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Pandwe Gibson: PortMiami and our mom-and-pops are the assets tech needs to tap

We’re going to be spending this month making the city’s movers and shakers nail down some resolutions and predictions for their work in 2017. This week we’re talking tech and entrepreneurship. You can see all of the resolutions here.

Pandwe Gibson is the executive director and founder of EcoTech Visions, an incubator that assists entrepreneurs in launching “green” manufacturing businesses in South Florida. It’s located in the Green Corridor district, which is hub of green technology startups and businesses in the which hugs I-95 along Liberty City. We’ve lightly edited this interview for clarity and length.

Creating an innovation district

We’re doing work with MIT and Harvard with the green economy and looking at innovation districts around the country and comparing that against ecosystems that are emerging — many of which are in the southern part of the U.S.

The first part of the project is identifying major hotspots and innovation hubs in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and Boston. Eighty percent of venture capital funding is going into these spaces where people flock for capital and institutional support.

The research I’m doing is looking at innovation district development… and talking to founders about what they’re interested in. [Editor’s note: The project is called “The Future of the Green Economy” and it’s expected to be published by March.]

Where does innovation fail and where does innovation seem misplaced?

For example, there’s a significant amount of research and funding on sea level rise in Colorado, but there doesn’t seem like that group of entrepreneurs are close enough to the problem of sea level rise to produce the data. But, here we are in South Florida just starting with the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities program to deal with this in a real way, and using tech to solve it.

What Miami does have

I’m excited about the interplay between things humans need and tech. A lot of times we’re down on South Florida, like “we don’t have this or that.”

A thing Miami has is the ports, the deep dredge project [Editor’s note: this is deepening and widening the ports so they can take in bigger cargo ships] and that’s a huge opportunity for product development and exporting.

It’s about to be a significant opportunity to interchange back and forth. People in China want our stuff and we want theirs, and more importantly … we’re right on trade routes. It’s easy transport, which means there’s significant opportunity for consumer product-based entrepreneurship, green technology and clean technology to move into the marketplace.[Editor’s note: The larger ships are called post-Panamax or neo-Panamax ships and in addition to Miami,  ports of New York/New Jersey, Maryland (Baltimore) and Virginia (Hampton Roads) have all been dredged to handle post-Panamax vessels. Halifax on the Canadian east coast has too. This paragraph has been updated to clarify that.]

Now you have easy access to the world to export and produce your products. … Cost of shipping is what makes your business effective or not. It’s a huge cost for a startup.

It’s inherent in [a Miamian’s] nature to think in global terms, which leads us to do more simply because of our diverse population.

That’s a huge opportunity because of human capital.

We’re in a unique position as a city to position ourselves [to] drive … forward motion, which is what innovation is all about.

Building out our space and seeing our class succeed

Our goal in every class is to have at least three companies reach the $150,000 revenue mark, which is the small business framework for an emerging company. [Editor’s note: EcoTech hosts an annual Business Fellowship training program help 25 local blue-collar workers and businesses develop an environmentally sustainable business. The end goal is to create at least 10 new green businesses.]

Miami has Haitians, Brazilians, Cubans, etc … the cultural mix from the Caribbean and Central and South America has created an environment of people who are used to small businesses. Think of what permeates the ecosystems on their [home] country — it’s an inherent understanding of how small businesses work.

South Florida is good at mom and pop — that’s actually an aspect of the city to continue to capitalize on. Now how do we transition to that next level business to go after angel investment? That’s what we’re looking for.

In a year, we hope to have our space built out and supporting 60 companies. We will have a 200,000-square-foot facility built out by the beginning of 2018, so that makers and entrepreneurs can come and realize their inventions in the green corridor. EcoTech is going to be Miami’s largest and first maker space inside of the green corridor.

The Green Corridor

We’re down on government officials, but they’re doing more than many other cities. One thing they have done … is develop a green corridor that has dollars tied to it for green tech startups in that area. … There’s money tied to companies that want to move there and opportunities for business development.

[Editor’s note: EcoTech also has a digital citizen’s bootcamp, which is a free course that offers digital training in low-resourced areas. Last year the bootcamp launched and had their first cohort. This year they’re on pace to have three to four boot camps with 25 members each.]

“The message is starting to get heard that we’re thinking about inclusion, and including different talent that exists throughout the whole county not just in a particular area. Talent exists everywhere but opportunity doesn’t,” explained the program’s director Carlos Vazquez. “In 2017 we’ll start to see entrepreneurs that don’t represent the common entrepreneur. We’re starting to see more individuals of color…”

We’re not thinking big enough

In 2017, I’m going to continue to provide access to eco-prenuers … and continue partnerships with various organizations, from Moonlighter, to Building.co, to The Lab Miami … to make sure every entrepreneur has access to all of the resources so the best ideas grow out of Miami. That’s my personal responsibility.

I’m an eternal optimist, always focusing on what’s working, but I think we struggle with knowing how great we can be and really starting to broaden our view of what we can be and want to be.

We compare ourselves to Silicon Valley but we can be so much bigger and better than that. … We have talent, diversity, and access to ports. We have everything we need to be successful but we’re not thinking big enough.