Inside.com publishes newsletters, hosts digital events, and more. In this feature story, Inside Analyst Daniel Smith takes us inside the recent Startup Showdown pitch competition and discusses Miami's burgeoning tech scene.
SUMMARY: Last Thursday, the Startup Showdown came to Miami, Florida. The Startup Showdown is a pitch competition organized by Panoramic Ventures, an Atlanta-based venture capital firm. This was the first in-person version of the event – it took place at Le Rouge, a venue in Wynwood, Miami. Wynwood is becoming the hub of a blossoming #MiamiTech scene.
Hundreds of Miami-based startups applied for the chance to pitch to a panel of judges from Panoramic Ventures, Softbank’s Miami Initiative, Lightship Capital, and Flamingo Capital. Six finalists presented their pitches to the judges and hundreds of attendees, with the winning company receiving a $120,000 investment from Panoramic and joining its portfolio of companies. The judges ultimately picked two winners: digital ID company Virtual Badge and crypto analytics firm Defy Trends.
The success of the Showdown, which drew hundreds of attendees from Miami and elsewhere, marks the incredible growth of the #MiamiTech scene. In the last year and a half, a new wave of founders, investors, and tech workers have moved to Miami to build companies, invest, or connect with like-minded individuals. One of the most notable – and promising – features of the #MiamiTech scene is the collective emphasis on cultivating and growing the ecosystem needed to help entrepreneurs and businesses thrive.
Inside Miami: The Startup Showdown and the Growth of #MiamiTech
I walked through Miami’s hip Wynwood neighborhood, taking in the stunning graffiti art that the area is known for. I was headed to Le Rouge, a nightclub and event venue that was hosting one of the biggest events of the year for the blossoming #MiamiTech scene: The Startup Showdown. Dozens of people were queued outside before the event had even started. Already, the atmosphere was convivial; it was clear that many of the attendees knew each other already, and people were eagerly introducing themselves to those they had not met before. The scene illustrated the incredibly positive and welcoming attitude held by the variety of founders, investors, startup employees, and community-builders who have fueled the tremendous growth of the tech scene in South Florida in recent years.
Inside Le Rouge, there was a palpable buzz in the air. The venue filled up quickly, and the room was filled with conversation among friends old and new. On the stage, the Startup Showdown logo was on full display. The Startup Showdown is a pitch competition organized by Panoramic Ventures, an Atlanta-based venture capital firm led by veteran investors Paul Judge and Mark Buffington. This was the first in-person Startup Showdown; the event series kicked off earlier this year with three fully digital pitch competitions. The winner of the Showdown would receive a $120,000 investment from Panoramic and would join its growing portfolio of companies.
While the three previous Startup Showdowns were open to any company in the United States and Canada, last week’s event was exclusively for Miami-based startups. The next Startup Showdown, set to take place on Oct. 28, will be fully digital. The next in-person event will be in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Nov. 16, in conjunction with the Venture135 Conference organized by RevTech Labs. This competition will open only to Charlotte-based startups.
While the Startup Showdown was only launched this year, Panoramic has long been a sponsor and organizer of pitch competitions. In 2015, Judge launched the biannual Atlanta Startup Battle, which became one of the most important events in the Southeastern tech scene. The Startup Showdown series is Panoramic’s way of scaling the same idea to the national stage. Judge said of the event series:
“Startup Showdown is all about giving overlooked founders everywhere access to early investment dollars and exposure to a broader investor ecosystem. No warm intros. It’s not about who you know. Talent is everywhere but opportunity is not. By allowing an open process and a monthly investment cycle, we are here to give a path for these promising founders to take their company to the next level.”
Judge and Buffington were two of the five judges presiding over the event. They were joined on the judges’ panel by Chris Adamo of Flamingo Capital, Brian Brackeen of Lightship Capital, and Ana Paula González, the Director of Softbank's Miami Initiative. The competition was emceed by Tami McQueen of Panoramic Ventures.
The pitch competition featured six Miami-based startups. More than 100 companies applied to participate in the competition. Of these applicants, 25 were selected as semi-finalists. All of these semi-finalists participated in a virtual Mentors’ Day, where they were able to practice their pitches and receive feedback from experienced investors, founders, and corporate executives. Of these 25, six were selected for the in-person Showdown.
The six competitors were:
· Defy Trends, a cryptocurrency analytics firm that uses real-time data to give crypto traders the best available information and insights.
· Doctor Allways, a healthcare startup that built an on-demand platform to provide consumers with affordable options from a network of licensed healthcare providers.
· Gemini Sports, a sports analytics firm that uses AI and systems engineering to help professional sports franchises optimize their athletes' performance and reduce the likelihood of injury.
· Kazmaleje, a haircare company that sells hairbrushes and other products for people with curly or kinky hair. Kazmaleje is the first and only hair tool company to be certified Plastic Neutral by rePurpose Global.
· Medblue, a healthcare company that negotiates directly with providers to provide uninsured individuals with access to affordable healthcare. In addition to securing favorable pricing from providers, Medblue helps consumers by booking online appointments through their platform.
· Virtual Badge is a cloud-based identification platform that works primarily with construction companies to provide instant, hassle-free identity management through digital ID badges.
Founders and executives from each company were given five minutes each for their pitch, followed by five more minutes of Q&A from the judges’ panel. After all six companies made their pitches, the judges retreated backstage to deliberate. When they emerged, they made a surprise announcement: two companies had been selected as winners. The winning companies were Defy Trends and Virtual Badge.
After the winners were announced and the formal event ended, I had the chance to talk with more than a dozen founders and startup employees based in Miami. Some had lived in South Florida for all or most of their lives, but most had only moved to Miami in the last year. It seemed to be a running joke that having lived in Miami for more than a year made you a veteran of the city. Regardless of where people were from or where they had previously worked, all the attendees were united by their enthusiasm for the future of #MiamiTech and their desire to contribute to the burgeoning scene in the city.
The tremendous growth of the #MiamiTech scene can be attributed to a number of factors. The COVID-19 pandemic led many tech workers to consider Miami as a place to live for the first time. The shift to remote work made South Florida’s sunny weather, low taxes, and favorable environment for entrepreneurs attractive to founders, tech workers, and investors. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has worked tirelessly to promote Miami as the next tech hub, and his efforts are paying off. Suarez is often seen at tech or crypto events throughout the city, and his warm style has made him a favorite among entrepreneurs in Miami and around the country. Tech community groups like Refresh Miami, founded in 2006, have served as central hubs for the tech community before and during the current wave of activity in Miami’s tech and startup space. Refresh has played a crucial role in the recent #MiamiTech renaissance by organizing events, hosting the Miami Tech podcast, and using its website as a hub for resources, job postings, and more.
Beyond conscious efforts to attract founders and cultivate a robust tech ecosystem in the city, the #MiamiTech scene has benefited immensely from the flow of venture and institutional capital into the city and region. In January 2021, Softbank announced that it was making a $100M investment in the region. Softbank's 'Miami Initiative' is directed by Ana Paula González, who served as one of the judges in the Showdown. Founders Fund opened an office in Miami in February 2021, and partners Peter Thiel and Keith Rabois both purchased homes in Miami Beach during the last year. Rabois has been a vocal proponent of a tech exodus from San Francisco to Miami. His new company OpenStore, launched in partnership with Atomic’s Jack Abraham, is based in Miami.
The difference between the past and current Miami tech scene is striking to long-term residents. At the Showdown, I met Alie Gonzalez, a services manager at hardware company SparkFun and former founder. Alie told me, “I’ve lived in Miami my entire life, and never before has the tech scene felt so vibrant and full of life here. I no longer need to travel to San Francisco to meet brilliant people working on cutting-edge problems. The influx of people has created a welcoming environment where everyone is happy to connect and willing to help each other build the future in Miami.”
The brilliant people working on cutting-edge problems were on full display during Thursday night's pitch competition. At the same time that Miami is drawing in top tech talent from San Francisco, New York, Latin America, and around the world, local talent is being given access to the resources, networks, and capital necessary to succeed in building a new company. Many Miami-based founders studied at local colleges, which have increasingly developed programs and courses focused on tech entrepreneurship. Local colleges and universities have also partnered with external groups to cultivate the next generation of founders. Florida International University, Miami Dade College, and the University of Miami recently announced a new partnership with Softbank, launching the semester-long Softbank Operator School to "upskill a new generation of tech business operators in Miami and Latin America."
At the Showdown, I spoke with one of the winning founders: Georges Duplessy. Mr. Duplessy is the co-founder and CEO of Virtual Badge; he moved from Haiti to South Florida at the age of 17, and has lived, studied, and worked here since then. He observed that the Miami tech ecosystem has been developing and growing for more than a decade, long before the recent wave of activity. Mr. Duplessy said that the University of Miami’s Launch Pad was an important hub of activity for South Florida-based entrepreneurs when he studied at UM, and that groups like Refresh Miami had long been a visible presence in the local tech scene. Key figures like Brian Breslin, who founded Refresh in 2006 and currently serves as the director of The Launch Pad, worked for years to support local entrepreneurs and build the networks and institutional resources needed to support Miami’s tech ecosystem.
The growth of #MiamiTech raises an interesting question: what, exactly, is a tech ecosystem? The tech world is composed of a variety of organizations and networks: startups themselves, angel, venture, or institutional investors, incubators, accelerators, community hubs, media platforms, university-based institutes, and more. The overlapping relationships between these varied organizations, and the people who create and run them, are complex and difficult to describe succinctly. It is clear, however, that there is a reciprocal dynamic by which the success or growth of one component stimulates further growth or development in another. If more companies are being founded, more employees and capital are needed in the city. As more talent and investment flows in, more companies – and tech groups, accelerators, and innovation hubs – are created. Momentum builds, and transformative change and growth takes place. The amazing evolution of the Miami Tech scene in the last year is evidence of that, and this people-powered momentum continues to drive the city’s upward trajectory.
Panoramic’s Tami McQueen said of Miami: “Everyone is intentional about being here, with the purpose of building something from nothing. The community is welcoming and eager to support entrepreneurs, investors, and tech talent across the board who want to contribute to the shared vision.” She elaborated further on the question of how to build up the city’s tech ecosystem: “Communities are only as effective as the shared common intention of each of its members. A collective vision of a small, committed group can create enormous momentum in an ecosystem, and these early champions are critical to the adoption and growth long term.”
The stunning success of last week’s Startup Showdown marks a maturation point in the evolution of #MiamiTech. Attendees and viewers around the world were able to see pitches from some of the best new companies forming in Miami; they were also exposed to the vibrant, diverse, and active community that is helping to transform the city into a global center of innovation and entrepreneurship. The community-builders, networkers, investors, and founders who populate the scene have self-consciously cultivated a positive and uplifting culture, which in turn will continue to draw more talent and capital to the Magic City. With Miamians new and old investing their time in building up the community and ecosystem needed for the city to become the next tech hub, it is hard not to be optimistic about the city’s future.
This is the first piece in our new Inside Miami series, which will feature interviews and digital events with the founders, investors, innovators, and community-builders helping to make Miami into the next tech hub.
This article was written by Daniel Smith. Daniel is an Analyst at Inside and the author of Inside’s Daily Brief A.M. newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @DanSmithInside.
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