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Miami looks beyond banks, beaches to tech

Members worked at The Lab Miami, a tech-focused collaborative space in the city’s Wynwood Arts District.
Members worked at The Lab Miami, a tech-focused collaborative space in the city’s Wynwood Arts District.Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

MIAMI — Famed for beaches, cruises, and Cuban coffee, South Florida is now angling to become one of the nation’s next tech hot spots by leveraging its role as the gateway to Latin America and luring northern entrepreneurs with cheap living costs and lots of sun.

The Miami area has long pinned its fortunes on real estate and banking, but the recent recession, which shook those economic drivers, an increase in cloud computing, and the rapid growth of mobile devices in Latin America have civic leaders and entrepreneurs pushing to diversify into tech.

‘‘We’re not trying to replicate what other tech hubs are doing. We want to complement them,’’ said Daniel Lafuente, 26, a Miami native who cofounded the open workspace and tech training center Lab Miami. ‘‘Miami is a place that provides its own benefits: lower costs of living, no income taxes, the proximity to Latin America.’’

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Two years ago, the idea of a tech hub in Miami seemed a long shot to Lafuente and partner Wifredo Fernandez. The University of Pennsylvania graduates had returned home but found few innovative business opportunities. So they created their own in Miami’s gritty Wynwood Arts District, where freelance Web designers and startup entrepreneurs rent space, meet, and collaborate.

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is helping to spearhead efforts to draw the technology industry to Miami, committing $6 million in the past 18 month to an array of projects.

‘‘In Miami there are enormous disconnects,’’ the foundation’s program director, Matt Haggman, said. ‘‘If you are an entrepreneur and you want to connect with an investor, where do you go? To date it’s been you’re really on your own.’’

On a recent evening at Lab Miami, more than 100 young professionals, tech geeks, and artists roamed between a 3-D printer demo on one side and a bilingual review of the latest fashion industry apps on the other. Nearby, civic-minded coders huddled, tapping out ways to improve city services.

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Meanwhile, the Venezuelan founder of the tech-based, English-language school OpenEnglish feted tech movers at his poolside South Beach condo.

Last week, Microsoft announced the opening of its first US-based technology innovation center at the new downtown entrepreneurial training center and startup Venture Hive. ‘‘We look at Miami as a great hub for technology from the Southern US perspective,’’ said a Microsoft vice president, Sanket Akerkar. ‘‘It’s a great destination in and of itself, and then you add that it’s a gateway to Latin America.’’

Manny Medina, the former owner of a data services company he sold to Verizon for $1.4 billion in 2012, is behind the tech conference eMerge Americas that kicked off Friday, mixing investors and startups.The global nonprofit Endeavor has also become a catalyst. It has long matched small companies with its network of investors and Fortune 500 mentors in the developing world. It opened its first US office here last fall.

‘‘What’s missing is a robust public agenda,’’ County Commissioner Juan Zapata said. ‘‘What area of town do we want to draw these companies to? What educational goals?’’

South Florida lacks famous universities and the critical mass of computer engineers and investors found in Silicon Valley, Boston, and New York.

Toward that end, the region’s universities are partnering with new institutions like Venture Hive, where the Microsoft center will be located. The Hive was launched in 2013 and houses 35 mostly tech startups.

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Luring big investors, though, remains the challenge.

‘‘You start by changing the mindset,’’ Medina said. ‘‘Begin bringing people to Miami thinking technology, not thinking ‘I’m going to go shopping.’ ’’