Conference hopes to put Miami on America's tech startup map
MIAMI (Reuters) - Silicon Valley need have no fear, but look out for the latest upstart to enter the tech arena: Miami.
A south Florida millionaire investor is seeking to turn the city into a science and technology startup hub with a focus on the Americas, leveraging the region's better-known assets - beach condos, low taxes and capital flight from all over Latin America - to attract a new generation of Hispanic entrepreneurs.
More than 5,000 people have been lured to a pitch this week by Manny Medina, attending a five-day tech conference he founded titled eMerge Americas. More than 150 speakers discussing everything from serial entrepreneurship in Latin America to groundbreaking medical technologies, organizers said.
Medina, who left Cuba in 1965, sold Miami-based info-tech company Terremark to Verizon in 2011 for $1.4 billion. He hopes the conference will boost the profile of the city's nascent startup scene and position it as a place for Latin American entrepreneurs looking to get a foothold in the United States.
"If you're a Latin American company and you go to Boston or New York, there's a prejudice," said Medina, who now heads his own private equity firm, Medina Capital. "In Miami you feel more at home, you have your same culture."
A long way from rivaling California's high-tech corridor, the "Silicon Beach" concept, as some have dubbed it, faces big challenges.
"We continue to have the problem that our best and brightest leave and don't come back," said Jerry Haar, associate dean at Florida International University's business school, noting the brain drain caused by a lack of local opportunities for technology graduates.
Despite the enthusiasm, experts say Miami still lacks essential tech ingredients, such as top-tier universities, Fortune 500 technology companies, and a robust group of investors, all of which helped propel California into the spotlight for startups over the past two decades.
"We're moving in the right direction, but we shouldn't flatter ourselves into thinking we're there," Haar said.
Some signs suggest things are already changing. Microsoft last week announced it would open its first U.S. innovation center in Miami in partnership with a startup incubator, Venture Hive. The company has more than 100 similar centers around the world that offer everything from mentorship to new companies to public classes for coding and computer science.
"The work that's relevant in Miami can have an impact around the world, and Miami is really a launching point for Latin America," said Sanket Akerkar, vice president for developer experience and evangelism for Microsoft.
The city is hoping to tie its future to an ongoing technology boom in Latin America, where throngs of new Internet users are coming online via smartphones.
"There are 600 million people (in Latin America) all coming online in the next three to five years," said Arturo Galvan, chief executive officer of Mexico City-based mobile commerce company Naranya.
Microsoft's center opens alongside other prominent startup programs including Endeavor, a global nonprofit that each year selects a handful of companies to mentor and fund.
Other online startups targeting Latin America have also found success in Miami, including Open English, a browser-based English-learning system started in founder Andres Moreno's Caracas apartment in 2008.
Since then it has raised more than $130 million from venture capitalists around the United States and moved its offices to Miami.
City leaders also see a tech opportunity in the area's large health industry. In 2012 the University of Miami launched a Life Science and Technology Park, which includes a stem cell institute, offering space to medical entrepreneurs and research scientists.
Miami is also home to CareCloud, which launched in 2009 offering cloud-based medical practice management software to 4,000 medical providers in 48 states and $2.5 billion in accounts receivable under its software's management.
(Editing by David Adams and Prudence Crowther)