Business Monday

Raise a glass as we look ahead to 2015 for South Florida tech

Nancy Dahlberg
Nancy Dahlberg

I know “year in reviews” around this time proliferate like cat videos, but a certain amount of look-back is necessary to look ahead and 2014 was one interesting year in South Florida tech and entrepreneurship.

I looked back on my end of the year column for 2013 where I pointed out green shoots in mentorship, visibility, funding, the maker movement and youth education. Green shoots in all those areas are thriving and some have become healthy branches. For example, new resources for mentorship and acceleration now include, to name a few, Miami Dade College’s Idea Center, Florida Atlantic University Tech Runway, the Microsoft Innovation Center at Venture Hive and Endeavor Miami. In funding, beyond Magic Leap’s phenomenal $542 million raise, five or six new early-stage funds are now calling South Florida home, as efforts continue on many fronts to move a sliver of South Florida’s significant wealth into startups and early-stage companies.

So what are the past year’s green shoots that could grow stronger in 2015? Let me know your thoughts — and here are a couple of mine.

Corporate involvement: While the Knight Foundation kick-started and continues to fuel the current tech hub movement with more than 90 investments, it’s notable that we are starting to see much more corporate involvement. A few examples: Goldman Sachs funded the well-regarded 10,000 Small Businesses program, and made a $5 million investment into the program at Miami Dade College that is about to begin its fourth cohort and open to the community. Beyond the significant check, Goldman Sachs executives take part in the curriculum and mentoring. Microsoft chose to locate its first Microsoft Innovation Center in the U.S. at Miami’s Venture Hive and has already held 50 events and workshops for the community there, including office hours for mentoring. Citi used Miami as a launching pad for its Global Citi Mobile Challenge, and in December it launched a meetup series on Fintech in Miami. Dan Sachar of Highnote Foundry is exploring the role of corporations in the startup culture at an upcoming breakfast event.

The new LaunchCode, a St. Louis nonprofit that expanded to South Florida this month, is all about corporate involvement as it matches tech talent with companies. In fact, if all corporations that hire IT workers are not involved the model doesn’t really work, says Jim McKelvey, co-founder of Square who founded the nonprofit. In a few short weeks, LaunchCode has already signed on 21 companies, said Mariana Rego, who is running LaunchCode’s Miami operation.

One region: Who could forget the Internet firestorm over Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine’s tech-hub comments as 2014 got underway? He was talking quite literally about the role of the city of Miami Beach, but it sounded as if he was talking about the region. The mayor said he learned a lesson about communication (and has since has become a strong supporter of the tech hub movement) but perhaps there is even a greater lesson here as the area efforts to brand itself a technology hub: We are a tri-county region with each area taking part. For proof that a significant amount of our early-stage action happens in and around Boca Raton, look no further than the “Startup Spotlights,” “Early Stage Companies” and “Funding” categories on my Starting Gate blog. Boca also draws more VC funding than other areas of the state.

The counties to the north are home to success stories such as Citrix and fast-growing companies like Modernizing Medicine. Events such as ITPalooza in December, with 2,000 attending at Nova Southeastern, or the Gold Coast Venture Capital Association’s Meet the Angels event in August that drew more than 500 to Boca, seem to underscore a thriving tech and entrepreneurial scene. It’s also notable that Miami mega-event eMerge Americas went out of its way to make its inaugural conference a tri-county event, and that will be evident this year also, its organizers say. We are stronger together.

These are just a few trends I am seeing, and to be sure challenges remain. But on the education front, South Florida saw a mini-explosion of coding school options come onto the scene. And two very recent encounters made me feel particularly good about the future, as they point to the power of early education.

The Miami Herald runs an annual charitable project called the Wish Book. My story was about Nathan Hagood, a talented teen in all things tech at North Miami Beach Senior High who needed help with college expenses. After the story ran, FIU offered a scholarship to the teen. “After the holiday, we’ll arrange for him to come over and see what we’re doing. I certainly hope he’ll choose to come to FIU and Honors,” said Lesley Northup, dean of FIU’s Honors College who extended the offer. While Nathan is applying for scholarships at various schools in and out of South Florida, it is great to see a local university step up to try to keep home-grown talent here.

And recently I wrote about the entrepreneurial journey of the co-founders of the cyber-security firm Guarded Networks, which after a couple of sales and name changes became part of SilverSky and then most recently BAE in a $232.5 million acquisition. I focused on the story of the original CEO who stayed with the company through all the transitions. But one of the other co-founders, Brian Otte, reached out to me after the piece ran. In a nice way, he conveyed that the journey as I told it missed a key point: the power of education.

Otte moved to the U.S. when he was 8 and said he is a proud product of the Miami-Dade County Public School System. Otte, now the director and head of sales at ProfitStars, who graduated from Florida State University and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, told me: “As I have traveled in my career, I am taken back at the negative perception the rest of the country seems to have on our school system as a whole. Frankly, I think it prepared me not just scholastically but from a social perspective as well. I got the opportunity to grow up in a melting pot and was blessed with great teachers along the way who motivated me to excel. ... In my case, I owe my journey to them.”

Happy New Year and cheers to green shoots and success stories in 2015.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg.

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