At Tech Conference’s First Day, Politics Took Center Stage. Tomorrow, The Robot Rules.

By Rob Wile The Miami Herald

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Now in its fifth year, the "eMerge Americas conference" at the Miami Beach Convention Center is a meeting place for entrepreneurs, tech companies and startups looking to discover and/or create the next big thing.

The Miami Herald

Baby Sebastian was turning blue -- until its caretaker, nursing student Casey Pierce, hit its "off" switch.

Sebastian wasn't a live baby, but part of the technology used by the University of Miami's multi-million-dollar Simulation Hospital that opened this fall as part its School of Nursing and Health studies.

A plastic newborn. Virtual reality learning goggles. A remote-controlled car that can inspect the inside of nuclear reactors.

It was all part of Day 1 of the two-day eMerge Americas conference at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

The homegrown conference founded by local serial entrepreneur Manny Medina to be the meeting place for tech and startups from around the Americas is now in its fifth year.

The conference continues Tuesday, when the keynoter will be Sophia the Robot. About 15,000 attendees are expected over the two days, according to organizers. Many are guests of corporate sponsors.

Like most conferences these days, eMerge offers content for different types of attendees -- in this case, entrepreneurs, advisory companies and even women in tech.

But it was political news that dominated Monday, with presentations by former Mexican President Vicente Fox, local city and county leaders, and a surprise press conference by several Miami Republicans.

At an invitation-only lunch, U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo, R-Miami, declared that immigration reform is still alive, despite public pronouncements by President Donald Trump that a deal was dead. But "that's not what he told me," Curbelo said when he and the president spoke during a visit last week to the Florida Keys.

Another of the day's surprises was an impromptu press conference called by Miami Republican House members denouncing this weekend's violence in Nicaragua.

"This is a local issue," said U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who with Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Curbelo, and City of Miami Mayor Francis Suarez called on the U.S. Senate to impose sanctions on a country they called "a dictatorship."

"[The violence] affects our friends, our neighbors, our families," Diaz-Balart said. According to the U.S. Census, the county is home to more than 120,000 immigrants from Nicaragua.

Conference-goers still bleary from the valet parking queue were immediately jolted to life by the colorful kick-off keynote from Fox, who has been a vocal opponent of Trump Administration policies.

Interviewed on stage by CNBC's John Harwood, Fox said the digital transformation sweeping the Americas would allow individuals to surmount any physical wall the administration could build. He also called on Trump to "apologize to Mexicans, to Mexico... Then you can eat your [expletive] taco bowl in your [expletive] tower."

For all the politics that popped up Monday, eMerge remains the best two days for techies in the Americas to make connections and see new ideas.

Among the most eye-catching startups were two ride-sharing companies for kids (both vet drivers through background checks), a company that books local photographers in 270 destinations worldwide that lead visitors on day tours and another that matches college students with locals in need of movers, cleaners and pet sitters.

The conference attracts everyone from realtors to lawyers. Among them was Jason Blilie?, who runs a private law practice out of the Lincoln Road WeWork.

"I'm here to catch up with clients, meet new people, and see what local startups are up to," he said.

The biggest tech-related story of the day came from GoGig, a Fort Lauderdale-based startup that lets employed workers post job-candidate descriptions anonymously. Founder and CEO Chris Hodges said the company is about to close on investment funding for $5 million, a sign that the company has gained significant traction. Such second-round funding has been relatively rare for South Florida startups.

Hodges said his firm would use the money to hire tech talent and promote the business in South Florida and beyond. Presentations included a roundtable of university executives from across the Americas convened by Dr. Julio Frenk, president of the University of Miami.

The discussion centered on boosting the region's tech profile. Only about 1,000 patents were filed from the 33 countries in the region combined last year, compared with more than 50,000 from the U.S. alone. The educators called on the leaders of their countries to devote a greater share of GDP to funding innovation, and Frenk proposed creating an Americas-wide curriculum for teaching innovation and entrepreneurship.

"We are falling short," said Dr. Henning Jensen, of the University of Costa Rica. "But there is a huge opportunity for our region."

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