Mention “Medellin,” and notions of drug cartels and danger come to mind for many. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Colombian city was host to violence between drug lords that terrorized the city. But the Medellin of today has left that history behind. It has become, of all things, a booming tech hub.
In 2013, Medellin was named “City of the Year” by the Urban Land Institute, and since then, it has drawn 353 companies and 10,300 tech jobs to the area. In 2019, the World Economic Forum named Medellin to host one of its Centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which encompasses technologies such as AI, IoT and blockchain. The city is also planning to provide Internet access to residents as part of its focus on “economies of knowledge” and has a goal of 50,000 new tech jobs over the next four years.
“Not too bad for a city that in 2000 was deemed unviable,” said Elkin Echeverri, planning and foresight director of Ruta N, at Signal 2020 in July. “We have learned as a region the importance of transforming ourselves.”
Unlikely innovation hubs like Medellin are popping up around the globe, proving that a certain way of business and ideas isn’t simply the domain of Silicon Valley.
It’s “one of my biggest learnings this year,” says Kevin McCarthy, senior director global business development at P&G, who sits on the board of the company’s Startup Center of Expertise. “Everyone asks me, where’s the next powerhouse market, the next Silicon Valley. I tell them, there isn’t going to be a next Silicon Valley. There’s going to be fifteen of them.”
The research and policy firm Startup Genome says there are at least 30 such hubs already. “As the dynamism of the startup ecosystems across various regions continues to grow, we should see more ecosystems,” according to the organization’s 2020 Global Startup Ecosystem Report. At the top of Startup Genome’s list are the usual suspects, Silicon Valley, New York, London, Beijing and Boston. The list is rounded out by Stockholm, Singapore, Sydney and Dallas, among others.
The organization also identified 100 emerging innovation centers, a list that includes a range of American cities such as Charlotte, Hartford, Tampa Bay and Cleveland; and European cities like Bristol, Milan, Marseille and Ljubljana. In Africa, the report named Lagos, Cairo, Cape Town and Nairobi as cities to watch. Asia-Pacific is brimming with activity – the list names 30 cities in the region, including the R&D powerhouses Tokyo and Seoul, where the city’s government has committed $1.6 billion to drive the startup ecosystem there over the next three years.
What conditions make an area ripe for entrepreneurs and technology investment? For the startup accelerator and investment firm 500 Startups, it’s “density and quality of talent, availability of risk-taking investment capital, geographic and commercial connectivity to other relevant markets, and a willingness from local players such as governments, corporations and foundations to invest in the ecosystem to develop capabilities that will propel it further forward,” says Ana Paula González, director of global ecosystem development.
“The Middle East is really investing in technology and entrepreneurship because they understand that that’s the way forward,” says Nick Zasowski, director of the Global Startup Studio Network, an organization that supports startup studios, which hatch new businesses. Zasowski points to developments such as Saudi Arabia’s aim to build up its innovation ecosystem by helping foreign startups get business licenses in the kingdom. In Abu Dhabi, the government has set aside $250 million or startup investment.
Nearby Tel Aviv was much earlier to the tech party. It’s the birthplace of tech winners like Waze and Fiverr, and boasts more than 300 R&D centers. Tel Aviv’s startup scene has boomed so much that most major tech companies and leading investment firms have a presence there.
Techstars is an accelerator with 33 programs around the world, including in Tel Aviv. “Culturally, Israelis are resourceful, hard-working, resilient and always ready to test boundaries,” says Hila Ovil-Brenner, managing director of the Techstars Tel Aviv Accelerator. “Israel is fast moving, it is an ethnic melting pot and a hub of energy. These are ideal conditions for entrepreneurship. It is not surprising that so many tech entrepreneurs have emerged there.”
Echeverri echoes a similar sentiment about Medellin, which has won awards “for our innovation capacity and transformation, while many would have doubted it. And, we have become a tourist destination, something unthinkable for us only a few years ago.”
Watch Echeverri’s presentation on Medellin’s innovation story from Signal 2020 here: