Like the world of technology it is showcasing, eMerge Americas is growing up, too. Even the robots were a little more subdued and business-like this year.
Returning for its third year, South Florida’s largest homegrown technology conference opened Monday at the Miami Beach Convention Center with a show of force. About 13,000 people from 60 countries registered, up from about 10,000 last year, said Manny Medina, conference founder. The agenda featured keynote addresses by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, AOL founder Steve Case and legendary skateborder Tony Hawk; one-time White House intern Monica Lewinsky is slated to speak Tuesday.
The Year Three uniform — more suits, fewer jeans — reflected what seemed to be an increased number of business executives than in years past, along with entrepreneurs, universities, government officials, investors and community leaders.
The expo floor also seemed little less flashy, with fewer robots, drones and interactive exhibits as technology itself relies more on virtual reality and cloud-based applications. Still, country pavilions, university booths and presentations by startup companies spanned technologies of health sciences, virtual reality and even functional architecture.
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eMerge’s mission is to help fuel a movement already underway to make South Florida a center for technology for the Americas, and Medina said the growth in just three years had exceeded expectations, thanks to community effort. “This realization of our dream is coming faster than we expected because of the need.”
Powell kicked off the conference with a keynote that was part inspiration, part humor — who knew he was so funny? — and part politics, drawing stories from his upbringing in the Bronx as a C student, the military that gave him a chance, Desert Storm that brought GPS technology to the forefront, his White House years and his observations on the current state of affairs.
His comments spanned immigration reform, politics, Congress and anti-immigrant rhetoric. “The American system is in deep trouble. We have to close this gap between those who are making it and those who have not,” Powell said.
Saying the Republican Party left him a decade ago, he spoke out against the anti-abortion movement, the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the Trump campaign and called for immigration reform. “If we want to recapture our place in the world ... we have to have immigration reform.”
The former Secretary of State called Congress a reality show at its worst. “We the people have to start voting out the people not getting it done.”
Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph underscored that difficulty of achieving success. “It wasn’t boom, instant company,” he said. At one early point, the company co-founders were laughed out of the Blockbuster board room, he said. “I remembered thinking, ‘now we are going to kick their ass.’ ... It took us 10 years but we drove Blockbuster out of business.”
The long road may become the norm in the “Third Wave” of the internet — the title of his new book, said AOL founder Steve Case. The first was getting people connected; the second involved creating apps and programs like Facebook and Instagram.
The third — where the internet meets everyday life through connected cars, healthcare and other technologies — will not come quickly because of the need for partnerships, including those with government. The challenge, he said, “is how to make sure the benefits [of innovation] are unleashed while risks are hedge … government will have a seat at the table.” Funders and innovation firms will also need to include women, minorities and parts of the country that haven’t previously been seen as innovation hubs — including Miami.
Skateboard legend and entrepreneur Tony Hawk curved some serious air — going pro at 14 and then buying a house as a senior in high school. But he also lost control of his brand (lesson learned: watch what you sign) and his career almost wiped out when skateboard interest waned. Instead of giving up, he saw opportunity and twisted into clothing and then video games, bulding brands with staying power. He still competes too, at age 47. “I’m in the legends [category] — I just call it the old guy division.”
While other summit talks — on Cuba, mobile technology, clean energy — took place on stages throughout the hall, the expo floor buzzed with exhibits, startups and a hiring fair.
Nova Southeastern University promoted a real-time video technology developed with Polycom that enables a 360-degree view, enabling interviews for research, jobs and teaching.
At the Florida International University pavilion, exhibits showcased a construction safety forecasting program created with an oculus virtual reality headset and an anatomy-teaching table that reveals skin, muscles and bones. Also on display: a prosthetic hand implanted with sensors that send signals to the brain. The signals then facilitate greater control over the prosthetic and stimulate sensations much like real touch.
The University of Miami’s responsive architecture program designed an algae-growing display in various shades of green designed to adorn a blank building face; in addition to its role as a design element, the algae can clense both water and air systems within the building. UM’s Human Organs on Chips program demonstrated technology that facilitates the development of pharmaceuticals by testing drug efficacy more rapidly and precisely than through conventional animal testing; the technology also can be used to create patient-specific treatments.
Some used the conference to test public reaction and encourage investment.
mPower Solar Generator CEO Will Perego chose eMerge to launch his South Florida company and its Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign; its first product is a portable solar generator. For every generator sold, the company will donate one to a family without electricity, Perego said.
eMerge continues Tuesday, featuring keynotes by Lewinsky and futurist Ray Kurzweil; a $175,000 competition for startup companies, and an afternoon appearance by Miami rapper — and yes, entrepreneur — Pitbull.