South Florida business leaders and government officials are betting on the tech industry becoming the area's next big economic driver. But is it all talk? Three players from the local tech scene weigh in on whether South Florida is the next hot tech hub or an also-ran.
All agree that South Florida tech entrepreneurs are abuzz over new projects. In the last several years, nonprofits like the Knight Foundation and the Beacon Council have donated both time and dollars to make the region more desirable for tech businesses. Dozens of incubators and accelerators have popped up, including Endeavor Miami, Venture Hive and The South Florida Accelerator.
A new coding academy, Wyncode, has made it easier for wannabe techies to acquire skills and land jobs. And Manny Medina's eMerge Americas, the country's first-ever technology conference for innovators across Europe and the Americas, has shined a spotlight on South Florida's burgeoning tech economy.
But while the region's "techpreneurs" certainly show promise, they've got a long way to go if they want to compete. Jacques Hart, CEO and co-founder of public relations firm Roar Media, says South Florida needs more than hype to drive the growth of its technology sector. "The reason we're not creating innovative, disruptive tech companies is fueled by a talent-retention problem," Hart said. "Are talented innovators coming here? Are they staying here? Are we supporting them?"
According to a tech market intelligence platform CB Insights study, in 2014 South Florida startups nabbed $670 million in venture capital, and a majority of that funding – approximately $542 million, went to visionary mixed reality firm Magic Leap. By contrast, in New York, venture capitalists invested over $4.5 billion in local startups, and in San Francisco, tech firms landed a staggering $11 billion.
While several key resources are available for wannabe tech startups in South Florida, many simply don't know where to find them. Andrew Duffell, president and CEO of the Research Park at Florida Atlantic University, says many struggle to gain a foothold in the local tech community. "Someone trying to get something up and running might not know where to find other people who have had success, even though there are plenty of like-minded organizations throughout the region," he said.
Similarly, recent graduates have a hard time finding work. "We've got a lot of well-trained graduates coming out of our schools, but they're not necessarily looking for or even aware of opportunities that exist," Duffell added.
Many also agree that the retention problem is closely tied to market earnings. According to the Miami Herald, most South Florida tech employees are unhappy with their salaries and see little room for growth.
"Most of the tech firms currently in South Florida are middle market enterprises, and there really aren't enough technology jobs to go around," said Andres Campo, CEO of Axxis Solutions and chair of the technology group for the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce. "So you have companies in the medium market space paying bottom dollar for high-skill-set individuals. It's impossible to retain top talent when they know they can get a better job if they move to Boston or San Francisco."
Both Hart and Campo agree it's turned into a vicious cycle, as low wages are often a product of a company's capital. "We see a lot of incubators and programs for startup growth, but access to working capital isn’t readily available," Campo said.
Hart adds that startup CEOs are then forced to spend their time chasing potential investment, which takes away from their company's ability to further innovate and grow. "They're chasing dollars, when what they really need to be doing is leading tech teams and building out innovations," he says.
So what are some of the solutions? Hart suggests that Miami needs more density and connectivity in the tech community. "If you look at most tech hubs, they have innovation districts, centers of the city where technology startups are close to one another," Hart said. He points to the Simkins family's proposed Miami Innovation District as one of the solutions, a planned tech community in the heart of downtown Miami.
Additionally, Campo feels that a change of mindset is essential if South Florida is to emerge as a tech hub. "We need to have a serious conversation about how we can develop the tech community," he said. "There isn’t a strong legislative economic power behind it right now."
Duffell, in turn, feels that more needs to be done to market and promote the success stories coming out of South Florida. "We have to celebrate our successes more so they're well known throughout the country," he said. "Investors need to see that companies can be successful in this region so that more of the funders and investors are putting Florida on their watchlist and spending time scouting in the region."
Hart agrees, adding that a similar marketing model like that employed by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau could be applied to South Florida's tech ecosystem. "If you look at GMCVB, they pull all the local hotels' money together and come up with cool travel and leisure ad campaigns and put a spotlight on Miami," Hart said. "We should be doing something similar to that in the tech space, welcoming people to visit and live here and create their next business here."
As South Florida's tech economy braces for future growth – hopefully – it's clear that progress is being made, they say. "We're still young," according to Campo. "There's still a lot of room for this to grow and develop."