Miami used to be one of the most notorious trade ports in the country. In 1982, $1 billion worth of cocaine was seized at Miami International Airport out of a cargo jet delivering “clothing” from Colombia. The operation revealed the industrial scale of drug trafficking into South Florida.
Today, drugs still occasionally find their way to Miami’s borders. And while MIA can still cause headaches for passengers, it is viewed by trade executives as one of the most secure, cargo-friendly airports in the country. In fact, it is now America’s largest terminal by international cargo processed. It is also the first U.S. airport to be designated as equipped to handle temperature-sensitive drugs, vaccines and blood products.
PortMiami, once known as the scene of many a Miami Vice drug bust, has made similar progress. Today it sits just outside the top 10 international ports in the country.
This rebranding of Miami as a modern international trade hub could not be happening without the help of local startups. Startup.Miami talked to four that are leading the way in helping make the city known globally as a place that importers and exporters can rely on.
Sometimes, starting the “Uber for X” can actually work. That’s been the case for Cargo42. The company began out of the dorm room at Babson College in Boston by Brazilians Murilo Amaral, Francine Gervazio, and Venezuelan Alfredo Keri.
They figured out that if people wanted to dial up cars to take rides home on demand, wouldn’t shippers want to be able to dial up trucks on demand too? What’s more, many trucking companies could benefit from having more potential clients at their fingertips.
After looking at different regional markets in the U.S., they realized that Miami and South Florida had lots of trade players, but needed a technology upgrade.
“They were having trouble surviving,” Amaral told Startup.Miami. “We could see inefficiencies going on here.”
Plus, they were already familiar with the area through family connections, and figured their Latin backgrounds would serve them well.
Today, the company, which to-date is self-funded, works with more than 130 shipping companies operating more than 450 carrier trucks. They are already working on plans to expand to other cities in Florida.
They are also hiring for digital marketing and business development positions.
Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, handles approximately 220,000 cargo containers annually to help furnish the needs of the country’s 11 million people.
And the logistics management for nearly 80 percent of that is run out of a small office in downtown Miami.
Octopi, founded by Luc Castera, was a software developer looking for a new project. A friend approached him with an idea to improve operations at one of the port terminals in his native Haiti, which was still essentially running on pen and paper.
He and his cofounder Guille Carlos drew up a program that was so successful there that they secured the business of all the other terminals at the port of Port-Au-Prince in 2016.
Octopi has gone on to win the 2016 early-stage Startup Showcase competition, which came with a $50,000 prize; and was part of the 2016 Venture Hive accelerator cohort.
Even though Octopi does not directly handle any logistics for trade tied to Miami, Octopi, and others, see themselves as an important part of the story Miami is trying to tell about modernizing its trade community.
“If we are building up a name for ourselves globally, something like this is a key part of the story,” Castera said. “We’re making logistics a bit a sexier for younger people.”
Castera declined to state their number of employees, revenues, money raised or whether they are hiring.
Not all “startups” start out as startups. RFC Logistics is a nearly 50-year-old company that has refashioned itself into a modern, nimble operation.
The company was born in 1968 on the outskirts of JFK Airport in New York, providing distribution services to high-end European men’s clothing lines like Armani and Pierre Cardin. In 1992, as FedEx began to eat up more cargo traffic there, the company moved to Miami International Airport.
They emerged from the Great Recession realizing they needed a dramatic rethink. So they cut 78 percent of their overhead by refocusing their core mission to project management, and eventually found their way to the CIC Miami coworking space, where their six employees now provide emergency logistics. Their clients include the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which tapped them to transport 11 planes worth of emergency supplies in the wake of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
“Miami has access to one of largest growing markets, which is Central and South America; it’s a gateway to the new world,” CEO Jennifer Robertson-Ahrens said.
Miami’s trade experts possess an innate understanding of the business that other parts of the U.S. may lack, she said.
“The people who live and work here understand trade from a cultural level compared to most cities in the U.S.,” she said. “Americans do tend to believe that what’s in supermarket was born here, but of course things are traded among cities and countries in order to have this abundance of choices. Understanding that instantly helps understand trade a little better.”
She also credits the environment at CIC Miami with helping RFC adapt to the 21st century.
“We’re an old company with young energy,” she said, “and we watch the way people [at CIC] do business — we use anything we can take.”
The company declined to state their revenues or current funding status, but said they are hiring.
This section was updated after publication.
Venture Hive remains Miami’s most well known startup accelerator program. They are the reason why TradeLanes, a company that digitizes much of the paperwork needed to complete the cargo hand-off process as containers pass from one handler to the next, is now one of the most prominent tech companies in the U.S. agricultural trade sector.
Co-founder Vijay Harrell credits the mentorship he received at Venture Hive, as well as from other business leaders in the country, for their success.
“The reason we’re still [in Miami] is that we get a lot of great support, not just from a leadership and mentoring, perspective, but there’s a strong logistics supply chain and global trade presence, and a ton of experts in these fields,” Harrell says. “It’s the potential of working with them, and also being able to draw from the hiring pool.”
Harrell notes an often underappreciated fact: South Florida has a substantial manufacturing sector, and moving forward, he sees the company as well positioned to begin handling the trade tech needs of these companies.
“When we start moving to industrial exports, it will become a much bigger source [of customers] for us.”
TradeLanes, which has seven employees did not respond to request for data on revenues or funding. They said they plan to hire for several positions soon.