by Amy Sherman
Updated 6 months ago
South Florida has international business experts, multimillionaires and hip urban neighborhoods that lure young workers. But while the region generates plenty of startup businesses, it hasn’t become a hub where those startups grow and flourish.
The south Florida metropolitan area, in fact, ranks first among the 40 largest metro areas in the rate of startup activity, but a lowly 36th out of 40 on a different measure that captures growth, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurship.
Finance veteran Clara Bullrich and tech expert Laura González-Estéfani, both with global experience, see opportunity. In 2017, they founded a company called Venture City as a platform to link entrepreneurs, investors, experts and academics to boost growth for tech startups — and establish Miami as a tech hub on a par with others.
“We saw Silicon Valley, New York and Tel Aviv as typical tech hubs. We wanted to be able to flourish emerging hubs in technology,” says Bullrich. “We think there are a lot of founders and expertise and intelligence in those emerging hubs that haven’t been tapped into.”
Bullrich and González-Estéfani had discussed ideas for years before merging their knowledge of the finance and tech sectors. Bullrich was a managing partner for Guggenheim Partners Latin America/LJ Partnerships while González-Estéfani was an executive at Facebook.
“My idea was really to be able to invest in tech, but the idea Laura had was a much bigger one and a more, of course, sexy idea,” Bullrich says. “What she wanted to do was build a platform that could really accelerate the tech ecosystem.”
The co-founders started Venture City with their own money and with funds from investors.
Venture City seeks to identify what the founders call “iguanacorns” — smaller versions of “unicorns,” a term that top venture capitalists use to refer to fast-growing startups with valuations of $1 billion. “We saw talent, born in south Florida — and with so many iguanas all over the place — maybe not unicorns but we have iguanacorns,” González-Estéfani says.
The startups they work with are at different stages: Cabify, a Madridbased ride-sharing company, is already valued at $1 billion; Optimus Ride, a Boston self-driving vehicle company, expects to start carrying passengers this year. In Florida, Venture City has worked with Boatsetter, a boat rental company; Fast Mind, a social gaming intelligence platform; Above & Beyond, a global financial company; and RecargaPay, a mobile wallet and payment platform.
Venture City ditched the model in which investors take equity up front. Instead, it takes equity along the way.
“If you really want to work with the best of the best, they need to see that you also have some skin in the game,” González-Estéfani says. “We are taking the risk just as they are.”
Venture City supports a company’s growth over 18 to 36 months with financial strategy, product engineering, marketing and partner connections. So far the accelerator has invested $20 million in 16 startups with plans to invest $100 million over 10 years.
Operating from an office on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, Venture City has 18 employees in south Florida, Madrid, Sydney, Australia, and Silicon Valley and is considering expanding to Singapore this year.
Jaclyn Baumgarten, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based Boatsetter, says she isn’t in the accelerator program but has used Venture City as a consultant and investor. Boatsetter has access to 5,000 boats that customers can rent with or without captains in Florida, the Caribbean, Mediterranean and other markets.
She said a key challenge in her business is how to convert online visitors to customers — an area of expertise that Venture City staffers have because they’ve worked for major online companies such as eBay, WhatsApp and Facebook.
“Getting one-on-one time with people with that level of expertise is pretty remarkable,” she says. “When I moved here from Silicon Valley, I was accustomed to being able to tap into Stanford and leverage a broader ecosystem. When I first came here, I felt quite isolated. It is wonderful to now have experts that I can tap as we build our company.”
Changing the ecosystem
Startups can fizzle because they lack financing, management expertise or an understanding of how to identify the market appropriately, says Damian Thorman, vice president and chief innovation officer at Miami Dade College, which has partnered with Venture City to offer a two-year associate’s degree in entrepreneurship.
While Miami hasn’t traditionally provided an ecosystem for startups, Thorman says he sees signs of change.
“I have on a daily basis conversations with Apple, Google, technology companies — they are coming to Miami to look,” he says. “Because of our proximity to Latin America, because of the diversity that Miami represents, people are coming here to get a window into the future.”
Other efforts are underway to help Florida entrepreneurs. In November, multiple partners including the National Urban League, the Urban League of Broward County and Morgan Stanley announced a loan program in Florida for minority-owned businesses.
The Capital Access Fund aims to help sustain businesses that have been in operation for at least 18 months, says Germaine Smith-Baugh, CEO of the Urban League of Broward County.
“Clearly minorities are not void of entrepreneurial spirit — many minorities start businesses completely out of necessity,” she says. “The challenge isn’t the starting of a business; it is the sustaining of a business.”
Jaret L. Davis, co-managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig’s Miami office, who represents Venture City, says that state government could play a greater role in fostering startups by creating a role such as an Office of Chief Scientist. He points to Israel as a role model for growing tech startups.
“Israel has a stronger connection between government and startups, and that has in part led to their status as the true startup nation,” he says.
While the tech and financial industries are dominated by men, the co-founders of Venture City are more interested in nurturing startups than they are in cultivating status as female trailblazers.
“Nothing is going to stop us from doing this,” González-Estéfani says. “You don’t pay attention to the noise. You do what you do best. I feel that’s the mantra we have at Venture City. Women, men, young, old, Latin, Asian, whatever. Those are limitations. We don’t believe in limitations. Nothing is going to limit us from what needs to be done. We just go and do it.”
Venture City’s Co-Founders
» Career: Previously spent nearly nine years with Facebook in various roles, including leading the growth, mobile and partnerships team for Latin America, spearheading the Internet.org effort to share the internet’s knowledge, and connectivity initiatives from Silicon Valley and later Miami. Before Facebook, she held management roles at eBay, Siemens and Ogilvy Group and cofounded Esplaya.com, the first international beach tourism digital platform.
» Education: Studied at the Universidad Europea de Madrid in Spain, Mass Media & Communications, and a PDD (short of an executive MBA) at Vlerick Leuven Gent Management School in Belgium.
» Work Philosophy: “I can’t think of one thing I wanted to do in life that I haven’t done. I have made thousands of mistakes. I crashed companies. I have grown companies. I’ve made mistakes with relationships, with friends. I hired the wrong people. I hired the right people. I always did what I thought I needed to be doing at the moment.”
» Personal: Born in Madrid. Lives in Miami with her husband, Eduardo Rebollo, and three children.
» Career: Previously managing partner for Guggenheim Partners Latin America/LJ Partnerships, an independent, privately held multi-family office with assets under management of $5 billion. Guggenheim has branches in Miami, London, Geneva, Lisbon, The Isle of Man, Neuchatel and Hong Kong.
» Education: Trinity College, degree in international business with a minor in finance
» Work Philosophy: “I speak with authenticity, certainty, clarity, empathy and profound magnetism. I am my word. There are no problems — just solutions.”
» Personal: Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Now lives in Miami with her husband, Josue Lain, and two children.
Getting a Venture City Assist
Venture City has helped companies in multiple states and countries. Here are four companies with a presence in south Florida:
Boatsetter / Fort Lauderdale
Boatsetter operates akin to an Airbnb for boats. The company allows people to rent vessels (from a choice of about 5,000) — with or without captains — in Florida, the Caribbean, Mediterranean and other markets.
Fast Mind / Plantation
The company offers a social gaming platform where users can play from anywhere with a single click. Through the platform, FastMind allows gaming apps to increase active users across platforms, boost growth, lower acquisition costs and increase conversion. The app studio has had more than 25 million downloads.
RecargaPay / Miami
The company’s mobile wallet and payment platform is designed for paying personal bills. The company’s platform helps users manage their expenses and pay for utilities, cell-phone and transportation charges, among others, through a centralized app.
Above & Beyond / Key Biscayne
Above & Beyond is a digital platform where financial institutions can shop for tech solutions from many providers. It gives them access to many “fintech” options and lets them test the solutions “under a secure, controlled environment” that won’t compromise their data, it says. Meanwhile, companies that offer financial technology solutions can test their products on the platform to establish a track record. The company is in Miami, Lima, Mexico, Argentina, Singapore and Africa.
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