Photo: Graphic: Tuttle Tribe
Miami on the move
No city has generated more buzz post-pandemic than Miami. A surging technology sector has blossomed amid the economic, cultural and geographic attributes that have defined the Magic City since Julia Tuttle pitched the idea of a new town amid an epic freeze, promising a warm haven from disaster.
As the pandemic unfolded, the stir started with the arrival of some of venture capital’s heavy hitters fleeing shutdowns in Silicon Valley, Chicago and New York, including members of the “PayPal Mafia” – among the richest investors in the sector. New “unicorns” — privately owned startups with valuations in excess of $1 billion — began emerging at a pace not seen before. In 2021, $5.33 billion was invested in South Florida startups and later-stage companies, reports Miami journalist Nancy Dahlberg. The city is staking out its standing as the cryptocurrency capital.
In April, eMerge Americas held its first in-person gathering since 2019, and more than 20,000 people showed up, including “Mr. 305” Armando “Pitbull” Pérez, an early backer of the conference, and tennis great/entrepreneur Serena Williams. Vanilla Ice performed at one Miami Tech Week party, fire dancers at others. Billionaire investors were said to have hosted startup founders on yachts in pitch sessions that sounded a lot like speed dating. The scene was, well, very Miami-like.
These are the shiny objects of Miami’s ecosystem. They attract considerable attention but don’t tell the most important part of the story. If you want to understand why what’s happening in Miami is a movement, not a moment — as Mayor Francis Suarez and other civic leaders are fond of saying — it’s better to consider the less flashy fundamentals of modern economies.
Innovation economies need certain cornerstones upon which to grow, foremost talent, writes University of Washington history professor Margaret O’Mara, who has dissected Silicon Valley’s rise. Also needed: Venture capital, a conducive atmosphere for networking and public investment. Miami has been building such assets over the past decade. They may not glitter, but these factors are the real gold:
- Everybody is invited to this party: A diverse community is building supportive and productive networks, including the Tuttle Tribe, a female-focused initiative around the metaverse. Purposeful inclusion brings an array of ideas and perspectives to the ecosystem and keeps talented people connected to each other and a place.
- The talent pipeline is primed: Silicon Valley, Boston and Seattle show us that universities are central to powering modern economies. Miami has substantial research universities, but also has Miami Dade College — and no local college in the nation is better at creating access to high-tech higher education.
- Range of resources: Florida Funders, the venture capital fund and angel investor network, is based in Tampa but has a significant presence in Miami. JPMorgan Chase, the Knight Foundation and the Miami Foundation deployed $100 million in Tech Equity Miami. SoftBank Group International committed $100 million for Miami-connected companies.
- Civic leadership is all in: Suarez, a Republican, is credited with kicking off the tech exodus to Miami in December 2020, in responding to a tweet from a venture capitalist, with a simple: “How can I help?” Democrats Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava and Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber are there with him. Their cooperation mirrors the tech community, which spans the political spectrum and still works together.
- Statewide collaboration: Florida is more competitive when its connected. Synapse Florida, based in Tampa, partnered with eMerge Americas as well as the South Florida Tech Hub, the Orlando Economic Partnership and Launch Tallahassee, leveraging strengths.
- International orientation: Many startups begin as multi-national companies, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, where entrepreneurs look across borders for talent, financing and markets. Miami isn’t just a gateway to the Americas, its connections to Europe and startup nation Israel give bornglobal companies an edge.
- A distinct sense of place: They might come for the cafecito, but they’ll stay for distinctive neighborhoods with gathering spots where ideas can collide. The challenge is soaring housing costs for people in all sectors.
Given the local history, it’s understandable why some say this movement is more a mirage. Pinning Miami’s tech identity to the unregulated and volatile crypto industry might get the city in on what’s arguably the future, but without reasonable caution it risks playing to the worst narratives of Miami as a lawless place. Our story on Rakontur, the city’s unofficial keepers of cautionary tales, reminds me of their 2006 documentary Cocaine Cowboys, where legendary Miami Herald journalist Edna Buchanan reflected on whether the city’s renaissance would have been without 1980s drug money kickstarting the economy, asking, “At what price a skyline?” There is no easy money, then or now.
“We are all Florida natives, and we’d love to leave behind a better Florida than the one we were born into,” co-founder Billy Corben told the Miami Beach City Commission in 2018 when it honored the studio. That’s also the motivation of those at the substantive heart of Miami’s tech movement. A diverse, creative and energetic tech sector is not just better, it’s one of the best signs yet that Miami no longer wants to live in the moment.