Technology

eMerge abuzz with tech, people, networking

Manuel D. Medina, founder and chairman of eMerge Americas, center, and musical performer Pit Bull applaud as they ring the NASDAQ stock market closing bell at 4 p.m. in Miami Beach on Monday.
Manuel D. Medina, founder and chairman of eMerge Americas, center, and musical performer Pit Bull applaud as they ring the NASDAQ stock market closing bell at 4 p.m. in Miami Beach on Monday. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

When Manny Medina and Pitbull virtually rang the Nasdaq closing bell in the center of eMerge Americas with a crowd of people cheering them on, it seemed to symbolize that it is Miami’s time to shine.

“It’s kind of ironic, as the CEO of a Nasdaq company (Terremark), I never got to ring the bell,” quipped Medina, the founder of the technology conference eMerge Americas, which opened Monday and continues Tuesday at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Tech pioneer Medina, who founded and sold Terremark in 2011, has a big mission for eMerge Americas: to help build South Florida into a tech hub of the Americas. But he said he never expected as much momentum toward the goal in Year 2. He credited much of that extra buzz to eMerge’s partnership with NBCUniversal and its 147-million viewer reach. Indeed, many of the network’s programs were filming from eMerge, including MSNBC’s The Rundown with Jose Diaz-Balart and CNBC’s Fast Money.

Medina said attendance will be well over the expected 10,000 people, and more people were streaming in Monday afternoon. More than 500 companies — from start-ups to giants — are participating this year, representing more than 50 countries. For Year 2, “we have been overwhelmed by the interest and excitement — I couldn’t be more proud of the progress,” Medina said.

The expo area was far livelier this year, partly due to a different layout and traffic pattern. Noticeably more people checked out the booths and demoed the technology. This year’s Startup Showcase was located between the expo’s center stage and its program-rich summit halls — meaning that companies including Toronto-based bar-hopping app Eve and the mesmerizing advertising holograms from Miami-based Holography Box saw plenty of visitors.

The path also led past the booth for Florida International University, where scientists are working on technologies for tracking Alzheimer’s disease, diminishing eyesight, breast cancer, and inexpensive home tests for molecules emitted by termites, mold and chemicals.

Martine Rothblatt, founder of Sirius Satellite Radio and biotechnology company United Therapeutics, transported the audience to the future of healthcare with her keynote address, covering topics as obscure as pig organ transplants.

Rothblatt said the end of the decade will bring a big step toward creating an unlimited supply of transplantable organs.

She said she expects that her company and others will be able to transplant a genetically modified pig lung into a human body by the end of the decade. And after pig lungs, what’s next? Stem cells, Rothblatt said. By 2030, stem cells will be used to create organs such as hearts and livers, saving lives and billions of dollars annually in hospital bills.

Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator of the SBA, used eMerge to kick off National Small Business Week. “Miami is the Ellis Island of our generation” — including Contreras-Sweet herself. At age 5, she came to the United States from Mexico with no English skills; she went on to found one of the first banks for U.S. Hispanics and several other companies. At eMerge, she announced that SBA.gov is now totally bilingual.

HUD Secretary Julian Castro wasted no time getting into the gist of his keynote address: digital inclusion.

With the unrest in Baltimore at the top of their mind for many, he said, “We can’t ignore … the pain of unfulfilled hopes and dreams. I am here to ask for your help so that every person has access to technology and can thrive … You are on the front lines of change, of progress. The core question is: How do we shape a future in the tech revolution that includes everyone?”

Leveling the playing field starts with broadband access for all, he said; today, one in four American households do not have access to the Internet.

Students who face the digital divide every day in South Florida got a chance to present their companies on the eMerge stage.

The student who took the top prize in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship’s (NFTE) BizPlan Competition won, in part, because he talked about how he had failed with his first game and learned from it. Jason Ramadan, a senior at Coral Springs Senior High, earned the top spot in the contest for Cliff Fall, a game for the iOS platform.

The ability to fail and learn is key for entrepreneurs, said competition judge Maura O’Donnell, who works in business development and finance for MasterCard. The judging panel also liked that Ramadan studied his biggest competitors and addressed several areas to differentiate his product from theirs for gamers: personalization, multiple skill levels and advertising that does not interrupt play. Ramadan received a $1,500 prize from MasterCard.

Educating future talent — and retaining that talent — was the focus of a lively panel discussion of South Florida’s university leaders.

“What’s missing is enough information on our talent pool, on our ecosystem. The second-largest investment last year wasn’t in Silicon Valley — it was in South Florida. The picture is much better today, but is it still fuzzy,” said Thomas LeBlanc, provost at University of Miami.

For Cuba, this is likely to be the year the Internet arrives, said blogger-turned-media company director Yoani Sanchez, who was part of the Women, Innovation and Technology Summit, a new addition to eMerge this year.

Why? Young people in Cuba are clamoring for access, and the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations makes it possible for U.S. telecommunications companies to bring technology infrastructure to the island. And, she said, “I am hopeful because most people are already finding out about what is censored, so why censor it?”

Those who think the Apple Watch is the epitome of wearable technology haven’t seen the Fox Fan Jersey, featuring an imbedded sensor that gives fans the same fluttering heart and rush that the athletes they’re watching on on the field are feeling. Or the Navigate jacket that helps wearers navigate New York, Sydney or Paris via a tap on a shoulder instead of a map in the palm. Or, heaven forbid, Fundawear, vibrating underwear designed to let long-distance couples literally feel each other. All were presented by Australian designer Billie Whitehouse, whose Wearable Experiments team designs comfortable clothing that uses invisible technology to enhance experience.

Whitehouse was one of a trio of speakers whose businesses fuse fashion and technology. Since 2012, Liz Baclear’s Decoded Fashion has arranged hackathons, competitions and conferences bringing together fashion and tech in New York and London, and, she announced, those will come to Miami in December.

Miami’s own Ariel Swedroe, 11, is already ahead of the curve. Using laser prints of colorful collages created by her grandfather, artist Robert Swedroe, Ariel has designed belts with LED lights, bracelets created with 3D printers and an entire ready-to-wear line for women. All will be available soon on her website, swedroebyariel.com. And someday, she hopes, at Bergdorf.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg. Miami Herald writer Karen Rundlet contributed to this report.

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