I’ve just arrived at the offices of YellowPepper, a software and tech services company headquartered in Aventura. Waiting for me is Alexander Sjogren, YellowPepper’s chief product developer – and he’s holding an ax that’s big and sharp enough to kill me.
“Yeah, this is a Viking ax,” Sojgren tells me. “We won it a couple weeks ago at a 24-hour PayPal hackathon here in Miami for developing the best application for withdrawing money from local merchants….”
OK, it turns out the ax is a prize for computer hackers. Get it? But it’s just one award that YellowPepper’s been raking in lately. This past summer it secured some $30 million in venture funding from heavyweight sources like the World Bank and Mexico’s Latin Idea Ventures.
And that’s due in no small part to YellowPepper’s new partnership with Colombia’s Credibanco to launch that country’s first mobile banking payment system. It uses YellowPepper’s Smart-Banking 3.0 and takes advantage of Latin America’s recent boom in smartphone usage.
“This is a very interesting time to be a tech company focusing on LatAm in Miami,” says Sjogren. “Throughout Latin America we have a very strong position for mobile phones, so our application development is really taking off.”
In fact, thanks largely to Latin America, Miami’s entire tech scene looks wheels up these days – and its “Silicon Beach” aspirations don’t sound so far-fetched anymore as a result. A growing number of South Florida tech firms and start-ups are finding their El Dorado, or gold, in a developing region where the number of Internet users has mushroomed since 2000 from 18 million to 254 million today. No other region in the world, in fact, sports more social media usage.
Latin America’s problem is that its own high-tech industry is too small and too many years behind the global tech curve to exploit its own burgeoning market. The region is notorious for neglecting science education, and it’s still hard to find tech start-up capital there.
Miami is filling the void – increasingly becoming the “Latin American technology hub” that Manuel Medina, the dean of local tech entrepreneurs, insists the city will become. Companies like Cliclogix are potent examples. The firm provides digital services and tech product development for more than a dozen of Latin America’s largest newspaper publishers.
“Miami is obviously the capital of Latin America now,” says Dominica-born Cliclogix co-founder Rafael Bonnelly, as he shows me the company’s e-learning platform and chats about his upcoming trip to Panama to spread the social media gospel to newspapers that are starting to feel the same “cancer,” as he calls it, that’s afflicting U.S. print media. “In terms of developing new technologies and attracting Latin American business, this is definitely the place to be.”
And as far as Bonnelly is concerned, the best place to be is Miami’s Wynwood district, where hackers seem to rival painters for prominence these days. To many Miami tech empresarios, the future there looks as bright as the murals that cover the once blighted buildings on Northwest 26th Street.
Cliclogix and a number of other tech firms with hip names like Vanilla Shake Media share office space in an expansive Wynwood facility known as The LAB Miami. Sitting near Bonnelly, the team of Venezuelan-American women who run Vanilla Shake Media are hacking away and speaking Spanglish.
That Latin ambience – the fact that two-thirds of Miami-Dade County’s population is Latino – is another plus for Latin American business. Equally attractive is the First World infrastructure.
“That’s where Miami has a huge competitive advantage,” says Miami attorney and major tech investor Juan Pablo Cappello. “I was in Brazil last week and it took me three hours to get to the airport. It’s never taken me more than 25 minutes to get to MIA.”
Perhaps the most important lure, he adds: rule of law. Investors from Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego simply feel more secure investing in the U.S. than in, say, Panama, where YellowPepper was once registered.
Medina and his Technology Foundation of the Americas will host the first annual eMerge Americans conference next May to showcase Miami’s high-tech potential.
Still, players like Cappello realize that Miami tech’s Latin American focus may not be enough to turn it into the Silicon Beach that competes with the likes of Silicon Valley or Boston, where the really big tech money and talent still resides.
“In terms of the development of Miami as a tech and innovation hub, it needs to look north as well as south,” Cappello says. In other words, the city will have to swing that hacker ax in all directions. Like Vikings, señores.
The Latin America Report is made possible by Espírito Sandto Bank and Morrison Brown Argiz & Fara, LLC.