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South Florida tech pioneers: Breaking new ground, giving back

George Wallner, chief technologist of LoopPay, spoke at Fintech LatAm in Wynwood last week.
George Wallner, chief technologist of LoopPay, spoke at Fintech LatAm in Wynwood last week. CVOX Group

The financial services industry took notice of a growing fintech sector here in South Florida, several startups made the news, and veterans of the Internet came together to share war stories and talk about what’s next. Just another week in South Florida tech?

At the inaugural Fintech Latam conference last week in Wynwood, we met George Wallner, who reminded us that you don’t always know where your entrepreneurial journey is taking you, as innovation doesn’t move in a straight line. In his Miami Beach home lab, he developed the technology for LoopPay, an affordable protective sleeve that fits around your phone, turning your smartphone into a mobile wallet. It works with 90 percent of point-of-sale systems and is on the market now. He knows a thing or two about POS systems, as he is credited with developing the first credit card swipe machine as founder and CEO of Hypercom, taking that company from zero to IPO.

Fortunately, serial entrepreneurial expertise like this is all over South Florida.

Many people may know that the IBM PC was born in Boca, but they may not be aware that one of the first smartphones was developed right here in South Florida, said Chris Fleck, vice president of Mobility Solutions at Citrix. And some may also not know that South Florida has a number of Web pioneers. Last week, for a South Florida Technology Alliance standing-room-only event at Citrix to celebrate the 20th birthday of the Web, Fleck brought together four South Florida entrepreneurs who helped to build the Web — and are still innovating, as well as giving back.

Speakers included Scott Adams, who co-founded the highly successful Web-hosting company Hiway Technologies, and is now deeply involved with two mobile health and safety companies; he’s chairman of MobileHelp, now with 120 employees and No. 111 on this year's Forbes list of fastest growing companies, and also CEO of GroupCare Technologies, somewhat similar to MobileHelp but with a keen focus on Alzheimer’s and Autism. Entrepreneurship and education are this Florida Atlantic University alum’s passions, and over the years he has been a huge contributor to the FAU entrepreneurship programs. Now Adams is also helping with the development of Tech Runway, the university’s new accelerator and comprehensive entrepreneurial education program rolling out now.

Manny Medina, whose company Terramark was acquired by Verizon, said he didn’t create the NAP of the Americas — the industry did. Either way, today the NAP hosts the access points for 180 major carriers, serving Latin America and much of the world. Now Medina’s “day job” is chairman of Medina Capital, which has invested in growth-stage tech companies such as the fast-growing cybersecurity player Easy Solutions. And his night job? Founding and overseeing eMerge Americas, which produced its first tech conference in May and has a larger mission of helping to develop a tech hub for the Americas here. A team of 18 is hard at work on the next conference, with a goal of attracting 10,000 participants. “It’s very important that this is a regional effort — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach,” Medina said.

Colin Campbell founded, grew and sold what quickly became the largest Internet provider in Canada in the ’90s. Then he co-founded a number of other tech companies, including Hostopia. Now he’s back on the ground floor in another kind of Internet gold rush: domain names. He’s got a powerful one — .club — and his company is quickly growing in Fort Lauderdale.

Mike Levy said he was moved to start Sportsline, later CBS Sportsline, when he saw the early interest in consumer sites like AOL and Prodigy. Today, Levy is investing in and advising several companies, and one of them is Glip, a Boca Raton-based business messaging platform with built-in productivity tools. “If you want to know about the future, don’t ask me, ask him,” he said pointing to Glip’s CEO Peter Pezaris in the audience. Pezaris is CEO of the fast-growing startup that already has thousands of companies using the tool. And Pezaris and his co-founders have started and successfully exited other companies together.

Like Glip, emerging talent is all around. This month, Virtu.al, a four-month-old company, was snapped up by Citrix. And last week, several startups hit milestones, including BluVision, a Fort Lauderdale company that provides enterprises with a Bluetooth beacon cloud-based control solution and ecosystem. The startup developed BluZone, an end-to-end Bluetooth beacon hardware and SaaS platform for beacon management, and already has 25 employees.

LevelRE, a real-estate technology and service company also based in Fort Lauderdale, launched nationally last week. The company, founded in 2011, said it is the first online full-service brokerage with regional presence throughout the country that enables buyers and sellers to manage and control the home sales process while saving thousands of dollars.

A product of the creative industry that seems to be growing quickly here, collaborative music platform Kompoz, with members from more than 120 countries, took its company to another level with the addition of SoundBlend, a new online music store that features songs collaboratively created on Kompoz. Founder Raf Fiol said it is the first store to feature crowdsourced music exclusively.

Save the dates

Lean Startup Machine is returning to Miami on Friday for another weekend-long hands-on educational event. Here is just a small sampling of other tech-related events coming up in October:

Startup Weekend Education, Oct. 10-12 at Venture Hive, welcomes technologists, educators and entrepreneurs with education-related company ideas to bring the idea to life and compete for prizes. More info here.

Product Hunt, a website for discovering new apps and products, is having a free Miami meetup Oct. 17, hosted by Kairos. The event at The LAB will feature demos by Glip, Waleteros and Katana. The audience votes and the winner receives prizes from NewMe Accelerator. NewME’s Angela Benton will also hold a Q&A. More info here.

NewME PopUp Accelerator, Oct. 18-19, will have a creative edge to it, as it is partnering with the Revolt Music Conference. The event will include fireside chats, networking, a pitch competition with prizes and pre-event mentoring. More info here.

Emerging Technology Business Showcase, an all-day event on Oct. 23 at Miami Dade College/Wolfson, features startup pitches, demos and panel discussions, including one on foodprenuers. ETBS is produced by the nonprofit Enterprise Development Corp. More info here.

FinTank: Tech Weekend @ The Dolphins, Oct. 25-26. This free hackathon at SunLife Stadium hopes to attract 500 participants, including young students. A teach-athon is planned, too. Register here.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

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