When eMerge Americas’ team was planning the inaugural homegrown technology conference in 2014, the executives scribbled a list of dream speakers on a white board. It contained names of top technology and business leaders, both from the U.S. and Latin America, people like Steve Wozniak, Uri Levine, Marcelo Claure and Gustavo Cisneros.
As eMerge Americas heads into its fourth year, those big names representing Apple, Waze, Sprint and the Cisneros Group and others, including Magic Leap’s Rony Abovitz and perennial crowd favorite Pitbull, are on the 2017 eMerge Americas agenda, which was released last week. “These are world-class speakers that are recognized across the globe for their leadership, vision and success. We’re very excited about our speaker lineup this year, not just because of these luminaries but also because of the 100 additional speakers our attendees will see over the two days of the event,” CEO Xavier Gonzalez said.
With a mission of promoting South Florida as a hub of the Americas for technology, eMerge Americas is a startup itself. Founded by tech pioneer Manny Medina, the annual conference launched in 2014, attracting about 6,000 attendees from 30 countries, and grew to 13,000 attendees last year. With Medina launching Cyxtera, a major data center and cybersecurity company, in Miami this year, Gonzalez and Melissa Medina, eMerge’s vice president, have taken on strategic leadership roles as well as the day to day operations. Gonzalez has been part of eMerge’s executive team since day 1, and became CEO in late 2015.
The Miami Herald talked with Gonzalez about the evolution of the conference and the technology ecosystem as well as plans for this year’s conference June 12-13 at the Miami Beach Convention Center. Here are excerpts of his remarks.
Q. In your view, what have been the most positive developments in the past year in terms of Miami ecosystem building?
A. The most positive developments have really been around the investments and company building we’ve seen in the market over the last six or seven months. With so many rounds of funding that have been significant — $10 million-plus — in addition to the acquisition of Chewy.com for $3 billion just recently, that tells me that all the work the entire community has been doing to develop and grow an entrepreneurial ecosystem, is starting to pay big dividends in a short amount of time. Add to that the creation of a global cybersecurity company, Cyxtera Technologies, right here in Miami, and there’s something very significant happening in terms of making headway on the global scene.
Q. And the biggest challenges?
A. There are the usual suspects in this category — funding and talent. But in my view we’re making good progress across all the areas that are challenging today. One thing that we as an ecosystem must have is patience. I always say we’re still very early on in the development of Miami as a tech hub. We’ve made huge strides, but there’s still much to do and we must have a level of patience to allow the various programs and initiatives to bear fruit. And we must also have the patience for our ecosystem to develop in its own way and build its own identity.
Q. In many ways, eMerge Americas is a startup that mirrors the development of the Miami ecosystem as a startup. Do you agree with that?
A. We are absolutely a startup that has evolved in lock step with the ecosystem. If you look back to when we hosted our first event, many of the major success stories that we talk about today were either at their infancy or hadn’t even been fully fleshed out yet. And we owe a great deal of the success of eMerge Americas to how much Miami has developed over the last five years and how much interest it has drawn across the globe. Our ecosystem is delivering on the promise that we promoted from the very beginning, which is a place where entrepreneurs and large technology companies focused on the Latin American market can connect with leaders from across the region, as well as those in the U.S. and European markets.
Q. Looking into your crystal ball, what will it take for the ecosystem to hit that critical inflection point?
A. Time. With the major successes we’re seeing like Modernizing Medicine, Chewy.com and Cyxtera — not to mention the massive potential impact of Magic Leap – we are poised to have a number of very large, global technology companies based in this ecosystem. That’s in addition to all the innovative companies that are growing here like Kairos and Nearpod. These companies and many others will continue to grow, innovate and attract talent from all over the world. That talent will develop new companies and bring even more interest from investors. Like I said before, I firmly believe we’re just at the beginning of the maturation of Miami’s technology sector.
There are very specific characteristics and circumstances that are leading Miami to grow as a technology hub that doesn’t mirror any other in the world.
Xavier Gonzalez, eMerge Americas CEO
Q. When you think of the Miami ecosystem, what’s the first word that comes to mind?
A. Unique. There are very specific characteristics and circumstances that are leading Miami to grow as a technology hub that doesn’t mirror any other in the world. Some of that has to do with the benefits our community has traditionally enjoyed — access to global markets, connection to Latin America, a multicultural city, great place to live and work — and some of it has to do with the incredible developments and energy surrounding our community in the last five years. Miami has truly matured as a global city, and our technology ecosystem will have a very unique position on the global scene that plays off that maturation.
Q. Local universities have always had a big presence at eMerge, particularly last year. Will that continue and what might we expect to see from them this year?
A. We’re always excited to see what innovative technologies and leading-edge research the universities will display at eMerge Americas. This year we’re fortunate to have the continued support of the University of Miami, Florida International University, Miami Dade College, Nova Southeastern University and Florida Atlantic University. We also are excited to have the University of Florida, Columbia University, and Babson College participating, as well as the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey from Mexico.
Q. I know they are all your babies but I’m going to force you to be selective. What are five speakers, exhibits or eMerge events not to be missed?
A. I’m going to cheat a little on this one. From a content perspective, we’re receiving a tremendous amount of interest for the keynotes in general — Steve Wozniak, Uri Levine, Marcelo Claure, Gustavo and Adriana Cisneros, Manny Medina, Blanca Trevino, Mauricio Ramos, Claudio Muruzabal, and, of course, Suze Orman and Armando Christian Perez, a k a Pitbull. On the exhibit floor we’re very excited about what Cyxtera Technologies will be showcasing in what’s their coming out party, as well as what Miami-Dade County will be featuring with their technology partners. The Startups Showcase will have another tremendous set of companies showing off very innovative technologies, including a number of companies from throughout Latin America and a strong contingent from our ecosystem. Based on the attendees we have registered, there’s going to be a very strong group of C-level executives from across Latin America, the United States and Europe, so the networking will be at another level this year. Finally, the networking events we offer on Sunday night always result in a good time for our attendees while they meet leaders from around the world.
Q. Any lessons learned last year that resulted in changes in the conference itself that we will see?
A. One of the elements of eMerge Americas that’s critical to the continued success of the event and our impact on the ecosystem is the networking events. So this year we decided to expand the reach of the networking opportunities to all of our attendees through a happy hour inside the convention center on Monday, June 12. This allows the thousands of attendees to connect right inside the convention center after all the keynotes and panel discussions are completed.
Q. What trends did you see in the Startup Showcase applicants and the ones that you selected?
A. One thing we’ve seen every year with the Startup Showcase is that the companies applying to participate are more and more sophisticated. This year in particular we’re seeing more later-stage companies than ever before, as well as a strong representation of companies from Latin America. One other trend we’ve noticed is that there are always a good number of South Florida-based companies that apply, but their level of success and quality has continued to improve on a yearly basis.
[To see the list of startups selected for the 2017 Showcase, go here: emergeamericas.com/startups]
Q. I don’t think most people know about all the ways you’ve been engaging startups, either through the showcase or in other ways. Tell us about some of those.
A. There are a few things we do to help support and engage entrepreneurs in Miami and Latin America. Throughout the year we host different small startup competitions throughout our main target markets in Latin America and in Miami with partners. The goal is to identify top startups that will have the opportunity to participate in the eMerge Americas Startup Showcase. For all the companies that are selected for the Startup Showcase, we partner with Visa and Venture Hive to provide the entrepreneurs with a monthlong virtual boot camp program and a full day of sessions at Venture Hive’s building in downtown Miami. The thinking is that we are able to provide significant value to all the entrepreneurs selected to participate in the showcase regardless of whether they win the overall competition.
Q. When we are talking in 2024, eMerge’s 10-year anniversary, what will we be talking about? What do you hope eMerge will look like then?
A. At the 10-year mark, eMerge Americas will serve as the anchor for a week-long series of events celebrating innovation in one of the globe’s top technology hubs and the strength of a robust technology sector in Latin America. eMerge will draw tens of thousands of attendees and be widely recognized as the world’s top event for innovators, government leaders and top technology executives looking to connect across Latin America, the United States and Europe. In 2024, we’ll also be talking about various Miami-based technology companies that are having great success, growing their employment opportunities, securing significant amounts of investment from private equity investors and venture capitalists with offices in Miami, and spawning a new set of technology companies that will grow in our community into 2034 and beyond.
Nancy Dahlberg: @ndahlberg
READ MORE Q&As
Title: CEO, eMerge Americas
Previous positions: Vice president and director of corporate communications for Terremark Worldwide, 2007-12; director of marketing and communications for Beacon Council, 2003-07.
Community involvement: Board member for the Greater Miami Chamber, Miami-Dade Beacon Council and Camillus House; serves on Orange Bowl Committee; recent graduate of Leadership Florida.
Education: Bachelor’s in journalism, master’s in mass communications, University of Florida; Belen Jesuit Preparatory School.
Books he recommends: “Shoe Dog;” “An Unfinished Life;” “Who Stole the American Dream?”
About the conference: eMerge Americas will be June 12-13 at Miami Beach Convention Center. More information and where to buy tickets: www.emergeamericas.com