eMerge Americas gave South Florida’s technology community the stage this week, and reviews were quite favorable. It appeared that Miami — and the effort to build a tech hub for the Americas — may be starting to move beyond the buzz. The region is getting noticed.
To be sure, there was plenty of buzz at the four-day event stretching from downtown to Miami Beach. From Las Vegas style lights, stages and national TV sets, to celebrity sightings and a shoulder-room-only hip-hop party, there was no mistaking this was Miami. But with more than 10,000 attendees and 500 companies participating from 50 countries, it was clear that if some of them came for the spree, they stayed for the tech.
eMerge Americas was a huge undertaking, “but when I saw this high school kid [competing] on center stage passionately telling about his business, it’s worth it. When I heard someone in the startup competition received a half-million-dollar term sheet, it’s worth it,” said Manny Medina, founder of the conference. “I promise eMerge Americas will get bigger and better with your support,” he told attendees Tuesday at Miami Beach Convention Center.
Many were discovering the depth of the community for the first time.
“It’s very cool,” said Miami Heat star Chris Bosh, who served as a judge in the competition for late-stage startups. “I can’t say I knew how many startups are here, but I have a good sense of it now. There are not only so many here but they are thriving.”
In an interview before the competition, Bosh said he was not yet an investor in any Miami tech companies — but after the conference, he will be. For the first time, all the judges agreed to invest their own money in the winners. Bosh will now have a stake in VSNMobile, a Fort Lauderdale company that has developed a technology for seamless 360-degree high definition images. (Think a 360-degree version of a GoPro camera, with applications for outdoor sports, security, video conferences and drone overviews.)
VSNMobile won the late-stage competition, with a prize of $100,000 in investment from the judges. Symptify of Sunny Isles Beach was the early-stage winner ($50,000 in investment). Like a virtual doctor’s visit, Symptify uses professional medical sources to help a user identify potential conditions, possible remedies and where to go for help. JOOX Music of Orlando, a rewards-based music stock exchange, was the university winner ($25,000).
Ricardo Weisz, an investor who helped organize the Startup Showcase for eMerge Americas, said there were more high-quality startups in the competition this year. “The audience was better too — more investors, clients, potential customers — they were all very happy with that,” he said.
Bob Dickinson, retired as president of Carnival Cruise Lines, said he had missed eMerge last year but rearranged his schedule this year to attend. Especially appealing was the opportunity to see Deepak Chopra in person — an unconventional speaker for a business conference. “What's special about eMerge is it’s pushing the envelope, not just in tech but in what a business conference should be,” Dickinson said.
And Chopra did not disappoint. The author of 80 books in 43 languages, 22 of those best sellers, and founder of the Chopra Foundation shared his insights on well-being, combining the science and the spiritual.
Chopra’s five pillars of personal well-being are sleep, meditation, exercise and movement, emotions, and finally and food (that's the healthy stuff, nothing processed). If you can only do one thing, try “grateful journaling,” he said. Each night write the five things you are grateful for that day. In a study, that one action alone produced significant improvement in well-being, he said.
For entrepreneurs, both practicing well-being habits and being mindful of them can make them more enlightened leaders, he said. He advised them to be good listeners and create teams with emotional bonding, a shared vision and complementary strengths.
“Your business has to be global and affect people,” said Chopra, who is working with venture capitalists on a “Just Capital" project to put humanity back in profits. “The purpose of a business is to improve the quality of life,” he said.
Like many attendees, Lenny Chesal, CMO of Host.net, was impressed by Chopra’s remarks. “If people follow his thinking and beliefs, the world would be a better place. Hopefully everyone left there with at least one action item to change their lives and make a difference.”
Indeed, the speakers drew raves. Another favorite: Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics, founder of SiriusXM and author, who spoke on Monday.
“Martine is working on the future, but in the present. She is a futurist working on real time. Her ability to be a serial inventor is remarkable because every one of her inventions is of huge consequence and impact to humanity,” said Adriana Cisneros, CEO of Cisneros Group. “She must have one of the most fascinating minds in our world.”
Rothblatt, who is transgender, also took part in WIT, Women Innovation and Technology, a separate speaker track designed to increase female participation.
While the quality of the WIT speakers won high praise, reviews of the concept were mixed.
“I loved the emphasis on women and that a whole day was dedicated to the contributions of women in entrepreneurship and technology... But it would be great to see the topics and presenters interspersed throughout the conference so that it is not siloed,” said Maxeme Tuchman of Teach for America. Joanna Popper, a media executive, agreed. “Ideally you don’t want to have a need for something like WIT, but we aren’t there yet.”
Beyond the speakers and panel discussions, eMerge — like most conferences — was about the networking, especially in the lively expo hall, filled with startups seeking funding, university and company exhibits, and booths from a half-dozen countries including Holland, Taiwan, Mexico, Spain and Israel.
Last year, Israeli representatives came as attendees; this year, they hosted a showcase booth. “The feedback we got from a lot of people who attended last year was positive,” said Israeli Consulate spokesman Ariel Roman. “Miami is at the beginning,” he said, and is making progress explaining that the city more than a sun-and-fun destination.”"We see eMerge expanding tremendously.”
Companies featured in the booth included Digisense, which creates a sensor for caregivers of babies and the elderly; EZface, which allows women to virtually “try on” makeup shades from major cosmetics companies including Loreal and Cover Girl; and Mobileye, which created the collision avoidance systems used by car manufacturers including Jaguar and Nissan and commercial fleets including FPL’s.
Like last year, the conference closer was a center stage one-on-one conversation between conference founder Manny Medina and Armando Christian Pérez — better known as Pitbull — that included the entertainer’s blockbuster year (four No. 1 hits), challenges in the music business, his varied business enterprises, his Sports Leadership and Management Miami charter school and the chip on Miami’s shoulder.
“In Miami we grow up with a chip on our shoulder,” he said. “We’re told we’re never as good as New York or L.A. or Chicago. I love New York and L.A. and Chicago — but there’s nothing in the world like Miami,” he said to cheers.
“I love to hustle, I love people to tell me I can’t do something,” said. He advises the SLAM students, “remember in the word ‘can’t’ is can, in ‘don’t’ is do, in ‘impossible’ is possible.
“I’ve had an amazing opportunity. My upbringing taught me it’s all about hard work. “
And while originally his motivation might have been proving the naysayers wrong, today he gets as much from passing the bounty on.
“When I see someone motivated by me, I get really motivated... It’s not about the money, it’s about the journey, to be able to tell stories. You can’t take it with you….[success] is about what you leave behind, the legacy.”
eMerge’s second year success, he said, is proof of the Hollywood truism, “if you build it, they will come,” from the film Field of Dreams. But he said, “It’s never about a dream. Wake up and live it; make it your reality.”
Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.