Medellín Colombia, Emerging Latin American Technology Superhub

Oh hello there, my name is Greg Stevens and I hail from the lovely City of Big Shoulders, Chicago. I have spent all of my career (11 years) working for Startups and highly scalable technology firms with a focus on tech that is transferable between emerging ecosystems with an eye towards internationalization of these firms. Additionally, I have worked at organizations that have helped build the Chicago Tech Ecosystem (Chicagoland Entrepreneurial Center), and before founding my own organization I was previously the International Trade Center Manager at the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Basically, I am an all around technology/ international macro-economic aficionado. I run my organization, TechBridge, out of the largest technology incubator in North America, the 1871 Digital Incubator in Chicago. This will be the first in a long series of articles about the emerging technology hubs that I visit, the innovative entrepreneurs and their firms and products, and the leaders of the technology communities that are creating the infrastructure to support these emerging ecosystems. So stay tuned.

But enough about me, let’s get down to it and discuss a country that I think is underrated, not talked about enough, and poised to be one of the major leading technology hubs in South America, Colombia and specifically Medellín. As some of you may know, Colombia has gone through an incredible change in the last two decades. Going from a nation with some social ills to being one of the best places to do business in South America. Colombia had made all the right investments to create a technology economy and ecosystem that is producing some innovative companies, and become a gateway to the Spanish speaking world and South American Markets.

Their biggest success story to date has been the revolutionary changes in the city of Medellín, most famously know as the home of the Medellín Cartel. (Sidenote: When watching “Narcos” remember that this is drama. Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria was not born poor, he choose a life of crime and the show glosses over the fact that he was responsible for bombings and killings of innocent people, at least 2,800 police officers, the deaths of tens of thousands of people through violence throughout the country by his ‘Sicarios” or hitmen. He is responsible for the global cocaine epidemic and the violence it brings. He should not venerated in any form).

But there is a very bright and inspiring end to this story that shows the REAL Medellín. Due to the benefit of having good government, and a well thought out plan, it has become a technology hub and a safe city as evidenced by the Wall Street Journal naming it as the “Most Innovative City in the World” in 2013 and is currently considered one of the best places for ex-pats to retire according to various studies and publications. I can tell you from personal experience and many trips there that it is one of the most beautiful cities on earth, nestled in a valley high in the Andes with a mild climate similar to San Francisco. It is called the “Ciudad de la Eterna Primavera” in Spanish or the City of Eternal Springtime in English. The first time you wind your way down into the valley from the international airport, the sight of the city spread across the valley is utterly breathtaking. At night, the city virtually sparkles and it is hard to describe in words, by photo or by video. It must be seen to be believed.

Medellín achieved this amazing turnaround in a few short years by focusing on creating a technology hub unrivaled in the region with a focus on innovation and social inclusion. First we will talk about the technology aspect, the Medellín Innovation District.

The Medellín Innovation District was the brain-child of a group of government officials, ProAntioquia the regions economic development agency (the region in which Medellín is located is called Antioquia and it residents are referred to as “Paisas”) It is a friendly term that they use to greet each other which means “Countrymen”. Typically you will hear “Hola Paisa!, ¿Cómo está hoy?”amongst the locals.

Here is a link to a video on the Medellín Innovation District that shows their plans for development, social inclusion, and current successes. The largest of these successes is the massive modern RutaN Incubator, one of the best I have visited anyone in the world. They focus on helping Startups receive resources they need to scale and create employment with everything from spaces for growing startups, co-working space, developers, hack-a thons, a space for events, a theater and a 3D printing “Makers Lab”. All of these combined efforts and resources have created a technology hub that is becoming one of the most innovative places to do business in South America and the Latin World.

Another critical element in the change in Medellín has been their focus on social inclusion for people living in the Comunas, once strongholds of criminal elements of the city, they were isolated from the best parts of the city and economic opportunity. The city has made a concerned effort to integrate these residents into the city by creating an advanced Metro System that includes modern trains and a Gondola system that provides access to the main parts of the city, as well as building an ultra modern library at the top of the hills that hold the Comunas. This sends a message to young men and women in the Comunas “We care about you, you have value as citizens in this city, and we intend to provide you with some sort of social mobility”. As a result murder rates have dropped 80% between 1991 and 2010. This is a formula that could be used as an example for cities that are experiencing violent crime in the United States as well. Jobs and social inclusion provide opportunity and hope, these two things can change the social dynamic of a city and Medellín is the proof.

So if you are wondering where to go to bring your tech firm to enter the Latin World, looking for a great vacation spot in one of the most beautiful places on this small blue planet of ours, or simply want to see and meet some good, friendly, hard working people. Go to Medellín, book your tickets tomorrow, before the secret gets out!

Also, for a general first version view of what it looks like to walk around and explore Colombia from Bogotá, Medellín, and the coastal city of Cartagena, check out this Vimeo Video which I made with my camera myself (just don’t judge me on the quality).

For more information on myself, Greg Stevens, see my LinkedIn profile here.

Next up in our series will be a place that has received a lot of attention lately, Brazil! Come back for more. Until then ¡Viva Colombia!

Medellín Metro
RutaN Incubator in Medellín Innovation District
El Poblado Church in Medellín
Gondolas in Medellín Comunas
Medellín Street Art Murals
Medellín Business District
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