Tigre Wenrich, the new head of The LAB Miami in Wynwood, has a simple answer for what it’s going to take for Miami to reach the next level of global tech hubs.
“We need exits,” he says.
Exits happen when venture capitalists or private equity funds can successfully cash out by selling a company they’re backing, or have that company go public.
There are a lot of exciting, fast-growing companies in South Florida, Wenrich says. But in part because many of them are still so new, the region does not have very many “exits” on its scoreboard.
The LAB now has a plan to change that.
Last month, they officially launched LAB Ventures. The goal is to marry large corporations with Miami entrepreneurs to build brand-new companies that will focus on four areas: health, media, tech (especially financial technology), and hospitality. As was reported in October, the Knight Foundation is kicking in more than $1 million to fund the effort, and The LAB continues to raise a multiple of that from other private investors.
LAB Ventures will cement The LAB as the nexus of Miami’s 21st century-oriented businesses (as opposed to South Florida’s traditional strengths of real estate and tourism).
What started out as a coworking space in a part of Wynwood once surrounded by cheap textile outlets is blossoming into the hub of Miami’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“The creativity that spawns out of this place, it’s really special, I’ve never seen a place like it,” says Rachael Bickford, The LAB’s managing director. She came to the business from another coworking space in Brickell. “There are now tons of coworking spaces in Miami, but they don’t have the same energy or vibe.”
Building a coalition
Bickford pointed us to the story of Nathan Bekerman, the founder of WashMyWhip, a valet carwash service that grew out of The LAB. Bekerman says that fellow LAB users from other companies have provided “off the books” guidance and administrative services, and that he’s also hired employees through LAB connections.
“Everyone wants to see each other succeed here,” he says.
In addition to these kinds of interactions, the breakout success of The LAB is owed to its well-connected backers. Co-founder Wilfredo Fernandez (now at Startup FIU) and board members Marco Giberti and Juan Pablo Capello are longtime South Florida entrepreneurs who saw an opportunity in 2012 to bring together South Floridians trying to start their own businesses under one roof.
“We tried to generate an educated coalition between all the necessary parts to support the startup ecosystem,” Giberti said.
LAB board members have been able to invite CEOs of startups that work for them, as well as the CEOs of Miami’s power companies, to speak at LAB sponsored-events. Recently, Mary Biggins, the co-founder of runaway-success ClassPass and a recently minted Miami resident, was invited to talk about her new company MealPal.
A week later, Sarah Hughes, the head of product at Miami-based CareCloud, which just received $31.5 million from investors nationwide, came to talk about how to rapidly develop “awesome” products.
Between 50 and 100 people came to each event.
“We want to have collisions — not in a Palmetto Expressway way,” Capello joked. “We want entrepreneurs and corporations who are already here to get to know each other and start having an open flow off conversation and dialogue.”
The LAB Ventures era will also formalize its events schedule under what the company is calling LAB.ID (for “innovation and disruption”). Four different regularly scheduled startup-oriented events will now be held. They will be run by Pamela Granoff, who previously created networking events in New York and Brazil. Through those, she met the LAB’s founders.
“For the companies we’re going to build, The LAB is a great setting for entrepreneurs to talk to corporations while still having that coworking feel,” she says.
Kick starting the ‘virtuous cycle’
As head of LAB Ventures, Wenrich will remain focused on company building. Typically, he says, successful companies are able to kickstart a “virtuous cycle” that allows successful entrepreneurs to redeploy the cash they pocket from a sale back into the local startup ecosystem. That’s how Silicon Valley got where it is today.
While most successful South Florida startups are “tech-enabled,” Wenrich says — meaning they build on existing technology to create new applications — South Florida has yet to define itself as a powerhouse in one particular sector. Hence the directive to focus on the four specific areas (media, fintech, health and hospitality) mentioned earlier.
Nor, Wenrich says, has South Florida capitalized on the college and universities that could be sources of talent, something many have said has been lacking in South Florida. The LAB is hoping to change that: the Knight Foundation’s investment is has earmarks to target younger and underrepresented populations.
Wherever the talent is, Wenrich believes The LAB will have the ability to attract it.
“Our value proposition, through [the founders’] individual activities and The LAB’s, is that we know entrepreneurs; we have as good understanding of what talent is out there both locally, and what we can bring to Miami,” he says.