I know what some of you may be thinking.
“Uruguay? Where on Earth is Uruguay?”.
Squeezed between Brazil and Argentina on a territory smaller than the state of Missouri, Uruguay is best known for its beautiful beaches, herds of cattle, and passion for soccer. And with a population of just 3.5 million, it’s easy to count Uruguay out of the global tech conversation.
That, however, would be a mistake.
With a growing $1.2 billion+ IT industry and more than 700 tech companies exporting software across 52 different markets, Uruguay is the leading software exporter per capita in South America. It’s the third worldwide.
Harvard University identified Uruguay as “one of the most advanced software development centers in the region”, primarily focused on the country’s capital city, Montevideo.
Now, it seems to be true that Uruguay has a great software development culture but, calling it the Silicon Valley of South America might be a bit presumptuous, don’t you think? (Spoiler alert: No it’s not).
“My first trip to Uruguay was eye-opening. I had no idea that this small country had so much to offer. From the impressive universities, the entrepreneurial spirit, and magnificent coastline, it is clear that Uruguay is poised to step onto the world stage.”
- Tina Seelig, Faculty Director of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program (STVP), Stanford University.
If we do a little analysis of the factors that transformed Silicon Valley into what is today, you’d be surprised to find how many similar factors are evident today.
The same way the Valley’s success story is not simply a matter of chance, Uruguay’s success in the IT industry is the result of a sophisticated government master plan, combined with a series of opportune circumstances.
1. Government subsidies
After WWII through the end of the 70s, the San Francisco Bay Area received massive support from the US government. This set the economic stage for private sector technological innovation, creating a thriving industry hub in Silicon Valley.
Similarly, Uruguay has implemented dramatic tax benefits and government incentives over the course of the past decade. The most relevant benefit for global IT firms is a 100% exemption of income tax for the payment obtained through the exports of software and its related services (Decree 150/2007). Keeping this in mind, it’s little wonder why Uruguay is such a major software exporter despite its size.
We can all agree that established professionals and young university graduates are the core of Silicon Valley’s workforce.
In 2008, Uruguay became one of the first countries in the world to embrace the One Laptop per Child program (OLPC), an ambitious project aimed to bring computing to children in the developing world.
The program is run as a joint efforts of the Technological Laboratory of Uruguay (LATU), National Agency for Research and Innovation (ANII), the Agency for the Development of Government Electronic Management and Information Society and Knowledge (AGESIC), the National Telecommunications Administration (ANTEL ), the Ministry of Education and Culture (MEC), the Primary Education Council (CEP), and the National Public Education Administration (ANEP).
Today, nearly all of the 300,000 children in Uruguay’s public schools have their own computers, and many high school graduates enroll in computer science, engineering and IT programs.
Uruguay’s public education system is among the continent’s finest, and the country boasts a 96% literacy rate. Stanford has been keeping an eye on Uruguay as well, working together with ANII for some time now.
Frederick Terman, a Stanford professor and one of the founding fathers of Silicon Valley, introduced the idea of incentivizing students to start their own business by allowing them to use the university’s land and facilities. Terman’s program helped people like William Hewlett and David Packard, among others, to take off.
These were the first co-working spaces long before the term was coined.
Co-working spaces are part of the core of any Uruguayan startup; a solution to the problem of isolation that many freelancers experience working at home. These dedicated spaces allow entrepreneurs to mitigate some of the initial costs of having your own place as a small business.
Economic free zones have also operated in Uruguay for over 20 years. Free zones are exempted from ALL taxes (net income tax, VAT, customs duties, property taxes, etc.). Dividends paid to shareholders are never taxed or retained. VAT and customs taxes are waived for construction or equipment needed for operation.
4. Infrastructure and natural conditions (a.k.a: location, location, location)
Besides being a regional logistic hub thanks to its natural port, Uruguay is the leader in communications in Latin America according to the International Telecommunication Union’s 2014–2015 Information Technology and Communication’s Development Index (ICT), which measures Internet penetration, mobile phone usage, and other related indicators.
The excellent telecommunications infrastructure combined with a cultural affinity with Europe and North America, widespread English proficiency, and similar time zone (+1 or +2 hours from EST, depending on daylight saving time) make the country an ideal location for nearshore development.
5. Entrepreneurial atmosphere
From the first pacemaker to the creation of the mammography examination, Uruguay had achieved technological feats that seem statistically impossible for a country of its size.
This entrepreneurial environment even caught the attention of the well-known accelerator 500 Startup. In June 2017, 500 Startups announced its arrival to Uruguay as part of the Montevideo Accelerator Program, focused on growth hacking, product design, fundraising, and bringing Silicon Valley expertise to seed-stage companies in Uruguay.
It would be naive to attribute the success of Silicon Valley solely to the combination of the five factors mentioned above. So it would be to believe this melting-pot of cultures, talent and innovation could not also take place somewhere else.
A closer look into the history of events could throw some light on what turned a little area of Northern California into the tech mecca it is today. And, even more importantly, give us some clues on how to replicate this scenario in Uruguay, a country that has discovered technology is its DNA.