How CIC Miami dominated Miami’s startup ecosystem in less than a year

Editor’s note: WhereBy.Us, the publisher of The New Tropic and Startup.Miami, has its offices located at CIC Miami. CIC Miami is also a client of the WhereBy.Us Creative Studio, which was not involved in the production of this story.

As with any good metropolis, Miami’s startup success is scattered across a couple key neighborhoods, like Wynwood, Brickell, and Lincoln Road. But a focal point has emerged inside a single building on the border of Overtown and Allapattah.

In less than a year, Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) Miami, located in the old UM Life Science & Technology Park building off I-95, has grown into a launch pad for some of the city’s most promising startups. Two of the three top winners in this year’s Miami Herald Business Plan Challenge, Cargo42 and Caribu, call CIC home. The third winner, Apollonix, only recently left. Since launching in October, CIC has grown to 170 clients. All through word of mouth.

“We visited a few co-working spaces but we were sure that CIC was THE place for us,” Alfredo Keri, co-founder of Cargo 42, said in an email, citing CIC’s flexibility, convenience, and value. “The Miami team has always been amazingly helpful and just great people to be around.”

The rest of the startup and tech community has taken notice. Wifredo Fernandez, cofounder of The LAB and a director of StartUP FIU, said he now sees CIC as essential to the long-term growth of Miami’s startup ecosystem.

“CIC has brought scale, expertise and an expansive network,” he said in an email. “[They] have created a new center of gravity by being open, inclusive and relentlessly innovative in their programming.”

And The LAB Miami, regarded as the city’s original innovation coworking space, seems to be responding by shifting its resources away from growing its coworking mission. It still has 175 members, but it will now direct its growth resources toward LAB Ventures, the project it launched earlier this year with the help of the Knight Foundation to co-build new companies, according to LAB CEO Tigre Wenrich.

“There’s lots of other great options for people” Wenrich said. “It’s not the gaping hole it used to be, so we’d rather focus our efforts on other things.”

How did CIC, which only launched in October, arrive in this role in such a short amount of time?

A plan for a plan

By one count, Miami already had at least 15 coworking options when CIC Miami first opened. But the space had a head start as an attractive destination, as an outgrowth of an organization, Cambridge Innovation Center, that has made tailoring coworking to the local community its business model.  

“We saw Miami as fertile grounds for startups and entrepreneurship,” Alan Fein, the head of Cambridge Innovation Center, told Startup.Miami in a phone interview. “It rose to the top of the list of our list of cities to open up innovation center.”

CIC’s designs have been cited as exemplars for fostering innovation in addition to coworking. For Natalia Martinez-Kalinina, the head of CIC Miami, this is one of the ingredients to their success.

“[CIC] spent a lot of time trying to figure that out — we built the number conference rooms based on the track record of conference room use, not just because we should have conference rooms,” she said. “There’s a lot of thought put into it, and there’s a lot of thought put into things that you don’t even necessarily see.”

As an example, she cited what she joked was the “outrageous” amount of money CIC spends on sound insulation.

“It’s not something a person would see necessarily,” she said.” You only feel the lack of it. You feel the lack of it when you’re in a room and you can hear your neighbor.”

It’s part of the “psychology of architecture” that Martinez-Kalinina says drives people out of offices to engage with each other; it’s why 40% of CIC’s footprint is common space. “We’re creating the behavior we want to see,” she said.

Others do notice.

“I like the horizontal layout,” Caribu CEO Maxeme Tuchman said in an email. “I love the ‘collision theory’ and I collide with all types of people every day simply because of the floorplan.”

Miamiland and Venture Cafe

CIC came in with a track record. But Martinez-Kalinina says it wasn’t until its Miamiland event, held in January as the space’s official kickoff, that CIC Miami had its first watershed moment as a pillar of the startup community. She describes it as a “physical manifestation” of CIC’s figurative goal, which is creating a “center of gravity” in the city. The event attracted approximately 1,700 attendees.

“It felt like a real thing that was adding real value,” she said.

But she said equally momentous, if less heralded, events, happen regularly, in the form of clients talking about how a fellow CIC’er they met, or an event CIC hosted, changed the direction of their company.

Programming turns out to be a key component of CIC’s success. While some spaces have occasional events, CIC has been known for a consistent stream of them, most notably Venture Cafe, the weekly Thursday gathering of networking and panel sessions. The gathering usually averages 10 different events, almost all of them free, each week. Venture Cafe was officially spun off by CIC, which considers it a sister organization essential to its spaces.

Martinez-Kalinina says they fit in with getting bodies through CIC’s doors in any way possible. The events now average 300 attendees per week, according to Venture Cafe Miami Executive Director Leigh-Ann Buchanan.

“We know how Miamians are with events, so it’s like a minor miracle that people continue to come and feel engaged and are excited,” Martinez-Kalinina says, though is quick to add, “it’s not really a miracle — it’s the result of really incredible programming and really thoughtful processes behind that. We fundamentally that there is a really powerful statement to be made around making sure our walls as a building our porous.”

Not finished

The coworking part of scaling up CIC was the (relatively) easy part. But CIC Miami was built with two other missions in mind: As a lab space for health and life sciences research, to be conducted in concert with the University of Miami; and as a “soft landing” spot for Latin American firms coming to America for the first time.

“We’re still not anywhere near where we actually hope to be,” Martinez-Kalinina says.

For the former, CIC’s next major project is opening a new wet lab on its 3rd floor — the only one of its kind in South Florida.

For the latter, Martinez-Kalinina says they are working to address what she says is Miami’s occasional failure to deliver results on its promise as being a true hub for the region.

“I would argue we have a lot to do that we’re not doing to truly be the hub of the region,” she says.

So, CIC is working with three entities — Ruta N, an economic development agency in Medellin; StartUp Chile, a tech accelerator; and the city of Buenos Aires and tis Despega Talento program — to serve as an official host and lend them CIC’s ability to connect with the wider Miami entrepreneurship community.

In an email, a Ruta N rep said they are working closely on finalizing a memorandum of understanding with CIC that will lay out the types of activities the two organizations can collaborate on.

Personal personnel

CIC has also been meticulous about the team it hires. There are currently 13 staffers, a figure Martinez-Kalinina says may at first blush seem “bloated” if one only thinks of CIC as a coworking space.

But, “because we seek to provide so much other value both to our clients and to the community,” she says, “we end up having to hire a lot more people who are incredibly qualified, and who are creative and incredible thinkers.”

This group is tasked with everything from staffing programming at CIC to volunteering in the community.

“[They add] all these different pieces pieces of value that have helped get us further on the road to becoming a center of gravity,” she said.

Caribu’s Tuchman is one of those voices singing the team’s praises.

“The staff is incredible,” she said. “They build community, they are super attentive, and some of the best customer service in Miami.”

The CIC home office has taken note of its Miami team’s success. Alan Fein, co-founder of Cambridge Innovation Center, says Miami scores higher in terms of client feedback than any of its other five locations. That is in large part attributable to the team, he said.

“The most extensive comment was about the team — our team down there turns out to be beloved by clients,” he said. “They solve problems, they make make life easy, they make entry into CIC simple, they’re adding value by putting on really good programming, they’re making connections…it’s a phenomenal team, and Natalia is an absolute superstar. Her entire team is really great and we’re really proud of it.”

By Rob Wile
Rob Wile, the curator for Startup.Miami, is a writer and entrepreneur living in Miami Beach. He’s a former staff writer for Fusion and Business Insider. His work has also appeared in Slate, Newsweek, Money Magazine and The New Tropic. He writes a newsletter on tech, business, and the South Florida economy called The Heatwave.