Business Monday

Summer day sizzles with 12 hours of tech talk

A big crowd at the Miami Science Museum heard Andy Hagerman, co-founder of The Design Gym, a New York City-based creative education company.
A big crowd at the Miami Science Museum heard Andy Hagerman, co-founder of The Design Gym, a New York City-based creative education company. Miami Herald

One summer day — and at least four very different large community conversations about tech and entrepreneurship in Miami.

Not sure if that is a record, but Thursday’s agenda was certainly up there.

When real estate and tech leaders come together to talk about “Miami’s tech footprint,” don’t expect everyone to be in lock-step. But perhaps they all can agree on this: With so much development slated for the Park West section of downtown Miami —including Miami Worldcenter, All Aboard Florida and the Miami Innovation District — tech needs to be in the conversation. And it was.

An audience of mostly business leaders and real estate professionals packed Venture Hive for a lunch-and-learn conversation hosted by Commercial Industrial Association of South Florida.

They heard pitches from two local South Florida companies incubating at the Hive — Referrizer and Snow Lizard — and a keynote speech by Michael Rodriguez, CEO of eMerge Americas. “We are in the middle of the biggest change we have ever seen in our lives,” said Rodriguez, adding while other cities are constrained in their growth, “Miami is expanding at a time when technology is expanding — it’s a perfect fit.”

Ken Krasnow of CBRE in South Florida tried to put it in perspective for the audience. The 20 top tech-oriented office markets in the country created jobs five times faster than the national average between 2009 and 2013, CBRE found in its study. In South Florida last year, 370,000 square feet of new leases and expansions were in the tech sector, more than twice what it was in 2013, while the total in all industries was essentially flat, he said.

“Tech is touching every company now,” said Todd Oretsky, co-founder of Pipeline Workspaces. Locally, Watsco Ventures is doing a great job of investing in and bringing tech into a traditional industry. How do you build a culture to create the big wins? You need a cluster and it takes a little time, he said.

There is incredible talent here, but our challenge is to create long-term businesses that have a heavy IP component to them, said Susan Amat, founder of Venture Hive, which is in talks with 12 cities about being a soft landing place for their startups. She also said Venture Hive is starting young, teaching kids business, design thinking, coding and software, including at camps at five city of Miami parks for lower-income students. “This is part of the long-term strategy to create innovation in South Florida. It’s not a physical place, it is a state of mind,” Amat said. “How do we stop the fluff and build great companies?”

Michael Simkins, developer of the proposed Miami Innovation District, said there are a lot of components to a tech ecosystem, and all are needed, but retaining and attracting the medium to large tech companies is the most important for Miami now because that provides the most jobs. He also said affordable micro-apartments, 250-350 square feet, are a key component: “I see it all coming together. It’s going to happen, it’s just when it’s going to happen.”

The SBA has been trying to be more active in the startup community, getting the word out about its programs and assistance. SBA Administrator Maria Contreras-Sweet has visited Miami several times and spoke at eMerge, and this time she brought Jack Dorsey to an event at the FIU College of Architecture + The Arts Miami Beach Urban Studios for a roadshow on the big payment technology switch coming up. But the conversation at the event sponsored by Rokk3r Labs also turned into a celebration of entrepreneurship, whatever form it takes.

The co-founder of two of the most well-known tech companies in the world told the mostly small-business audience: “The choice to stay small is just as admirable as the choice to go global.” He said he never dreamed about becoming an entrepreneur or being a CEO; for him, it was always about solving problems.

And he said he is particularly proud of a couple of stats about Square and the companies Square serves: Fifty-six percent of the small businesses who use Square are owned and run by women, and 75 percent of Square’s employees report to three women in the executive ranks.

I couldn’t be everywhere at once so one of my colleagues, Molly Duffy, attended the all-day Regional Tech Summit, Miami Caribbean Code’s first conference designed to highlight the need for technology advances in the Caribbean and begin to bridge the technological gap between the Caribbean and Miami.

Panelists throughout the day discussed technology’s influence on education, social impact, connectivity and economies — as well as the impact of brain drain that has plagued the region for a long time, said Brian Fonseca, director of operations for the Applied Research Center at Florida International University.

Natalie Cofield, president and CEO of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce and a keynote speaker, urged attendees to invest in their home countries and then “go home and do business.”

Refresh Miami’s summer startup series kicked off with a partnership with Design Thinking Miami, a nonprofit that offers educational and community-building events centered around the creative problem-solving methodology. The Refresh event was just one of three parts to the design thinking theme — there was also a happy hour networker on Friday and a full day boot camp on Saturday. The startup series will follow with events on funding and launching and end with a demo day in September, said Peter Martinez, co-director of Refresh.

Startups and students — I was sitting with a row of interns from AdMobilize — packed the Miami Science Museum to hear Andy Hagerman, co-founder of The Design Gym, a New York City-based creative education company. Through his talk and exercises with the audience, he briefly explained the stages of design thinking — examine, understand, ideate, experiment and distill — and how the methodology can be especially helpful to startups that need to get to market very quickly.

One of the company’s initiatives: Design Taco, a pop-up taco shop. Turns out the tacos and beer were just the bait to get different groups mixing it up. Maybe we could use that?

Read more about all these events and other startup news on the Starting Gate blog on Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.