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Miami’s hemispheric place in tech: Why be next when we can be first?

By Juan Pablo Cappello

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Last year a debate was sparked, raising the important question of Miami’s place in the realm of technology. Perhaps the best answer reflects our city’s longstanding identity: the Gateway to the Americas.

In the race to latch onto the industry of the present and future, silicon is the new black.

Espousing a city’s status as an up-and-coming tech hub, the oh-so clichéd “next Silicon Valley,” is de rigueur. From Los Angeles to Atlanta, progressive cities with big ideas and communities of lean startups are making their respective cases. Miami is no different, and in the years following the first dot.com boom the moniker “Silicon Beach” was regularly bandied about.

Then came the dot.com bust, the Web 2.0 revolution and the rise of social networking, mobile technology and app-building startups. Through it all, anecdotal success stories emerged from South Florida, but “Silicon Beach” by-and-large remained a promise unrealized. Miami never defined itself against the backdrop of these industry developments. We never answered the question of who we are, and where we fit into a modern tech world.

A year ago, I authored an editorial that appeared in this space asserting that Miami has a long way to go before it can be considered a tech hub of any note. Many locals who have made it their career to advance Miami’s tech standing took me to task, pointing to all the great work done by groups such as University of Miami’s Launch Pad, Refresh Miami, Incubate Miami and the Knight Foundation.

My response was a respectful, considerate, “so what?”

Sure, these individuals – many who I work with and consider friends – are right to point out the positive steps taken by these organizations. STEM education through local universities has grown, and the proliferation of startup culture in downtown and midtown expanded, sure. More organizations, incubators, collaborative environments and conferences have sprung up, stirring up excitement in the tech community.

But has this resulted in a grander level of tech success? Where are the Miami offices of Insight, Greylock, Sequoia and other top venture capital firms? Where is the local investor interest that drives the innovation needed to reach the next level? If we’re doing such a great job, why hasn’t the rest of the world sat up and taken notice?

Cities do themselves a disservice when the quest to become “next” trumps their own natural advantages. In tech, this usually occurs while trying to ape the unique and monolithic success of Northern California’s Silicon Valley.

To be clear, there is no “next Silicon Valley.” With a preponderance of creative talent, business acumen, educational resources, capital and equity, the Valley is the center of the tech world. Cities endeavoring to build their reputations and economies around technology should focus on what makes their cities special — their own identities, their own unique offerings to the various fields that make up tech.

Consider Boulder, Colo., which has built a reputation as a clean tech startup capital, or Boston, the home of nanotechnology. Austin, Tex., with its thriving music scene and the ubiquitous SXSW festival, has developed a community of creative and design-focused entrepreneurial ventures.

Miami, meanwhile, is not known for any specific sub-discipline. Our effort to define ourselves has been scattershot. This is Miami’s problem. But it could also be our salvation.

Miami’s status as the Gateway to the Americas, our international flavor, is a competitive advantage unique among those cities jockeying for a place at the tech trough. Latin America, despite a strong push by Sao Paolo and Santiago, Chile in recent years, has remained very much an open territory, a “Wild West” of technology.

A push to build inroads to Latin America can only help at home in the United States, as well. Hispanics make up about 46 million consumers in this country, and Miami is a cultural capital for many within that demographic- more than 66% of Miami-Dade’s 2.8 million residents are Hispanics/Latinos.

And here is our opportunity. Instead of aspiring to be the next, Miami has the chance to become the first—the first tech gateway for Latin America, the primary pipeline between entrepreneurial and STEM-focused locales such as Brazil, Chile and Colombia. We boast a cultural and geographical advantage that is as plain to see as Miami on a map.

When I look at the Miami tech scene in the last year, I see unprecedented growth and synchronicity. Last December, the Knight Foundation, Endeavor Global, FIU and numerous other organizations got on the same page for InnovateMIA, a weeklong event highlighting Miami’s start-up, tech and creative scene. The cooperation was incredible, and it remains crucial. For so long, these fragmented groups had operated independently, doing their own thing. It was just one week, but InnovateMIA represents the beginning of an ecosystem that will help establish Miami’s identity.

InnovateMIA was a case study in overlapping efforts, energies and synergies, and idea exchanges. With each of these groups’ individual events folded into the week, the event became larger than the sum of its parts. We need more of this.

The first to-do on any successful startup’s checklist is to outline its mission statement. We should do the same. It is time for Miami to ditch the “Silicon Beach” dream and focus on becoming the tech Gateway to the Americas. Why try to be next when you can be first?

Juan Pablo Cappello, co founder of the LAB Miami, Idea.me and Sauber Energy and a partner in Patagon.com, was named a 2012 “Top 50 Entrepreneur” by Business Leader Magazine.

Posted Oct. 7, 2013