Innovation in Tijuana: Eager for the Future, Hampered by the Past

6/3/14Follow @samquinones7

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large, educated middle-class, and people who’ve come to Tijuana are often looking to the future. Their efforts include a partnership with HardTech Labs, a San Diego accelerator program established recently to give startup founders access to low-cost manufacturing in Tijuana.

“Every day there are more people that I know getting into startups,” said Franco, whose Beta version of Matchap was being prepared for a “Demo Day” presentation set for the end of May, along with two other product ideas that MindHub has fostered.

Of course, MindHub is not the only organization formed in recent years to cultivate Tijuana’s entrepreneurial effervescence. Endeavor and Tribu Emprendedora are two others. And Hub Station, on Tijuana’s Avenida Revolucion tourist drag, recently opened to provide a space for U.S. companies to collaborate with Tijuana engineers.

Still, Elias said, “we’re just beginning, and I’d say that characterizes the quality of the ideas as well. Most are copies of ideas that already exist in some other part of the world, but are adapted to the Mexican market.

“We’re still working to open the entrepreneurial mind to think globally. We can start locally but think globally.”

To that end, MindHub is aiming to start Mind University, offering classes in problem solving and business solutions for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Financing is another problem. Over the decades, a wealthy class formed in Tijuana that made its money selling and renting land to maquiladoras—the squat foreign-owned assembly plants that put together everything from car parts to appliances and Bluetooth headphones. But these investors got used to almost guaranteed returns, and are risk-averse when it comes to investing in technology.

“We have to either educate them or cultivate their children who’ve been educated in the U.S. and speak our language,” Elias said. “What we need are success stories. We need more adventurous investors who say, `I’m willing to invest, run the risk, to generate the ideas that can succeed to show others that this can produce good returns on investment.’ This is happening but not at the speed we need.”

The MindHub experiment encapsulates much about high-tech in Tijuana: bursting with energy and eager for the future, while hamstrung by the past.

Even the lot where the MindHub building stands embodies where the city is going and where it’s been. Across the lot from the building, with its rooms of tech-educated 20-somethings slouched at computer flat screens, is a house where a family has raised fighting roosters since the 1920s— 150 birds in all.

Elias at times has been talking on the phone with clients, while the roosters crow in the background.

“They’ll hear it and say, `Where are you? Are you on a ranch? I say, `I’m in the city,’” Elias said.

Sometimes, he said, “it feels like when this was Rancho Tia Juana.”

Sam Quinones is a former Los Angeles Times reporter. You can reach him at samquinones7@yahoo.com or www.samquinones.com Follow @samquinones7

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