eMerge Americas captures South Florida’s entrepreneurial energy

Communities / Article

Photo credit: Two Parrot Productions.

From a distance, the choice of rapper Armando Christian Pérez, aka Pitbull, to make the closing keynote remarks of the first eMerge Americas Techweek, a six-day-long tech expo which started with a series of events on Thursday and culminated with keynotes, panels and other sessions at the Miami Beach Convention Center on Monday and Tuesday, must have seemed, well … so Miami.

As it turns out, Pitbull’s engaging persona, a mix of charming, streetwise rogue and smart, hard-working businessman, suggested the embodiment of the Miami that the organizers of the event wanted to project.

Put simply: Yes, we have the sun and the fun, but we are open for (tech) business too.

“People think Armando is a fun-and-party guy, which he also is,” said Manuel D. Medina, chairman and CEO of Medina Capital and the key organizer behind the event, acting as host and interviewer. “But one of the things that really impressed me about Armando was [his] work ethic.”

Impeccable dressed in a three-piece suit and speaking in English sprinkled with Spanish, Pitbull left no doubts about his approach as artist and entrepreneur.

 “For me it’s all about hard work. I’m in a business that is 90 percent business and 10 percent talent,” he said. “I’ve been through so much in the music business, that’s why I can relate to the tech stories about coming out with their ideas and what they go up against. ”

Many of those stories were, no doubt, still unfolding in the presentations and conversations on the floor of the Miami Beach Convention Center by closing time.

The event featured established tech companies and startups, major universities showcasing their research projects but also elementary and high school students, tackling robotics and entrepreneurship. There were official representations from Taiwan and Colombia but also businesses from throughout Latin America and South Florida. There was a Smart City Expo, a Startup Village and a mini-field with soccer-playing robots. Big-picture “summits” addressed subjects such as health care, the future of finance and sustainable cities. But also more than 60 panels, in which more than 150 speakers shared their experiences and insights on subjects ranging from nanobiophysics and the future of banks to education and crowdfunding.

Such was the depth and breadth of eMerge Americas Techweek, which attracted more than 6,000 attendees and 220 companies. The event was founded by Knight Foundation, Medina Capital, Miami-Dade County and Greenberg Traurig.

In fact, eMerge Americas was part of a larger effort underway led by local entrepreneurs, business and nonprofit leaders, government and others to reposition Miami as a place that already has the components to develop a creative and productive startup ecosystem.

But it’s a story that is only beginning to be told.

“There is money here, but all of that money is on the sidelines,” said Heather Schwarz-Lopes, co-founder of Early Shares, a Miami-based crowdfunding platform. “We’ve got some really interesting local South Florida companies that are tech-focused and have robust teams, are experienced [and] have unique products. We are providing the visibility and bringing these offerings to the public eye.”

Knight Foundation has committed $6 million in the past 18 months to underwrite efforts in Miami, such as opening the first U.S. affiliate of Endeavor, a global nonprofit that mentors and supports entrepreneurs; bringing to the area Tech Cocktail, a national media and events organization focused on entrepreneurs, startups and technology, and gatherings such as the MIA Music Summit, focusing on music, technology and startups.  

“People have very specific ideas about Miami, very fixed, yet the city is changing very fast,” said Matt Haggman, Knight’s Miami program director.  “Impressions and opinions are not keeping up with the speed of change in the city. A lot of people still don’t know that Miami has developed a dense urban core, or that the Miami metropolitan area is 7th in the nation in college students per capita. Few people see Miami as having this critical mass of universities and centers of higher education. So telling the story of what’s happening, especially in trying to build a startup community, is critically important.”

Philip T.Y. Wang, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Center Office in Miami which had a pavilion at eMerge Americas, concurs. He recalled being sent to South Florida 25 years ago to open Taiwan’s office in the area. He stayed for 20 months and returned home. A year ago he was reassigned to Miami.

“Same office, same location, totally different city,” Wang said. “For me it was a shock. We have to change our perspective. So when I heard about eMerge Americas I liked the idea; I like the ambition. Those two words said a lot.”

According to Wang, there are “about 100 Taiwanese companies in South Florida,” and the point he says, “is that we are not just selling to Florida, we are selling to Latin America and for the buyers in Buenos Aires or Bogotá, the first stop is here. Taiwan is like Miami. We are gateways.”

As for how much business he did at eMerge Americas, Wang said, “Not much, but you have to take the long view.”

It is a theme that rapper Pitbull revisited in his own closing remarks.

“Miami is one of the most international cities around the world. It’s a hub and a platform …,” he said.  “And [Miami] being a melting pot really gives us a perspective that no one else has. It’s something that really helped me in music; it gave me a chance to accept all kind of ideas … and in the same way I’ve seen it happen in music, I see it now [happening in] technology and business in Miami.”

“Thank you for coming out and showing your support,” he said in closing. “We are making history here in Miami. This is not a sprint; it’s a marathon. That’s what eMerge is about. Get ready for this thing to grow bigger.”

Fernando González writes about arts and culture. He’s based in Miami.