Business Monday

Outside looking in: The deal hunters are sniffing out South Florida tech

Matt Haggman, program director of the Knight Foundation, talks with Dave McClure of 500 Startups at a Key Biscayne event last week, where McClure announced 500 Startups is bringing its PreMoney conference to the Miami area this spring.
Matt Haggman, program director of the Knight Foundation, talks with Dave McClure of 500 Startups at a Key Biscayne event last week, where McClure announced 500 Startups is bringing its PreMoney conference to the Miami area this spring. Juan Carlos

With the wind blowing through palm trees at an outdoor evening event, Dave McClure, co-founder of 500 Startups, said the Silicon Valley fund group is bringing its PreMoney conference to Miami this spring and the organization is considering some kind of presence in South Florida, without giving too many specifics.

Wayra, the global accelerator and startup fund started by Telefonica, earlier this month held its International Demo Day in Miami for the second time, showcasing some of its top entrepreneurs. Mariano Amartino, who heads Wayra’s Latin American operations, said the organization is also seriously interested in Miami. Right now, he said, Miami is a gateway for Wayra’s startups to generate business but “what we are seeing is slowly but steadily Miami is becoming a true hub.”

Endeavor Global’s International Selection Panel brought about 200 entrepreneurs and investors from around the world to the Magic City. While these events were going on, Miami’s investors were making news of their own, announcing new funds, with significant investment from outside the area.

Indeed, there was a lot of outside looking in these past two weeks. Along with the 500 Startups, Wayra and Endeavor events, events (some strategically clustered around Art Basel) included Sime MIA, WeXchange, a Citi Fintech meetup, ITPalooza, a Microsoft Innovation Center open house, private events for family offices, cocktail parties, speaker series, a book signing and others, together bringing hundreds of high-profile investors and entrepreneurs to the area to check us out.

There wasn’t as much talk about what Miami’s tech ecosystem still needs, though there was some of that, said John Fleming of Biztegra, who was attending Sime MIA, a three-day conference of speakers, panels, demos and events. Fleming’s marker of progress: “The difference this year is that the deal hunters are sniffing around.”

Noting the amplified fund-raising activity of 2014, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see several more funds opening here in the next year,” Benoit Wirz, director of venture investments for the Knight Foundation, said at the 500 Startups event.

In the past two weeks, Peter Kellner’s Richmond Global Ventures announced it is raising an $80 million to $125 million venture fund and that one of its three offices will be in Miami. Manny Medina said Medina Capital has closed its $182 million private equity fund for tech investments. This followed a string of new funds opening for seed stage investments. And Magic Leap's phenomenal $542 million raise has single-handedly put Miami on the Series A map, said Martin Varsavsky, CEO of Fon and part-time Miami Beach resident, who spoke at Sime MIA, Wayra’s Demo Day and the 500 Startups event.

Still, while South Florida was clearly enjoying the spotlight, it shouldn’t get too comfortable as the region is still coming from behind as a tech hub in the making, Varsavsky and several of the investors said. Some of them offered some advice:

To the entrepreneurs, Varsavsky said: “Don't compete with a company that is doing the same thing in Silicon Valley because it will kick your ass. Do things that are different. ... Silicon Valley has the microphone.”

For the venture community to progress, South Florida needs more education and standardization, said Juan Diego Calle, investor and co-founder of .CO Internet. In Silicon Valley, term sheets are standardized, everyone speaks the language of venture and processes are efficient, he said. We aren’t there yet.

Bradley Harrison of Scout Ventures, one of the funds that opened a Miami office, said the energy is palpable here but Miami needs to do a better job of marketing itself. He said he and others have been meeting with the Beacon Council and other civic organizations.

“We’ve been talking about how to market Miami differently around entrepreneurship. We need to put that all together so people will take us seriously,” he said during Sime MIA. “Miami needs to define what makes Miami unique and market it to the rest of the world.”

In that marketing, ditch the beach scenes, said Joe Morgan, a Miami investor and entrepreneur who is in the early stages of developing MaverixLab, a Miami-based business accelerator and education center for entrepreneurs and who spoke at ITPalooza, a gathering of 2,000 in South Florida’s tech community. “We don’t need to use that in our marketing. Silicon Valley is a nice place to live, too, but you don’t see them marketing that.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg. See more coverage of Tech Week events on the Starting Gate blog on MiamiHerald.com/business

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