Other cities like Miami might have the edge in recognition, but Atlanta’s ties with Latin America, especially on the technology front, are substantive and growing.
Recognizing this — and strategizing around how to build on the momentum — was the subject of a late-January “Latinnovations” panel discussion organized by Global Atlanta. The event was part of the broader Latin American Crossroads series sponsored by Emory Executive Education.
Sensing unrealized potential, Cesar Vence took what might be called an exploratory mission to Colombia and Chile on behalf of Invest Atlanta, the city’s economic development arm.
“We wanted to build partnerships and learn how we can connect our two regions,” he said, noting that he also met with counterpart organizations like Invest Bogota and local chambers of commerce.
More tellingly, what he found in both countries was a coterie of incubators like Universidad Catolica de Chile’s Centro de Innovacion and Ruta N in Medellin, Colombia, that are thinking globally and are looking for partners to help smooth access for their entrepreneurs into global markets like the U.S.
The blend of high regulatory standards, especially in Chile, and the mandate for financial inclusion dovetails well with Atlanta’s strengths as a financial technology hub. Those factors have led to acquisitions in the country by Atlanta-based First Performance Global and Sovos, based in Boston but with a strong Atlanta presence.
Mr. Vence sought to tell Atlanta’s story while highlighting industries like heath care information technology and cybersecurity, which have contributed to Atlanta’s emergence as a tech hub.
“There’s a lot happening that unless you are sort of within this ecosystem in economic development, you don’t see this,” he said.
The links with Latin America are myriad and exemplified best through people like Benjamin Cohen. The CEO of water consultancy TOHL got his entrepreneurial start in 2012, when he accepted about $40,000 for his fledgling company from the Chilean government.
The Startup Chile program has become a model in government-led innovation, for the press coverage it has generated at the very least. Luring young minds with equity-free funding hasn’t produced scores of unicorns, but it has put Chile on the technology map like arguably no other Latin American country.
A Georgia Tech civil engineering graduate, Mr. Cohen’s company started as Tubing Operations for Humanitarian Logistics, which aimed unspool flexible piping from helicopters to distribute water in disaster-struck areas. Startup Chile gave him the latitude to research the model and ultimately pivot to a consulting enterprise that focuses on access to water in developing nations.
“It’s basically any person’s dream to go through Startup Chile. You’re in a beautiful country, it’s equity-free money and you don’t get get messed with a lot by the incubator team,” he said.
As for the opportunity cost of following the entrepreneurial path versus building toward a more traditional career fresh out of college?
“I’m a bit of a risk taker, but the things I’ve learned from that experience I can’t imagine having learned without doing down there,” he said.
The country obviously made an impression: Mr. Cohen’s wife is from Chile, and he was recently approved for Chilean citizenship.
Even before Startup Chile, the country was the launchpad for another venture that has helped many founders take their startups from moderate success to astronomical heights.
Endeavor was launched in Santiago to provide mentorship and bridge capital resources that founder ___ saw as sorely lacking in the Latin American region. The founder-focused program often invests its own “non-dilutive” funds to support companies that could become dominant in their industries, providing substantial employment.
With a presence in 32 countries, the nonprofit has backed into the U.S., where it has five going on six offices, including one in Atlanta.
“We’re the weird nonprofit that started in Latin America that then later expanded back into the United States,” said Aaron Hurst, managing director of the local office that will celebrate two years in March. Other U.S. locations include Miami, Detroit, Louisville, Puerto Rico and an upcoming office in Bentonville, Ark., home to Walmart.
Endeavor’s Latin American links have stayed relevant even for Atlanta companies like BitPay, which has a presence in Argentina, and BAMfi, a logistics financing platform that passed the nonprofit’s rigorous international selection committee last September in Buenos Aires.
No matter the locale, Mr. Hurst said that entrepreneurs tend to jell when together — a key point for a network that prides itself on lifelong access to mentorship across its established global network. Publicly traded companies like e-commerce giant MercadoLibre and software producer Globant are among the Latin American firms that have gone through Endeavor.
“If you put founders of companies that are roughly the same stage of scaling in the same room, no matter where they’re from, they all speak the same language,” Mr. Hurst told the Latinnovations audience of about 60 people at the law firm of Miller & Martin PLLC.
For all this interaction, Atlanta’s success in recruiting Latin American tech investment has been relatively muted, save for some successes in wooing Brazilian firms like Merchant e-Solutions, a payments processor, and Stefanini, among others.
But that could be changing. Ernesto Escobar is part of the economic development lab at Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, which among many other activities consults for governments on innovation strategy. Its engagements included helping Colombia boost competitiveness of small manufacturers and assisting Panama in improving business education.
Through this work, companies began asking for more help entering the U.S. market, and the EI2, as it’s known, obliged with a few pilot programs launched with partners.
“The feedback that we got from those programs was that they wanted more,” Mr. Silva said during the panel.
Soft Landings, now in its second year, was born. The mostly remote program with only limited residency in Atlanta marries a curriculum on “evidence-based entrepreneurship” with practical connections and knowledge on the accounting, immigration and intellectual property concerns of launching a business in the U.S.
Consulates have been key allies of the program, given the mandate to help companies from their countries success globally.
Worthix is a case study in why its founder believes more Latin American companies should look to Atlanta at an early stage.
Guiherme Cerqueira founded the customer survey software company in Brazil, then took it to Silicon Valley as part of the prestigious 500 Startups accelerator program. After securing funding, he made the “rash” decision to move away from the area known as the epicenter of the tech universe.
“I would say that doing business in Latin America is like going up the escalator by the side that is coming down,” he said. “That develops in you the sense of respecting money and opportunities as if they are you last opportunity. You have to make it happen with whatever you get on your plate.”
He didn’t want the “burn rate” of San Francisco when he felt he could accomplish the same objectives with a cheaper office and nimble team. He made a spreadsheet of East Coast cities that included Atlanta, then he stumbled upon the Grow Alpharetta website. He filled out the contact form and was invited for a visit, during which he met the mayor of the city.
Pretty soon he was signing the lease on an office for $3,000 a month, much less than the $18,000 he was being quoted for a similar space back in California.
And human resources for a company that uses artificial intelligence to refine surveys and remove bias hasn’t been a problem at all.
“We were able to find as well or even more qualified people,” Mr. Cerqueira said.
Metro Atlanta has played an essential role in Worthix’s growth story, from small startup to serving massive clients like Starbucks and Home Depot.
“I remember a couple of years ago, Worthix was just a Powerpoint, and now it’s being used by Disney,” he said.
Mr. Vence, who has moved from Invest Atlanta to the city’s Office of International Affairs, has says these stories are key to helping Atlanta become better known among Latin American businesspeople.
Instead of picking a city based on family connections, as many do, they should choose based on which place is the best for their expansion. Miami may feel more like home, but it doesn’t have the same access and reach to the mainstream American economy, he said.
“If you’re really coming after the U.S. market, Atlanta makes sense.”