Miami tries transforming itself into a tech hub

* Area has big tax advantages
* Miami tech now on par with much smaller cities
* Finding talent is a challenge

Se habla Spanglish, and now se habla technology.

Miami at night
Ekash | E+ | Getty Images
Miami at night

Entrepreneurs and investors are trying to make Miami and South Florida into the next big U.S. tech hub, although they have their work cut out for them. (Tweet this)

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South Florida's warm weather, affordability compared with other major cities, and its proximity to Latin America are drawing entrepreneurs to the greater Miami area. There are also tax advantages; no local or state income taxes, no local corporate tax, and Florida's corporate tax rate is 5.5 percent, one of the lowest in the nation.

"It's exactly where we need to be, exactly the right time, and it's the absolute perfect place for a start-up," said Brian Brackeen, who moved from Silicon Valley to Miami to start his company, Kairos, a facial recognition software company.

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That said, Miami has a long way to go before it can be considered even a mid-level technology hub. The city attracted only about $14.93 million in venture capital in 2014, according to the National Venture Capital Association, a figure that puts it on par with Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Columbus, Ohio. Fort Lauderdale, in neighboring Broward County, fared better in 2014, drawing $641.9 million, but that was through a relatively small number of deals. In comparison, Washington, D.C., hardly known as a technology epicenter, attracted $857.18 million. San Francisco drew $15.74 billion.

"It's a really big challenge that we need to overcome in Miami," Brackeen said. "You have to kind of go on a plane go to San Francisco, Boston, New York or even London to pitch to investors, and hope that they don't try to make you to move your start-up from Miami."

"If there's great diversity, it means there's a greater sort of collision of people with different backgrounds and ideas and biographies and experiences that will ultimately result in greater and more impactful ideas. Miami has that in a big, big way." -Matt Haggman, program director, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Miami's tech push has been fed by three driving forces: the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which has poured millions of dollars in grants to build a technology ecosystem; eMerge Americas, a South Florida tech conference, and Miami-Dade County, which invested in eMerge Americas and an incubator called Venture Hive.

"I think we can be more than Silicon Valley. We have more to offer: affordability in housing, where cost of living is much lower," said Carolina Rendeiro, vice president of strategic development for eMerge Americas. "We're not just tourism, we are not just the ocean. We have a lot to offer."

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Boosters also point to Miami's diversity as a creative strength.

"If there's great diversity, it means there's a greater sort of collision of people with different backgrounds and ideas and biographies and experiences that will ultimately result in greater and more impactful ideas. Miami has that in a big, big way," said Matt Haggman, program director at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting more informed and engaged communities.

Venture funding remains a challenge. Kairos has raised $5 million in investment, and 60 percent of the funding came from outside Miami, Brackeen said. "Wherever the money is, that's where we go," he said.

Of the $713 million that in 2014 went into Miami's wider metropolitan area—which includes Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties—$629 million went to only three companies: CareCloud, Magic Leap and 3D-4U, according to data provided by the Knight Foundation.

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"To really build Miami, it requires more investment, more infrastructure, and that just takes time," said Bradley Harrison, managing partner at Scout Ventures. New York-based Scout opened a Miami office in September 2014 and has invested in LiveNinja and Rokk3r Labs.

US tech under attack?
US tech under attack?   

And individual start-ups continue to rise and make deals. Open English, an online English language school, has raised more than $120 million in venture capital. And Kairos recently acquired emotion analysis start-up IMRSV for $2.7 million.

"As we continue to build our technology-based companies and innovation here, more and more venture capital will be flowing in South Florida and in Miami in particular," Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez said.

Another challenge for companies in South Florida is finding the right talent, especially in tech and engineering. A lot of its talent tends to move to other places, where job opportunities are more abundant, Gimenez said.

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"We posted jobs all over the Internet. We could not find talent," said Ben Williams, director of business operations at Cloud Logistics, which serves the transportation industry.

Williams attributed the challenge to the shortage of skills in the Miami area and Cloud Logistics' location in West Palm Beach, about 70 miles north of Miami.

But there are several initiatives trying to tackle that problem, including the Launch Pad at the University of Miami, the Idea Center at Miami-Dade College, which was funded by the Knight Foundation, and Wyncode, a coding boot camp.

Cloud Logistics has begun to tackle the talent shortfall by hiring developers out of Wyncode. So far this year, it's hired four Wyncode graduates.

"Miami is only in year two or three of a 25-year development cycle," Harrison said. "I think Miami right now is looking for success stories. It's so early in the ecosystem that until we start having success stories, it won't really start to show the progress that we've made."