Knight Foundation nurtures an ecosystem of innovators

07/12/2014 7:00 PM

07/11/2014 8:59 PM

It was two years ago this week that the Knight Foundation announced a new bet on Miami. Alongside our ongoing work in the arts, we decided to invest in our city’s emerging innovators and entrepreneurs as a way to build community.

The goal of the effort is to help make Miami more of a place where ideas are built. The outcomes we’re seeking: greater talent retention, stronger sense of place and possibility and a more-robust community of problem solvers.

Fueling the effort is a belief that, as Miami continues to evolve, it increasingly has the elements to be a center for innovation, technology and high-impact entrepreneurship.

Miami possesses entrepreneurial zeal, ranking first per capita in entrepreneurial activity among all U.S. metropolitan areas last year. Its population is uniquely diverse. The urban core is swiftly urbanizing and its cultural life flourishing. It possesses a large and growing university system, ranking seventh nationally in college students per capita.

A rapidly changing Miami is presenting new opportunities. Thus far, we have made more than 70 investments totaling some $6.5 million in entrepreneurship initiatives across Miami. Our approach, however, is not to invest in companies. Rather, it’s to help create an ecosystem.

This includes connecting entrepreneurs, providing mentorship support, building the talent base and attracting capital and investment — all the while, championing successes as we grow and diversify our base of entrepreneurs.

A few examples of Knight Foundation-supported projects include:

• Endeavor, a global leader in building entrepreneurial eco-systems, which opened its first U.S. affiliate last year in Miami. Endeavor Miami provides mentor support and access to funding for high-potential entrepreneurs ready to scale-up a new idea. Already, five Miami entrepreneurs have been selected as Endeavor Entrepreneurs.
• Refresh Miami, which holds monthly meet-ups to connect the tech community. It has grown from 3,000 members to 8,600 in the past year. It now ranks as the largest tech meet-up group in the southeast United States, according to co-founder Brian Breslin.
• The LAB Miami, which opened a year ago in Wynwood to offer work space for entrepreneurs, and events and educational workshops. It is now home to 140 entrepreneurs. In its first year, it had more than 23,000 visitors at events.
• Girls Who Code and Code Now, which each launched this summer in Miami. They are working to close the opportunity gap in technology and engineering.
• eMerge Americas, the annual tech conference. The Knight Foundation was a founding funder. eMerge Americas drew more than 6,000 attendees in its inaugural year.

New grants in recent weeks include Accelerated Growth Partners, which holds pitch sessions to connect early-stage entrepreneurs with local investors and offers investor-education workshops; and Venture for America and Enstitute, organizations that pair young talent with high-growth ventures.

As we pursue this, we are idea agnostic. We are seeking to build an ecosystem that helps doers build whatever idea they choose, no matter the industry or whether it’s for-profit, designed for social impact or focused on government innovation.

In doing so, we hope to help create a pay-it-forward environment that supports and propels entrepreneurs, but at the same time paves the way for those who are successful to be funders and mentors for the next wave.

We see evidence of it already.

Consider two examples. Miami-based tech company .CO recently sold for $109 million, and its young leaders are now investing in Miami entrepreneurs, including building a new co-working space in Brickell.

The founder of Open English, the online English-language learning school, which has raised more than $100 million in venture capital from its base in Coconut Grove, joined the Endeavor Miami board and is mentoring rising entrepreneurs.

There are many similar examples. Some are starting to notice this shift, including reports in the Miami Herald, Ocean Drive, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. The French daily newspaper Le Figaro even highlighted this refocused and newly energized Miami in an article published late last year with the headline, A SiliconValley hatches under the palm trees of Florida.

To be sure, Miami will never be Silicon Valley, nor should it strive to be. The city will cut its own path. But with each day it is increasingly clear that a new Miami is rapidly taking flight.

Matt Haggman is The Knight Foundation’s Miami program director.

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