over 100 million albums, he has over 50 million Facebook fans.”

Indeed, Atlantico saw growth of about 40 percent in the year after the Atlantico Moments began, Azqueta said, and it has been a gift that keeps on giving. Iglesias has taken to wearing Atlantico caps everywhere — in his concerts, in interviews for Extra, in his videos. He also placed Atlantico in a lot of his music videos, including Bailando, which has garnered more than 1.3 billion hits on YouTube.

The brand also was beginning to expand internationally at that time, but the ride wasn’t always so smooth. Azqueta and Lieb launched Atlantico in 2009, during the recession. Both friends had attended Georgetown University together [Azqueta also earned an MBA from the University of Miami] and worked at Bacardi in marketing and brand management positions before taking the entrepreneurial plunge. Lieb now is based in Los Angeles; Azqueta, in Miami.

Starting a spirits business during a recession may not seem wise — let’s face it, rum is not really a necessity. “Everyone always says alcohol is recession-proof,” Azqueta (pictured below) said. “While that might be true, they don’t always drink the best quality stuff.” Still, he said, it wasn’t a bad time to launch as competitors were scaling back on marketing and expansion at that time.


More important, the co-founders saw the craft beer boom gaining steam, and they believed craft spirits would not be far behind. Indeed, craft spirits bars, where bartenders focus on the craft of fine cocktail-making, were beginning to pop up in San Francisco, New York and elsewhere.

“We felt like there was an opportunity to develop a craft rum and participate in this craft cocktail movement,” Azqueta said. “The premium-ization of rum hasn’t caught up with the other categories.”

They looked at distilleries throughout the Caribbean and Venezuela and ended up in Dominican Republic. There they created Atlantico Private Cask with a third-generation Cuban master blender and started entering the premium sipping rum in spirits competitions. In the first two years, Atlantico won best-in-show at the London Rum Festival, the world’s largest rum competition. It also picked up best-of-show at the Berlin Rum Festival, and “Best Overall Brown Spirit” at the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America show. Azqueta and Lieb knew they had a good product but had to figure out how such as small company could break through.

From the start, Atlantico was never going to compete with the volume players like Bacardi but rather as a boutique brand; its batches are small and its bottles are hand numbered. Once Atlantico began producing commercially — it now has three styles, Private Cask, which retails for about $32, Reserva (about $27) and Platino (about $22) — it focused its distribution regionally, beginning with Miami, Los Angeles and New York.

Atlantico began hiring brand ambassadors in these markets, often bartenders in the cities’ craft spirits bars, to tell the story of the brand and bring awareness, teach cocktail-making, work at events, and work with its distributor, Miami-based Southern Wine & Spirits. Atlantico focuses its marketing by featuring it at community events, tastings and on menus. The company will be at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival that starts this week.

The past few years, Atlantico has been in an expansion mode. Atlantico is now in 16 countries, including Germany, Spain, the United Kingdom, Italy, Mexico and Australia. It has been picked up by some national accounts, such as the W, Seasons 52, Cosmopolitan Hotel, NOBU, MGM Properties, Caesars Entertainment Group and Norwegian Cruise Line.

But the independent “influencer” craft spirits bars — such as Broken Shaker, Sweet Liberty and Finka in the Miami area, Employees Only in New York, and Trick Dog in Los Angeles — are still a mainstay of Atlantico’s strategy. “Our strategy has not changed. It is to continue to focus on the influencers in the spirits community,” Azqueta said.

Broken Shaker in Miami Beach was one of Atlantico’s first accounts. Gabriel Orta, Broken Shaker’s co-founder, has been featuring Atlantico since the bar opened, for more than five years.

“I like that it is a boutique company, a hand-crafted company. I like the whole process how they make the rum, the master distiller used to work with Havana Club — they took the extra steps, and we love the packaging,” Orta said. “It’s a great rum and we love supporting it.”

Atlantico’s Caribbean-style rums “are sweet and approachable, and something that the locals favor,” said Alex Portela, beverage manager of Finka Table & Tap in West Kendall. Hand-shaken daiquiris or classic mojitos with Atlantico are fan favorites. So is the Old Cuban, similar to a mojito but topped with champagne, he said.

This craft spirits resurgence comes as the rum market as a whole has been flat. According to 2015 Nielsen research, the rum category was down nearly 1 percent; however, the ultra premium category where Atlantico competes was up 6.4 percent. Atlantico’s growth has been faster. The company said sales volume has grown by 50 percent over the past three years as Atlantico increased its distribution from being an East Coast brand to national and international distribution. It has grown to more than 2,500 accounts, its co-founders said, but they wouldn’t disclose revenues.

As Curt Carrillo, a bartender at Sweet Liberty on South Beach and an Atlantico brand ambassador, prepared a classic daiquiri, Aleco explains that he and other premium rum makers are trying to change the perception that rum, the second-largest spirits category behind vodka, is all about spring breaks and rum-and-cokes. Two of Atlantico’s brands — Reserva and Platina — are favored by cocktail makers. Some are using fine aged rum in place of whiskey in traditional whiskey classics such as the old-fashioned. “Rum is still a great value proposition compared to Scotch and whiskeys and tequilas,” Azqueta said.

Florida International University students have tried their hand at their own crafted creations using Atlantico rum, with a unique twist. Azqueta had lectured on rum production and came armed with samples, but Professor Barry Gump had another idea for those samples. In the beer making lab, the students created a blond beer with Atlantico Platino and a sweet stout with Atlantico Reserva. “They were marvelous, everyone enjoyed it,” Gump said, and he had some of it bottled.

“What our brand is trying to do is teach people how to drink better rum and lead the education that rum is a very complex spirit and just as high quality as a bourbon or scotch or cognac,” Azqueta said. “We are starting to see a renaissance of rum.”

Nancy Dahlberg; 305-376-3595; @ndahlberg.


February 17, 2016

Honey vs. Vinegar: How are we luring and keeping the companies we want in Miami?

An interview with an upcoming transplant

By Natalia Martinez-Kalinina

Natalia martinez 12-12 f0001Like any city -- especially a young one -- Miami has its charms, quirks, and flaws. The Kauffman Foundation listed South Florida as the country’s second area with most startup activity, but we remain unlisted in any major city ranking that tracks venture capital investment. Speaking recently at the South Florida Economic Summit, Richard Florida remarked that Miami ranks as one of the most tolerant metro areas in the country -- a welcoming landing pad to any who choose to make a start here -- but also commented that we rank 40th in technology and 138th in talent. For every milestone earned, there are other difficult goals to achieve and gaps to bridge.

Ultimately, our maturity as a city will be measured on a par by our ability to attract engaging companies, entrepreneurs, and investors from elsewhere as by our ability to nurture and pollinate our own. The former will be tracked by our ability to become not just a logistics/transit hub for the region;  in order to cement Miami as a content and growth destination, we must do more than lure interesting projects and people with the promise of tight networks, a fantastic quality of life, and jovial aspirations. It is a fascinating and complex challenge that requires the maneuvering of systemic levers, and we can start by taking a more nuanced look at the business both seeking/leaving and growing/shrinking in our city in 2016.

 Below, we take a closer look at Balloon Group, an emerging company planning its expansion to Miami from Buenos Aires later this year. We spoke with Santiago Bibiloni (pictured here), the venture’s Founder and CEO.


Tell us about Balloon Group. How was the company started? How do you see its future growth and development?

Fundamentally, Balloon Group focuses on development (eCommerce and software), and performance-oriented digital marketing (sales, user acquisition, etc), but we also offer consulting services and a global network of contacts, which allows our clients/entrepreneurs to receive legal, accounting, and human resources services first-hand from specialists in these fields. We started the company with no capital investment, and today, 36 after months after launching, we have 400 clients in over 12 countries.

When is Balloon coming to Miami and why?

Balloon Group will take off in Miami in late 2016. We are launching in Miami because our vision was, is, and will continue to be to design the future. We aspire to become the top company working to strengthen technology and innovation-centered startups. And we believe that launching aggressively in Miami will position us to infiltrate northern markets better and faster. San Francisco, New York, Miami, Austin, and Mexico City -- these are the hard hitters in the Americas. We will take on Brazil at a later stage.

What kinds of opportunities are you looking for? What kinds of risks worry you?

We’re looking to access startups that have the potential to become the next unicorns, but lack the resources to develop and scale their businesses. When it comes to technology and marketing, we offer “know how,”creativity, quality, and reasonable pricing for a company operating in Latin America.

We also have our own project incubator and an investment fund for venture capital, so we are also in search for how to support start-ups in different ways.

Our biggest risk is failure, which involves losing time and money. But not betting on ourselves to grow is also failure, which is why I’m not worried about this leap.

From the perspective of a Latin American entrepreneur, what advantages does Miami have?

Miami was and is considered a fundamental and strategic platform to have operations both in Latin America and the US, and a few years ago it began to be an interesting market within itself, as far as start-ups are concerned. For Argentines and/or Latin Americans, it has many advantages: a stable economy, access to capital, public policies in favor of entrepreneurship, innovation and technology, free market and competition, safety and the legitimacy of government institutions, with a similar language and culture.

In light of this perspective, what can Miami do better to become a true “hub” for the region?

Miami is an emerging market, and because it lacks experience, it should try to both develop and import value-adds to increase venture capital investment and make it as efficient as possible. This could involve importing fund managers with expertise and facilitating access to work opportunities for high-potential foreign entrepreneurs.

You helped create the Argentine Association of Entrepreneurs (ASEA); tell us a little bit about this entity, its objectives and its development in Argentina’s economic and political framework. What perspective does this experience give you on the move to Miami?

ASEA aims to turn Argentina into an “entrepreneurial nation,” namely to ensure that we are a better country for enterprises. This involves improving both the macro and micro contexts for entrepreneurs: better public policies, favourable tax benefits, limited bureaucracy, and added mentoring, among other things. A bill sponsored by ASEA that outlines these points is already on the new government’s agenda.

Organizations like Endeavor have talked at length about the “Argentine Model.” What do you think Miami can learn from the Argentine case?

For years, Argentines have dealt with 30% annual inflation, taxes and social security contributions equivalent to 40% of our revenues, restrictions on exports, and many other obstacles.

And precisely because we have these shortcomings, we have developed our greatest asset: our waistlines. We are able to adapt to changing contexts and deal with competing priorities. That is an essential lesson in entrepreneurship.

The government and many Argentine institutions are understanding the need to work as an ecosystem and not, as my friend Mariano Mayer (current National Secretary for Entrepreneurs and Small & Medium Enterprises) would say, an “ego-system.” This is why we are developing an interesting model based on training, community, incubation acceleration and financing for entrepreneurs. In turn, the government is co-investing with private entities in high-potential startups. There is plenty to do and we are doing well.

Natalia Martinez-Kalinina is the General Manager of CIC Miami and the Founder of Awesome Foundation MIAMI.

January 12, 2016

2016, Miami calling: Why I'm leaving the Middle East for Miami

AliaBy Alia Mahmoud

Almost 5 years ago, I left home in New York City to move to Tunisia and everyone’s reactions sounded a little something like, "Really? Are you sure you want to do that?!" Now I'm leaving my adopted home in Tunis to settle in Miami and I find myself hearing a similar refrain: "You mean you're not going back to New York? Miami...are you sure?" Yes, Miami. When it comes to the startup scene, these two cities are more similar than one might think.

I moved to Tunisia in 2011 shortly after the uprisings that sparked the Arab Spring across the region. As a Tunisian-American, I was motivated to make a difference and contribute to the growth of a nascent entrepreneurial ecosystem. One that was only just being carved out of a heritage of dictatorship and state controlled business to create a space for new ideas to thrive. I had the incredible opportunity to speak about Tunisia’s “entrepreneurial revolution” in my TedTalk in in 2012.

For as long as I can remember I've been inspired by entrepreneurship, in awe of the innovation startups produce and in admiration of the hope their founders bring to society. Throughout my studies and now in my career, I have been working at the intersection of business and social good – a linkage that I no longer see as a luxury, but an imperative of the times we live in.

Most recently, as the Regional Manager for Microsoft's Corporate Citizenship Programs in the Middle East and North Africa, I witnessed first-hand the impact entrepreneurs can have when we commit to creating an environment in which they can thrive. Take Saphon Energy, a revolutionary clean-tech company who has reinvented the way we harness wind energy through a patented, bladeless wind technology or Grant Fit, a mobile application developed by students that aims at reversing the strategy to deal with type 1 diabetes by adapting insulin injections according to meals. When we collaborate across boundaries to build a community around local innovation, and then connect it to a global support system, we begin to see success stories emerge.

The Tunisians spearheading these successes are breaking from a culture of passivity and crony capitalism and setting an example as initiators, risk-takers and innovators. I highlight some of these stories and their incredible role in reclaiming our legacy of innovation in my 2015 TedxRome talk “The New Carthage.”

Tunisia still has a long way to go to fulfill that potential, but we have made great strides. No one would have ever imagined seeing Tunis on the Forbes top 10 cities to launch a startup nor ever dreamed of winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015. But here we are at a crossroads and it only inspires us to work harder and dream bigger in 2016.

So why Miami?

Because like Tunis, Miami is in the midst of an entrepreneurial awakening; and while the context and challenges are vastly different, the opportunity to make an impact on an emerging ecosystem is unique and timely. My conviction that the link between entrepreneurship and new technology is vital to building a robust ecosystem is only stronger now. I want to take all that I’ve learned and apply it somewhere where I can make my mark, continue to learn and, hopefully, bring value. After all, “Miami’s tech scene is heating up” so where better to land in this New Year than in the sunshine state to build a brighter future together.

So here’s to 2016! Thank you, Miami, for welcoming me with open arms. I can’t wait to see what this year will bring.

Contact Alia Mahmoud at @aleyesopen or 

October 07, 2015

Endeavor taps EveryMundo, Yandiki to join global network

EveryMundo is a marketing technology company serving the travel and hospitality industry. Yandiki leverages the cloud to connect enterprises with on-demand talent. The founders of these two young Miami companies were selected Wednesday as Endeavor Entrepreneurs at the global nonprofit’s 61st International Selection Panel in Morocco.

SethAntonAnton Diego (left) and Seth Cassel (right), co-founders of EveryMundo, and Silvina Moschini, CEO and co-founder of Yandiki, join Endeavor Miami’s growing portfolio of high-impact entrepreneurs, which now includes 11 companies in its portfolio. The three join a total of 22 high-impact entrepreneurs representing 18 companies from nine countries selected at the panel. Endeavor Entrepreneurs receive targeted services including mentorship and access to capital, markets and talent.

“Endeavor has been incredibly influential for us in the preparation for entry into the organization. Our advisors have shaped our strategy, personnel and growth tactics over the past year,” said Cassel, from Morocco. “We are excited for what's to come.”

EveryMundo works with numerous airlines worldwide to increase their direct customer acquisition and therefore own their customer relationships. The company offers software products and services to increase online and mobile traffic acquisition and transaction conversion, in any language and country worldwide, said Cassel, adding that the team is comprised natives of 11 countries speaking 10 languages.

SilvinaYandiki’s core product, WaaS, functions as a marketplace with filtering features (skills, rating, cost, and productivity) for talent, verified through a series of customizable online tests, video interviews, and user generated feedback and certifications. The product allows for workforce monitoring including project and task management, real-time business analytics and billing, and clients include Twitter, MasterCard, Criteo, Tinder and Google, said Moschini, an international expert on Internet marketing.

"I experienced Endeavor while I was part of the leadership team at (the internet bank that was later sold to Banco Santander Central Hispano for $785 million and was one of Endeavor's first companies) and I cannot be happier that now I am joining their network," said Moschini. "I am super confident that they will bring me on step closer to make my dream of changing the world of work a mainstream reality."

Matt Haggman, Miami program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and an Endeavor Miami board member, said: “The expanding group of Miami Endeavor entrepreneurs aligns with the consistent growth we’ve seen in the city’s innovation and startup ecosystem over the last few years. These new additions also highlight both the creativity and variety of ideas that are fueling Miami’s evolution.”

Endeavor’s International Selection Panel is a three-day process, where panels composed of six top global business leaders interview candidates about their businesses, high-impact leadership potential, and timing. To be selected, an entrepreneur must receive a unanimous vote.

Endeavor Miami launched its operations in September 2013 with the support of Knight Foundation and an active local board of business leaders. For more information on Endeavor Miami or to nominate entrepreneurs, visit


August 21, 2015

Idea Center @MDC, Tel Aviv University's entrepreneurship center form partnership

Innovation Nation_Oren Simanian

By Nancy Dahlberg /

“Entrepreneurship is an experiment — if you know the results, it’s not entrepreneurship,” said Oren Simanian, who heads TelAvivUniversity’s esteemed entrepreneurship center StarTau.

Entrepreneurship is ingrained in Israeli culture because people had to create — to establish the country and to defend it. But today, residents have other options, such as working for Apple or Google or another multinationals with facilities in Israel, Simanian (pictured above) said recently at MiamiDadeCollege’s IdeaCenter. The occasion was an event announcing a knowledge-sharing partnership between the two entrepreneurship centers.

But the thriving Israeli ecosystem continues to accelerate and is driven by niche needs such as cybersecurity. “Today, we are a brand. Ten years ago we weren’t there. It takes time.”

What’s special in Israel is that academia, the private sector and government have been working together to build the ecosystem, said Simanian.

Israel, about the size of New Jersey, produced six Nobel Prize winners and 800 exits in the last 10 years. That included deals valued at $15 billion in 2014 alone. Israel also is the globe’s No. 1 nation in research-and-development per capita spending, thanks in large part to its top-ranked science and technology universities. It’s consistently ranked as one of the top five entrepreneurship hubs in the world.

So what can Miami learn? We’re about to find out.

The knowledge-sharing agreement between StarTau and The Idea Center @ MDC links Israel’s high-tech and startup communities to resources and people in Miami.

As part of the arrangement, members of Israel’s high-tech community will travel to Miami for an Innovation Nation conference designed to connect innovators and leaders from the two high-tech communities. Israeli startups also will meet Miami investors, designers and digital marketing firms through a series of programs arranged by The Idea Center, and TelAvivUniversity faculty will serve as visiting professors at MDC.

These initiatives grew out of a recent Knight Foundation-supported knowledge exchange trip to Israel as part of Project Interchange, an educational institute of the American Jewish Committee. A delegation of 12 Miami entrepreneurs and leaders in the tech community, including MDC’s IdeaCenter executive director, Leandro Finol, traveled to Israel in March to learn from the country’s thriving tech and innovation sector and make connections.

Finol and the Miami delegation met Simanian at a gathering he hosted during that trip. “After 45 minutes, we knew we wanted to do something together. We’re honored to have a partnership with one of the top entrepreneurship centers in the world,” Finol said.

The partnership fits squarely with the John S. and James L Knight Foundation’s Miami objectives, said Matt Haggman, the foundation’s Miami program director. “This collaboration is testament to the type of synergy we want to see in Miami. By making more of these connections, we can create new opportunities and foster the type of knowledge sharing that is essential to building a strong innovation ecosystem in our city.”

Simanian shared what he saw as South Florida’s value proposition. Top of the list, in his view, is Miami’s position as the gateway to Latin America. He also listed tourism, international banking/fintech, health and media. Many of the joint initiatives will be around these areas.

Simanian said StarTau will create a special course from its BEE (Business Entrepreneurial Experience) program for the Idea Center and South Florida startups will travel to Israel. The partnership also hopes to create a fund designed to incentivize Israeli startups to launch their U.S. and Latin America operations from Miami.

“There is possibility and I see it here, because mentors exist, money exists, balance between work-hard and play-hard exists. So you need to give the deal flow here the ability to invest,” said Simanian.

At the event, a panel of participants from the Project Interchange trip discussed their experience. It included Greenberg Traurig shareholder Jaret Davis, Ben Wirz of the Knight Foundation Enterprise Fund, Felecia Hatcher of Code Fever, Finol and Haggman.

“We need to do a better job of encouraging our kids to go into these research areas. We need more STEM charter schools and academies at the K-12 level to encourage this,” said Davis. Hatcher added that extracurricular particular programs, like Code Fever and others, are also needed “to help develop a true pipeline into our universities, startups and corporations.”

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter.

  Innovation Nation_Matt & Panel 1

From left, Matt Haggman of the Knight Foundation, Jaret Davis of Greenberg Traurig, Ben Wirz of Knight Foundation, Felecia Hatcher of Code Fever and Leandro Finol of Miami Dade College’s Idea Center discuss ecosystem building with the audience and Oren Simanian (seated), head of Tel Aviv University’s entrepreneurship center. Simanian gave a talk about Israel’s tech ecosystem, and the two entrepreneurship formed a knowledge-sharing partnership. Photos here and atop are by Cristian Lazzari, MDC Wolfson.

August 03, 2015

YellowPepper brings on payments pioneer as chairman

Yellowpepper logo newYellowPepper, a Miami-based mobile payment and mobile banking company focused on the Latin America market, on Monday said payments industry pioneer Mohammad Khan has been named chairman of the board of YellowPepper.

Khan is former president and founder of ViVOtech, a pioneering NFC software and hardware company that paved the way for mobile payments.

“We have recently launched our mobile payment solution in Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador, and his extensive expertise within payments and commerce will be invaluable to further increase the success of those implementations,” said Alexander Sjögren, CTO of YellowPepper, which now has 74 employees in the region. “NFC is currently getting established as the standard for mobile payments with Visa, MasterCard, Apple Pay and Android Pay all adopting some version of it. Having Mohammed onboard, who is considered to be the forefather of NFC’s role in payments, will give us a unique expertise in the area.”

In his 12 years at ViVOtech, Khan led the deployment of NFC readers and field-testing a number of mobile payment trials globally. His efforts in driving mobile payments successfully set the stage for widely accepted NFC mobile payments such as Apple Pay and Android Pay. Prior to founding ViVOtech in 2001, Khan held leadership positions at Verifone, which he joined in 1983. Khan helped the company develop its point-of-sale systems and later helped market them in 96 countries. Khan was also a co-founder of the Internet Commerce business for Verifone.

“In Latin America, YellowPepper has done an excellent job over the last 10 years to establish an infrastructure, widening financial services like mobile banking to 5 million users and that number is growing, and now they are working hard in mobile payments,” said Khan on Monday. “I see this effort as very important for the payment industry as well as consumers and I want to see how I can help in the coming years.”

In June, YellowPepper partnered with Carta Worldwide to bring Host Card Emulation (HCE) NFC mobile payments to Latin America. Carta Worldwide will provide its HCE technology to YellowPepper that will, in turn, leverage its regional footprint with more than 50 financial institutions and retailers to introduce the new technology to them and future clients.