We arrived to Medellin with the ideas that most people have: Pablo Escobar, drugs and a sundry amount of danger.
However, that is surely not the case.
Considered by Wall Street Journal as the world’s most innovative city, we were excited to dive into the minds and startup hubs that call Medellín home.
As we settled into the El Poblado area of the city, it quickly became apparent that we were not just in a smaller version of Bogotá.
Medellín prides itself in being part of the “Paisa” region of Colombia, and the people are known for their knack of business and commerce. Might I add, as we noticed during our wanderings throughout the city, they lack nothing in the creativity department either.
Co-working in Colombia
Our first line of duty was getting together for coffee with two of the funniest dudes we’ve met in the startup community: Dario Palacio and Camilo Usuga. They each are working on different projects, but are both involved in a co-working space (just blocks away from where we were having coffee) called PyjamaStartup. The following day, we would pay a visit to the location — which awesomely utilizes its two floors (one overlooking the other). But as our conversation with the guys drew deeper, we realized much of what we planned to see was walking distance from where we were…as is one of the most well-known co-working spaces in Medellín, Espacio.
Espacio was co-founded by Conrad Egusa; a name you must know should startups in Medellín strike your interest. Previously, he’s written for VentureBeat, now he mentors at The Founder Institute and has recently launched his latest project, Publicize.
We had planned to sit down with Conrad at Espacio later that week, but after coffee, we, along with Dario and Camilo, decided to surprise Conrad over at Espacio. Although he was busy at the moment, it was good to see Espacio’s members buzzing around.
When we returned, we got a chance to sit down with Conrad and talk about how he got from New York to Medellín, and a little about the culture there. When he first visited the city, there were no co-working spaces — this encouraged him to open Espacio in one of the safer parts of the city: El Poblado. Espacio costs $100 per month to be a member and he opened it with the goal of helping build the startup ecosystem in Medellin. Conrad mentioned that one of the most successful companies within Espacio is one that is developing a restaurant inventory management system. After asking Conrad how much funding the company has, he exclaims that they are trying to raise $200,000, which in Medellin is a HUGE deal.
We eventually got to talking about the difference in the startup ecosystems in Bogota and Medellin. There are many of the same trends: finding talent is a constant hurdle, there is a lack of funding, and mobile development seems to be behind. Conrad then explained that Bogota may be a bit ahead of Medellin in terms of startups because Bogota is on it’s “second wave of companies” while Medellin has not had any major success stories, yet.
So why would a foreigner be interested in starting a company in Medellin?
The time zone is similar to that of the west coast of the US, hiring talent may be harder but is significantly cheaper, access to important people is easily attainable (Conrad got to meet the president of Colombia last year) and media coverage is easy to reach.
Welcome to FLAC
Thanks to some awesome intros by our startup friends in Seattle, we were able to connect with bit of a different type of entrepreneur. We love tech, but it was a nice change to meet an individual who, along with his childhood friends, opened a couple restaurants/bars. We met for lunch at HUMO (one of his restaurants) where he explained how he became involved in the industry.
Towards the end of his education, while still in school, Ricardo Zapata and his group of friends began a fund that they contributed to monthly. The fund didn’t have a specific purpose at first, but it was a way for the group of friends to remain in touch and start a project of their own one day.
Eventually, that opportunity arose after the owner of a corner store that they had been going to for years, decided to sell. The group, named FLAC (Fondo Los Amigos Colegio, High School Friends’ Fund) decided to use that money to transform that corner store into casual restaurant/bar called El Social that locals and travelers alike flock to. It was actually the very first place we checked out the night we arrived in Medellín – before we knew it was Zapata’s place.
Since then, they’ve partnered with an American woman to open HUMO right across the street. After lunch, Ricardo took us through the kitchen where we got to meet the head chef and see what it looked like behind the scenes of a high-quality restaurant. There’s a common saying (that he was well aware of) that puts forward the notion that the quickest way to sink money is by opening a restaurant. To him, and his partners in FLAC, it didn’t matter…and it looks like that attitude is paying off.
RutaN cultivates startup talent
In switching gears back to innovation, we knew we couldn’t leave Medellín without checking out RutaN; an icon for innovation throughout Latin America as a whole.
The organization works alongside the government and other partner organizations to enhance, cultivate and properly fund projects that deal with science and high-technology. They’ve got a fleet of programs for innovators to take advantage of; and it’s making quite a splash in the tech scene all over Latin America. Their expansion includes bringing in ventures from all over the world to take advantage of the innovation hub so we encourage you to contact them if South America has been on your mind as an innovator.
Located in the transformed north sector of Medellín, we hopped on the metro to meet Cesar Cortez, Director of the ICT Area of Science, Technology and Innovation Plan at RutaN Medellín. He gave us a tour of the sprawling, and now iconic, facilities that enjoy a gold level LEED certification and house some pretty incredible innovation projects. Amongst them, we came across and chatted with a group of rocket scientists working on a nanosatellite endeavor.
These group of young guys were currently preparing for their second test launch, but we were able to get our hands on the last model nanosatellite that was up in space! As RutaN continues to foster and pump out innovation like this, we think we’ll be hearing a lot more disruption from our neighbors to the south.
Along with projects that are highly detailed and technical, Medellín is applying it’s innovative spirit to help the developing youth.
One of the coolest innovations that Medellin has going for it are the cable cars that are located at one of the last stops on the metro. These cable cars climb up the very populated favelas of Medellin smoothly and rapidly. Before the arrival of the cable cars, the community living in the favelas had to travel hours to get from work/school and back home. Now, young students can arrive at school quicker, safer and much cheaper.
At the top of the favelas, where the poorest reside, the city has built massive library to serve the youth of the area. As we walked inside, a teacher greeted us while the young students explored the several computers provided.
Despite kids just being kids, it was touching to see mothers sitting with their children guiding them through their homework and studies. In the absence of this library, who knows what the youth would be doing.
Between RutaN, Espacio, Pyjama Startups, and cable cars up mountains, the future of Medellín is in good hands. The entrepreneurial minds we met are excited to live up to that expectation and the challenges that come with it. The Paisas seem truly proud of that responsibility — and they should be. The tainted history that Medellín has been forced to deal with in the past is ready to be brushed aside for a radically different future.
Thank you, Medellin, and muchos abrazos to everyone living there and working to make it one of the most awesome cities in the world. See you in the near future.
Armand Pizzicarola and Andrew Mewborn are a students of the world, startup enthusiasts, and writers/podcasters for Yumas. Keep up with their journey on Twitter @yumas_, subscribe to their podcast on iTunes, and/or drop them a note via email.