Hatching A Tech Future: South Florida Startups Are Gaining Strength

Based in Wynwood with a team of 61, Yellow Pepper is a pioneer and leading player in mobile payments and banking solutions in Latin America and has been recently valued by the Inter-American Development Bank at more than $100 million.

Community leaders point to progress on other fronts as well.

In the past year, new incubators and accelerators such as Startup FIU, Startupbootcamp and Babson WIN Lab have graduated their first cohorts, joining pioneer Venture Hive. Global fund 500 Startups has run a growth accelerator, conference and other events here; it is now planning to establish a permanent presence in Miami.

An international venture-builder, with Silicon Valley veterans at the helm, will be launched in Miami and announced during eMerge Americas. Organizations such as LaunchCode and coding bootcamps train tech developers and designers and help match them with job openings.

Although the region still lags badly in venture capital investment, several new funds have been announced in the past year, including Rokk3r Fuel and Las Olas Venture Capital.

Local companies are attracting investment from beyond the region. They include JetSmarter, which raised $105 million in December, and Modernizing Medicine, which last month announced an investment of $231 million. Other firms -- including Boatsetter, MealPal, Nearpod, Nymbus, Altor Bioscience and F1 Oncology -- have each raised well north of $10 million in the last six months.

Wynwood's Rokk3r Labs is announcing Monday the launch of 10xU, a global educational platform focused on teaching entrepreneurs to identify and assess opportunities for fast-growing, world-changing companies, as well as the nuts and bolts of team building, raising capital, scaling and exiting. Its content and programming will also be targeted at corporations whose models will likely face disruption.

10xU will become a portfolio company of Rokk3r Labs, a company builder that has worked with more than 40 startups.

In March, Rokk3r announced that it launched an investment fund, Rokk3r Fuel. It aims to raise a $150 million fund -- it's not there yet -- and already has invested in startups AdMobilize, Hyp3r, Taxfyle and Emerge.me.

Over the next few weeks, the fund plans to announce more capital deployments, locally and globally. A second set of investments is planned in the fourth quarter, said Nabyl Charania, CEO of Rokk3r Labs.

"The growth of an ecosystem is not an overnight thing. If we wait for someone else to come in and do things for us, we will just continue to wait," he said. "That's why we proceeded with Rokk3r Fuel and 10xU and will continue to co-build companies, because we believe that is the best way to help an ecosystem -- providing all the right tools to build world-changing companies."

Some local serial entrepreneurs are already beginning to sprout new ventures and invest in others.

After the $2 billion sale of Terremark, Medina started eMerge, Medina Capital and now Cyxtera. The $1.65 billion sale of Mako Surgical made way for co-founder Rony Abovitz to start Magic Leap, while former Mako CEO Maurice Ferré is involved with several health-tech ventures, including running the Israel-based Insightec from Miami.

Adam Boalt sold his first company, RushMyPassport.com, in 2013. Last September, Boalt sold his second tech company, LiveAnswer.com, to Stericycle, a publicly traded Fortune 1000 company. Now he is building again. "govWorks will be launching in January 2018 and will change the way the public interfaces with the government," Boalt said.

The platform is aimed at greatly simplifying the processes for travel visas, passports, fishing licenses and other documents by storing customer information securely.

An earlier company, the original govWorks, collapsed after raising $60 million. Boalt acquired the domain name: "They had a good idea that was ahead of their time, and they had challenges executing. I know the time is right now, and we have the team that can pull it off."

govWorks has a team of 32 in Miami, 80 percent of them engineers. Boalt expects to add 20 more software engineers and product designers later this year.

"I've had opportunities to be in New York and the West Coast, but this is my home," Boalt said. "I feel like people have doubts about Miami. I hate that. I feel like I can make a difference here."

Other entrepreneurs have been urged to move elsewhere -- sometimes by their own investors.

Abovitz may be the most famous of these South Florida bulls, choosing Plantation as the base for his cutting-edge, mixed-reality technology startup, valued at an eye-popping $4.5 billion with a who's who list of Silicon Valley and global investors, even though its initial product has yet to be released.

Now Magic Leap is rumored to be raising another round of funding at a $6 billion to $8 billion valuation.

In Aventura, meanwhile, above a Bank of America office, Nearpod's bright and open offices hum with employees at work on laptops or on the phone with customers. Two years ago, the company moved into 3,000 square feet; now Nearpod has filled 9,000 square feet, and it could already use more space.

As the co-founders demo the company's virtual reality lessons, Abramzon explains that students virtually visit sites of history or culture like the Eiffel Tower, the Egyptian Pyramids and Checkpoint Charlie to learn about the Cold War or even concentration camps.

The visits are accompanied by in-app videos, quizzes and opportunities for questions and interaction with teachers. Altogether, the VR lessons, which Nearpod began offering last year, have drawn more than 6 million views.

Nearpod has users in one of every 10 schools nationwide, including more than 40 schools in the Miami-Dade and Broward County public school districts, Gulliver Prep, LaSalle, American Heritage and Pine Crest.

About 4 million students worldwide view the content monthly. Nearpod also recently launched Nearpod for ELL at Miami-Dade public schools, which includes 500 ready-to-teach lessons designed specifically for non-native English speakers.

In March, Nearpod announced it had raised $21 million to fund its growth. "We are hiring for VPs of customer success and finance and a head of content," said Abramzon.

All will be based in South Florida because of its lifestyle, cost of living, diversity, growing entrepreneurial environment, strong partnerships with local schools, and support from local investors Krillion Ventures, Knight Enterprise Fund and the AGP network.

"Miami is in our DNA," added Sommer. "We want everyone under the same roof, and that roof is going to be in Miami."

But for all its growth, Rokk3r's Charania believes South Florida's startup ecosystem needs to develop more quickly: "What we need is more people from the community supporting the ecosystem. We need corporations to step into the game. We need the government and educational institutions ... with a lot more impact. We're not there yet but people are starting to pull together."

Knight's Haggman said it's important to get the word out about the opportunities here: "There is still some disconnect, whether it is job opportunities, resources or funding, because there are still fixed ideas about this place, and we are changing. We are a much different place than we were, say, five years ago."

Haggman also believes the ecosystem should connect the entire community, west of Miami's urban corridor and well north of the Broward County line, and this isn't the time to rest: "This is a work in progress. This is a long game."

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