As classmates at Ransom Everglades School in Coconut Grove, Wifredo Fernandez and Daniel Lafuente were “always cooking up ideas for businesses” that the pair dreamed of launching.
These brainstorms, propelled by a personal passion for social action, continued as roommates and fraternity brothers at the University of Pennsylvania. Returning home to Miami after graduation, Fernandez and Lafuente encountered South Florida’s burgeoning tech scene, which served as a serendipitous laboratory for their business model experimentations.
“We felt a certain energy that we hadn’t felt in our city before,” Fernandez said.
But this initial momentum of Miami’s early tech community was somewhat stymied. The ethos of the city’s startup ecosystem – driven by the sharing of talent and resources among a circle of entrepreneurs – collided with more traditional market players who remained competitive and “isolationist,” according to Lafuente.
“People didn’t share ideas,” Lafuente said. “In other cities, you have people pitching ideas in the subway, in the elevator or in the coffeehouse. We wanted to change the culture.”
Fernandez and Lafuente’s vision coalesced into The Lab Miami – a collaborative, co-working space that promotes social and technological innovation.
With a mere 700 square feet in the zebra-striped Wynwood Building, The Lab Miami opened its doors in June 2012. One year later, and thanks to funding from the Knight Foundation and angel investors, The Lab has expanded to a 10,000 square foot campus on NW 26th Street, uniting “stakeholders and real movers and shakers” under a single roof.
By day, more than 100 Lab members (including web developers, lawyers, public relations practitioners and app designers, among others) swap technical knowledge.
By night, The Lab transforms into a multi-purpose venue for community gatherings including meetups, hackathons, film screenings and a farmer’s market.
More than 5,000 unique visitors have spent time at The Lab so far this year.
“The Lab Miami is basically a gym that meets a country club for gritty entrepreneurs,” Lafuente said. “In the sense that it’s a gym, we provide access to the equipment that you need to flex your entrepreneurial muscles. And there’s also additional classes – like you’d have a cardio or a spinning class – here we have a social media bootcamp or Ruby on Rails programming. And in the sense it’s like a country club, it is a nice place to be. It is a nice place to work. It is a nice place to socialize.”
The Lab’s very design facilitates workplace debate. LABrats, LAB Coats and LAB Partners (the names for the varying levels of membership available to area entrepreneurs) sit at communal tables, fixed desks and offices in a converted warehouse. So rather than relegating conversation to the water cooler in a back corner, the entire office becomes the water cooler.
“We want to spark discussion,” Lafuente says. “This is not meant to be another shared, dreary office space but a loud, vibrant community of entrepreneurs.”
In this sense, Lab Miami mirrors its location in the heart of the Wynwood Art District – a home for creatives whose bold and colorful canvases are the neighborhood’s very buildings.
The Lab also engages with the surrounding art community; its office furniture has been designed by local artisans and its walls are adorned with rotating art work, which seek to “marry art and technology,” Fernandez says.
Fernandez and Lafuente plan to call South Florida home for many years to come, committed to growing their startup incubator here.
“We want to continue making Miami the place of innovation that we know it can be,” Lafuente said.
Follow The Lab Miami on Twitter: @thelabmiami
Jan Lauren Boyles is a PhD candidate at American University’s School of Communication in Washington, DC, and is serving as a Google Journalism Fellow this summer with the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. Special thanks to Marie Gilot at the Knight Foundation for her assistance with this story.