One by one, representatives from six startup companies walked onto the wooden stage and presented their products or services to a full house of about 200 investors, mentors, and other supporters Thursday at Incubate Miami's DemoDay in the loft-like Grand Central in downtown Miami. With a large screen behind them projecting their graphs and charts, they set out to persuade the funders in the room to part with some of their green and support the tech community.
Just 24 hours later, from an elaborate "dojo stage," a drummer warmed up the crowd of several hundred before a "Council of Elders" entered the ring to share wisdom as the all-day free event opened. Called TekFight, part education, part inspiration, and part entertainment, the martial arts-inspired program challenged entrepreneurs to earn points to "belt up" throughout the day to meet with the "masters" of the tech community.
The two events, which kicked off Innovate MIA week, couldn't be more different. But in their own ways, like a one-two punch, they exuded the spirit and energy growing in the startup community.
One of the goals of the TekFight event was to introduce young entrepreneurs and students to the tech community, because not everyone has found it yet and it's hard to know where to start, said Saif Ishoof, the executive director of City Year Miami who co-founded TekFight as a personal project. And throughout the event, he and co-founder Jose Antonio Hernandez-Solaun, as well as Binsen J. Gonzalez and Jeff Goudie, wanted to find creative, engaging ways to offer participants access to some of the community's most successful leaders.
That would include Alberto Dosal, chairman of CompuQuip Technologies; Albert Santalo, founder and CEO of CareCloud; Jorge Plasencia, chairman and CEO of Republica; Jaret Davis, co-managing shareholder of Greenberg Traurig; and more than two dozen other business and community leaders who shared their war stories and offered advice. Throughout the day, the event was live-streamed on the Web, a TekFight app created by local entrepreneur and UM student Tyler McIntyre kept everyone involved in the tournament and tweets were flying -- with #TekFight trending No. 1 in the Miami area for parts of the day. "Next time Art Basel will know not to try to compete with TekFight," Ishoof quipped.
'Miami is a hotbed'
After a pair of Chinese dragons danced through the audience, Andre J. Gudger, director for the U.S. Department of Defense Office of Small Business Programs, entered the ring. "I've never experienced an event like this," Gudger remarked. "Miami is a hotbed for technology but nobody knew it."
Gudger shared humorous stories and practical advice on ways to get technology ideas heard at the highest levels of the federal government. "Every federal agency has a director over small business -- find out who they are," he said. He has had plenty of experience in the private sector: Gudger, who wrote his first computer program on his neighbor's computer at the age of 12, took one of his former companies from one to 1,300 employees.
There were several rounds that pitted an entrepreneur against an investor, such as Richard Grundy, of the tech startup Flomio, vs. Jonathan Kislak, of Antares Capital, who asked Grundy, "why should I give you money?"
"You said you had paying customers, and that is a big deal, that's a very important piece," he told Grundy, noting that he has seen five other businesses in the same space this year. The important thing, he told Grundy, is to make the case on why I should invest in you over everyone else. "I think good innovation will always be funded," Kislak said.
Tea with the Master
The event ended with "Tea with the Master" -- Manny Medina, the Terremark Worldwide founder and tech investor who is bringing a major technology conference here in 2014. Every healthy tech ecosystem needs four elements: Education, strong incubators, a viable funding mechanism, and an institutional employment base, he said.
The day before, at Incubate Miami's event, ways to nurture the ecosystem and bring entrepreneurs and investors together were also key themes. As he introduced the first company at DemoDay, Incubate Miami co-founder Marc Billings explained that the Miami accelerator is a 90-day boot camp for startups and is graduating its fourth class of passionate and driven entrepreneurs. "The entrepreneur bug, once it's inside you it just won't leave you," Billings said.
The six tech companies represented a diverse cross-section of industries, including healthcare, crowdfunding, real estate and entertainment. Some, like RentJiffy and Kipu Systems, already have customers and are bringing in significant revenues. Most of the entrepreneurs -- such as John Suarez, of iCare Intelligence, and David Cohn, of ExtendEvent -- have significant experience in their industries and are doing beta testing. Two of the startups represent net gains for Miami: Founder Jonathan Addison is moving RentJiffy to Miami from Washington and CEO Gonzalo Funes is moving his company, Regalos y Amigos, from Argentina to Miami. They were all seeking seed funding -- for instance, Adriana Vizcarrondo said PearFunds is seeking $350,000 "to finish development of the remaining 20 percent of our platform, set up the legal framework, and execute the pilot."
After the presentations, there were lots of introductions made, cards exchanged, appointments booked. And for all the startups, as well as many entrepreneurs in the audience, this is just the start of their journeys and they will need continued support, said Kristen McLean, CEO of Bookigee, which has developed analytical tools to help bring the book-publishing industry into the digital age. McLean, who was in Incubate's 2011 class and who has since closed an angel round of $450,000 of funding, issued a call to action to the audience: "I want everyone in this room to commit to supporting this scene as we grow. ... To the mentors in the room, I want you guys to continue to be generous. I want funders to really commit to funding an early stage team here."
Gerard Roy, Incubate's program director, moved from Silicon Valley five months ago and said he instantly liked the startup culture brewing here. "Honestly, it's beginning to feel a little like San Francisco."
Innovate MIA week, which involves seven events, continues Saturday with HackDay, with a $50,000 cash prize. Next week, there are events that shine a light on Miami's connection to the Americas, including a Wayra DemoDay and culminating in Florida International University's Americas Venture Capital Conference next Thursday and Friday.
Local events also include a Code Retreat Miami on Saturday, an AT&T Mobile App Hackathon Dec. 14-15, and many others, all highlighted on MiamiTech.org.
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