German Rocca knows that Chile sits at the “end of the world,” but that fact has made the geographically isolated country more intent on integrating with the global economy over time.
Known more for commodities like copper and farm products like grapes, blueberries and salmon that fill plates around the U.S., the South American nation has 27 free trade agreements giving its companies access to the largest markets around the world.
But even its deep global connections have not changed the mindset of Chilean firms, which often are “centralized” in their thinking, clustering around the capital city of Santiago at home and looking with too narrow a lens at well-trodden pathways into the U.S. like Miami and New York, said Mr. Rocca, the Miami-based Southeast region director of ProChile, the country’s export promotion agency.
“We are trying to decentralize our mentality as Chileans and say, ‘Something’s going on in Atlanta, you have to go there,’” Mr. Rocca said in a special trade edition of Global Atlanta’s Consular Conversations series, noting that “big cities” are ingrained in the Chilean consciousness.
ProChile has reached an agreement to work with Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute to smooth the way into the U.S. for Chilean firms. The Soft Landings Program, an online curriculum that in pre-pandemic days had a weeklong residency component, helps entrepreneurs mostly around the Americas determine whether the U.S. market is a fit, then helps them navigate the process of setting up shop in Atlanta. Two Chilean software firms are already participating.
Mr. Rocca likened the program, and a similar Go Global program in Miami, to building up one’s investment muscles before taking on the heavy lift of ultra-competitive markets like San Francisco.
“You go to the gym, understand the mentality, the culture, and how to do business and learn if your product fits,” he said, noting the size and complexity of the U.S. “You have to navigate different markets; the U.S. is a tremendous market, and then every state is a country by itself.”
ProChile sees the Southeast U.S. as an ideal training ground for Chilean tech companies, given the region’s growing software, services and tech ecosystems. Most recently, ProChile set up an office in Houston, given the growing trade ties and direct air links between the city and the country.
But Atlanta, where ProChile opened an office in 2009 and closed it within the space of a few years, makes sense for a variety of reasons. It’s a payments capital, while Chile is a growing fintech innovator, said Mr. Rocca, an entrepreneur who started what he calls the first fintech company in his country, Axioma. It’s also a logistics hub and business base for big Chilean forestry firms like CMPC and Arauco. Agrosuper, a food firm, and SQM, a fertilizer and chemicals manufacturer that also happens to be one of the largest miners of lithium, have a presence here.
The progression is natural as Chile, a market of 19 million people, developed services over time to complement its largely commodities-based economy. Companies grew in their sophistication and ultimately sought new markets, Mr. Rocca said. He should know; he spent four years opening the Australian market for Crystal Lagoons, which builds artificial bodies of water at resorts and other properties around the world and was tapped as Chile’s first private “unicorn” company to reach a $1 billion valuation.
“We started exporting that services to the U.S. and in fact the U.S. is our largest destination for that,” he said during the virtual event, sponsored by Miller & Martin PLLC. “And that’s why were are very keen on using the Southeast region as our entry point for this kind of services.”
The conversation with Atlanta is not new. Mr. Rocca visited the city in 2019, a year after Invest Atlanta took an exploratory fintech mission to Chile.
But the post-pandemic environment presents a chance for reconnection. Mr. Rocca is looking into a presence at this June’s virtual Fintech South conference, just a month after Georgia’s trade and investment representative in Chile, Veronica Medina, joined 2,500 attendees at a fintech conference in Santiago. Multiple Atlanta companies like fintech innovator First Performance have operations in the country.
“A lot of the startups — not just startups but scaleups — that we saw from the region, they’re always looking to the U.S.,” said Ms. Medina, who added that the Georgia Department of Economic Development is helping companies in the probiotic space enter the Chilean market.
In addition, some young Atlanta entrepreneurs have gone through the Startup Chile program, a government-backed initiative that provides $40,000 to innovators coming into the country. Mr. Rocca, a mentor for the program, credits it with making Chile a leading innovation ecosystem in Latin America, helping the government’s Production Development Corporation, or CORFO, drive job creation.
Georgia is a strategic state for ProChile as it promotes economic engagement amid political uncertainties. Known as a paragon of stability in the region, Chile is facing a contentious constitutional rewrite.
Mr. Rocca is unfazed, believing that bilateral trade and tourism hold big promise with the right mindset and direction.
“An entrepreneur is a dreamer, and they want big things, but they need baby steps. That’s now you do it in this market, which is huge, so they need to understand that — it’s not the same thing as doing business down there.”