Miami Resolutions: Tech

In our second series of Miami resolutions, we checked in with local leaders in technology, from experts in facial recognition software to data and design thinking. We asked them how they thought Miami’s tech scene is faring in 2016, and also how they hope it will evolve this year, as well as what their roles are in accomplishing those goals. Here’s what they had to say.

Brian Brackeen (Courtesy of Kairos)

Brian Brackeen, Kairos

In 2012, Brian Brackeen founded Kairos, a facial recognition company that works to optimize human responses and behavior through data and analytics. He previously worked at IBM and Apple, and hopes to provide clients with an affordable, effective facial recognition program.

Personally, I think the Miami tech scene is excellent. I often say there’s no better place to start a company and there’s a few reasons for that. No. 1 is that there’s a large amount of angel capital and in the early stage of a company you need that. Florida has three times the number of angel investors than California does, so there’s a lot of capital to be had, but also a much lower cost of living from other tech hubs. So low costs and high amount of capital is a perfect recipe for growth. The next step after you’ve raised seed funding is to grow in scale. We need more Series A investors — these are people who are writing $10 million to $20 million checks. Often we have people going to San Francisco or New York and I hear time and time again from companies that move, their employees are being poached and their whole founding team is decimated within a few months of showing up. You not only lose code capability who built the business, but also people who knew why it was built which is impossible to replace. In terms of ideas, people in Miami always think globally by default. We’re bigger thinkers and more entrepreneurial, which is seen in statistics. People are willing to start something — people are more willing to strike out and do their own thing. In the next year, I hope that there are more startups in healthcare, finance, and other areas that are a little more common. I also hope to see some big wins, like a company selling to Google, or Magic Leap having another round of investing. Another thing I hope is to be reading a lot more about Miami in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The Miami story isn’t told enough and something special is going on here.

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(Courtesy of Natalia Martinez-Kalinina)

Natalia Martinez-Kalinina

The founder of the Miami chapter of the Awesome Foundation, a global network spurring local innovations with small micro-grants, Natalia Martinez-Kalinina is now leading the expansion of the Cambridge Innovation Center to Miami.

I would say in the tech space is like a lot of other topics we feel strongly about in this city. We’re in a moment of adolescence — there’s a lot of energy, excitement, and promise. What we need is maturation. I would say this is a moment to take a holistic look at where we are not just the tech field, but also other verticals like biotechnology, social entrepreneurship, and other areas that need to come in to make it a robust ecosystem. The good news is that we have a lot of interest and energy and are attracting people both locally and across the hemisphere. We have people looking to Miami to see what we come up with. The big challenge is to create substance to back that up. If we just ride the wave of attention, we’ll always stay at a superficial level. I would say there’s two big points of improvement. One, as I mentioned is to think holistically. We have to look at all the parts of the city — this means looping in small, medium, and large scale entrepreneurs, and other areas around Miami that will get us to the next step. We have to stop working in silos and look at the system as a whole. My second aspiration is that we create multiple centers of gravity and pull that down into depth, substance, and sustained growth. This means moving surface level, 2-inch deep engagements to concentrated centers of gravity. Next year I would expect there to be new and interesting transplant stories of people coming to Miami as a place of opportunity where they can grow. As there are more success stories, the movement will continue to grow.

Daisy Nodal, and Tom Pupo, are the founders of Moonlighter, a community space for makers, artists and entrepreneurs, with a very artsy design vibe. They were also big finalists in the Business Plan Challenge. This was shot, Thursday, April 24th, 2014.
Daisy Nodal and Tom Pupo, the founders of Moonlighter. (Courtesy of Moonlighter)

Tom Pupo

Tom Pupo is a co-founder of Moonlighter, a makerspace and a venue for creative collaboration. Moonlighter brings together local designers, artists, engineers, entrepreneurs, to make and create together.

Miami’s tech scene is still organizing. It’s in a healthy community, and the best example of that is investing in the people and coming back to the place where they enjoyed their own success. We need more stories like that, of people who stay and keep innovating in the same ways. There are lots of resources for our entrepreneurs to grow and that means they can improve a lot but in order to work closer together, we need a pipeline of resources to come together in a cohesive way. The New Tropic’s Startup Guide started that, but now those resources need to come together and work together to make that grow. We hope to see Miami honing in on its strengths with more focus on specific goals. We hope there are people who do stuff in healthcare, retail, and government. It’s a matter of having inclusive collaboration to make that happen. Moonlighter’s role in that is to continue is helping people build physical components of those ideas. I hope by next year, we have tons of people working together so we have to grow to accommodate all those people, and have more resources, equipment, and tech to innovate further.

Willie Avendano (Courtesy of Catalina Ayubi)

Willie Avendano

Willie Avendano is the co-creator of the Wynwood Maker Camp. During Maker Camp’s sessions, students age 8 –15 with no experience in technology navigate through a curriculum that covers electronics, microcomputers, virtual reality, 3D printing, collaboration, communication, and entrepreneurship.

I think the Miami tech scene is evolving. There’s a little bit in the Wynwood area right now, but we’re growing at an incredible rate. This is giving us the chance to move forward. We’re gaining more and more respect and now we want to take the next step and engage with everyone in Miami. I think we’ll soon see the emergence of great ideas. Miami’s tech just got out of the baby stage and now we’re heading to kindergarten. One of the ways we can do this and gain even more notoriety is to support and encourage companies that are making a social impact. In this next year, I would hope to see a lot more people experimenting with different ideas. I think a lot of people right now are genuinely asking how they can give back to Miami, and build the Miami character and flair — which is something that is really helping the tech community. In this next year, I’d also expect to see Miami taking its own time and make a name for itself that’s different from the whole “Silicon beach” stereotype. What will make us different is how we operate, and that will make the congeniality of the community even stronger. In terms of the Wynwood Maker Camp, we’ve served more than 200 students in the past 2 summers. This year we’re pivoting to opening our own space and continuing to craft a personalized, self-directed, Montessori-style type of education. We hope to help build a community of critical thinkers and problem solvers for a future job market that is completely uncertain, and hope to serve more and more students. These are the types of ideas that allow for the growth of individual minds, giving young people a space to uncover their interests and build on those.

Mariana Rego (Courtesy of Knight Foundation)

Mariana Rego

As the co-founder of Design Thinking Miami, Mariana Rego previously coordinated the expansion of LaunchCode into South Florida. Through Design Thinking consulting, she is helping tech leaders, creatives, and professionals design and innovate in unexpected ways.

Miami has one of the most entrepreneurial communities in the country. Right now, there’s an openness for people that wasn’t here several years ago. People feel empowered and are able to bring their ideas to life, and that’s creating some amazing changes. I think we have the possibility to solve problems that aren’t necessarily the problems other places like Silicon Valley or New York might have. I think we can be informed by our unique perspective of having a community that’s super entrepreneurial and the nexus of so many parts of the world. I think that because our tech scene isn’t completely saturated, everyone has meaningful and interesting ideas and they’re coming up with some incredible stuff. What I’m interested in is helping businesses and nonprofits engage with the things that are, to call out the great podcast, 99% Invisible. We’re seeing an awakening of design thinking — people are exploring things deeper. For example, last year I worked with The Miami Foundation to help with a Public Spaces Challenge. We helped teams come up with ideas that were unique to Miami. One team had a great idea to teach dance classes on rooftops or other empty spaces. This is an awesome solution in a short period of time to something that is very specific to Miami’s many parking lots and roofs that are often dormant. It’s creating those memorable experiences and meaningful connections that creates surprise and excitement. Next year, I expect to be surprised. I expect to see something I would never have even thought of. To see creativity unlocked in a way that I just couldn’t imagine.

Courtesy of Matt Mawhinney

Matt Mawhinney

Matt Mawhinney is the South Florida Community Manager for LaunchCode, a non-profit organization that creates pathways for job placements in technology. LaunchCode partnered with CS50x to provide a low-cost coding course at Miami-Dade College.

I think the South Florida climate is really cohesive. I see a lot of people who want to see the tech economy succeed here. It’s a very energetic space right now. There have been some big successes that people can be excited about with new large scale employers. We’re out of the phase of being just a ramshackled collection of startups and into a place where we see companies investing money and modernizing medicine. We have some other companies in Miami-Dade that are getting to spaces through fundraising rounds. For example, Live Ninja just went beyond the angel funding stage. In terms of the talent, I think the talent is growing, which is a product of a couple different things — one is that lots of companies are realizing that there is talent here and they can hire and nurture it locally. That’s tied into better education and opportunities for people who want to become technologists. I’m excited about MDC’s CS50X Miami just from the sheer number of people it’s exposing to a low-cost, world-class, coding education. I think we can improve by continuing to focus on local hiring and mentorship on the part of tech employers. I think this is an education question more than anything. The talent is here, but employers have to be willing to create space for learning and training. As we mature, we should continue to build our ecosystem to the point where companies are in a position to raise beyond seed funding. Rather than having a handful of investors, I hope we have 50 or 100 companies that people can rattle off the top of their heads. At the end of the year, I think more people who don’t live in South Florida will be hearing about it and be excited by the sense of possibility and openness to new ideas, which are designed to advance the state of tech and a creative economy.

Courtesy of Will Weinraub

Will Weinraub

After building his first website at 13, Will Weinraub launched two businesses by the time he was 16. He’s a proud Miami native, and is the CEO and co-founder of LiveNinja, a venture-backed startup that helps make technology more human with video chatting software.

I think the Miami tech scene is fantastic. It’s up-and-coming and there’s a lot of energy and momentum right now. I think the community is currently in a very “pay it forward stage.” Everyone wants to help the next person, the next company, and help them to succeed. There’s a rising tide, and not much of a hidden agenda. Everyone just wants to see the community succeed for the betterment of the whole. We have a great ecosystem and a great base for capital. There’s a lot of early-stage investors and angel investors. There’s a funding gap, though. There’s a lot of early stage capital, that’s people writing $25,000 to $50,000 checks, and that’s a great way to get a company going. There’s also a lot of growth-stage capital — people who are who are adding large financing rounds when the business model is already booming. The investment gap is the space in between both of those stages, that helps a company go from seed funding to the institutional round. So what you have is companies falling off the cliff because they can’t reach the traction they need to get to that institutional stage. Now, other startup ecosystems have built that already — so here, we need all aspects of financing for companies to start and grow. Otherwise, what you’ll have is a lot of companies seeded here, because it’s more cheap to operate and seed than in San Francisco or New York, but there’s no bridge to keep it working to get to the institutional round. So they’ll seed and then leave Miami so that they’re able to survive. If we’re able to fill this gap, in the next year I would expect to see a lot more success stories. We’re setting a good foundation to see a lot of success stories of local companies seeded-formed and scaling effectively in Miami, and expanding not just at the local but also at the national level.