Mex-Tech Showcase At SXSW Turns Attention To Country’s Rising Startup Scene

By James Barragán The Dallas Morning News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) A dozen startups were part of Mexico's trade show at the annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin this week, all with the same goal: showing the U.S. that Mexico is a budding innovation and technology hub.

AUSTIN

One company uses drones to root out a fungus affecting a banana crop and alerts farmers about what their fields need.

Another one built an app that lets you unlock your front door with your phone.

And a third is paying people who put down their phones at school, work or behind the wheel.

These companies and 11 others were part of Mexico's trade show at the annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin this week, all with the same goal: showing the U.S. that Mexico is a budding innovation and technology hub.

It's Mexico's attempt to put a new face forward, bucking the stereotypes of drug violence and political corruption that often characterize it.

"It gives us the opportunity to show off the range of entrepreneurs we have doing business in Mexico," said Carlos González Gutiérrez, the general consul of Mexico in Austin who has boosted his country's presence at the festival.

Now in its third year, Casa México is the Mexican government's attempt at reframing the country's narrative at one of the biggest music, film and technology festivals in the world. This year, the event has taken on increased importance amid contentious negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement and slights from the president of Mexico's closest ally, the United States.

"It's this new desire to portray the migrant in a different light," said Luisa del Rosal, executive director of the Tower Center for Political Studies at Southern Methodist University. "Mexico is showing, look what we can do together because we have talented people, and look at the people that can come here and invest in the U.S. and in Texas."

A public-private partnership of the Mexican government and business leaders orchestrated the Casa México venue at the festival, where it hosted concerts and films highlighting Mexican artists and held panels on NAFTA and immigration. It also directed visitors to festival panels that featured Mexican tech leaders.

Those panels were not subtle. At one titled "The Digital Wall Falls," Carlos Cantú, a director of marketing for Twitter, said he'd been thinking about walls after President Donald Trump inspected border wall prototypes in California this week.

"Nobody celebrated when they built [the Berlin Wall], but there was a party when that wall came down," he said.

"Physical walls, when we're hyper-connected, they are not relevant. But they are a symbol to the one who builds them and the one who keeps them out."

Sitting alongside him on that panel, Luis Gaitán, head of creative for Google in Mexico, said the country was grappling with a history of inferiority in which Mexicans felt they were less capable of achieving than others.

"The big opportunity that we have right now is really to find our narrative as a country, to find or iterate the way we share our identity with the world," he said.

Del Rosal said highlighting Mexicans in successful tech brands sends a message to the wider public about the country's contributions and integration into American society.

"It's part of our effort to show this new generation of Mexicans who can succeed, and do so in any part of the world," said González Gutiérrez, who created the Casa México concept three years ago.

That message was also important to the up-and-coming startups representing the country at the festival. Mexican officials conducted a three-month search with more than 100 entries to choose the companies that would represent it at the festival's centerpiece trade show.

Attending the festival gives many of them their first foot in the door into the American market. Once here, however, the startups face some of the stereotypes the Casa México organizers are trying to combat.

"What's happened a lot to us is that people think we are an American company and they're surprised when we tell them we're Mexican," said Gilberto Avalos, the CEO of Indiefy, a digital platform that allows musicians to publish their music while taking a lower cut of the revenue than traditional music labels.

"It brings mixed feelings. It's bad that they associate Mexico with 'bad,' but it's great to be recognized for the quality of our work."

At the same time, the increased attention the country is receiving from the U.S. is leading to a greater understanding between the two neighbors, said Sergio Almaguer, co-founder of Yaydoo, which helps clients compare prices for office needs.

"People are starting to see Mexico with different eyes because of how Trump treats us," he said. "People are paying more attention and Mexico is also starting to speak up."

Mexican representatives also painted an optimistic view of the ongoing NAFTA negotiations, while emphasizing the importance of business ties between Mexico and Texas. "Don't Mess with Mexas," was projected onto the walls of the Casa México venue.

Paulo Carreño, CEO of ProMexico, a government agency tasked with boosting Mexico's international business, said that he is "cautiously optimistic" that the negotiations will soon be resolved and that the benefit of the agreement was worth the "struggle and [discomfort] of having to negotiate."

U.S. Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, went a step further, saying he thought they'd be completed by the end of April. Mexico is Texas' top trade partner, with about $178 billion in annual trade.

Del Rosal said those predictions are too optimistic and reflect the Mexican government's attempt to shift the narrative around the NAFTA talks ahead of upcoming presidential elections in the country. Carreño is a close adviser to Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto.

"They're trying to save face and be seen as a stronger partner instead of as a partner being kicked down by the bully," she said. "They know it will be picked up in the media and reported back home, so the more they can say all is well, the better."

Still, Carreño praised the effort to highlight Mexico as an entrepreneurial and technological hub as a way to combat the negative headlines the country often receives and to offer a different vision of a Mexico that can benefit and coexist with the U.S.

"It's helping change the dynamics of public perception," she said.

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