Emerging Startup Scene Sparks Hope for Tech Renaissance in Tijuana

6/16/14Follow @samquinones7

In a large grey building that was once a supermarket, just south of Tijuana’s downtown, a group of some 50 of the city’s young aspiring entrepreneurs wait their turn to explain a business idea whose time, each feels, has surely come.

It’s Friday night. Many of the participants are business managers or professionals. They represent a young demographic that would, in just about any other city, be sampling the town’s nightlife. Instead, each takes a microphone, stands before the assembled software designers, engineers, graphic designers, and business students, and delivers a one-minute spiel.

One is an app for adopting trees around Tijuana. Another for teaching sex education. A third that ranks Tijuana doctors for Americans crossing the border for medical services. An app for finding one’s car. An app matching people who need blood with those willing to donate.

The presentations go on for half an hour, as ideas tumble from the participants. Some are good; some, not so much.

A presentation at Startup Weekend Tijuana

A presentation at Startup Weekend Tijuana

Welcome to Startup Weekend, a bi-annual event that many credit with helping to ignite a movement toward risk-taking and tech innovation in this city of 1.3 million people.

The event is part of an international nonprofit movement based in Seattle that brings innovative communities together to “inspire, educate, and empower” in what amounts to a high-tech barn-raising. Software developers, entrepreneurs, and others come together during a Startup Weekend event for a 54-hour effort to create a prototype, give a demo, or launch a company. The events have spread to more than 700 cities around the globe.

Tijuana held its first Startup Weekend in 2012. At that time, organizers touted it as the beginning of a new era of high-tech innovation in the biggest city on the Baja California peninsula. It followed the formation of the Tijuana Innovadora conference in 2010 to showcase the city and its high-tech aspirations. Amid all the promotional marketing, some found it easy to see the tech revolution in Tijuana as mostly hype.

But Startup Weekend, in fact, has done a lot to ignite many Tijuana residents, who seem to have been waiting for something like this to come around, say those close to the event.

“After that first one, there began to grow a real interest among people with ideas,” said Ulises Elias, an entrepreneur with MINDHub, a startup promoter, and a Startup Weekend organizer.

The concept of risk-taking that underlies the event resonated with Eilias and other Tijuana business and technology professionals.

Here, some of the greatest entrepreneurs were immigrants, risking their lives to cross a dangerous border for the promise of a better day. Startup Weekend is all about implanting a legal entrepreneurial culture.

During the event, organizers also put attendees through a 30-second merry-go-round—introducing themselves to each other—designed to foster the habit of pressing flesh.

“Software developers, in particular, are very introverted,” said Isabel Santos, a Startup Weekend organizer with Baja Valley Ventures, a firm that nurtures startups with products that can be commercialized through call centers. “They have a hard time meeting people. That’s why we force them to do it.”

The event came at a good time for Tijuana, and has helped to boost the local tech community in a variety of ways.

The historically shaky Mexican economy has instructed generations of young people and their parents that risk can be catastrophic. Given the devaluations and wild ups and downs of the nationwide economy during the 1970s-1990s, risk was something to be avoided at all costs. Thus it’s better to cling to a safe, if boring, job.

Tijuana, meanwhile, grew so fast for so long that people could make money without taking much risk. For years, setting up a curio shop and selling trinkets to tourists, or selling real estate to a maquiladora, were all but guaranteed healthy, sometimes astounding, returns on investment.

Both attitudes toward risk are anathema to developing the kind of entrepreneurial culture that high-tech innovation requires. But the odds for success seem to be better in Tijuana. With its proximity to San Diego and the rest of California, and the growing influence of its creative class, Tijuana may be the best-suited city in Mexico for developing a healthy respect for risk and for cultivating a supportive startup culture.

Tijuana has been changing in many ways, and a growing strain of entrepreneurship, particularly among the under-35 crowd, is one of them. The Avenida Revolucion tourist drag is now quietly being transformed into a hip home for boutiques, microbreweries, and restaurants owned by younger businesspeople. Elsewhere in Tijuana, aspiring young entrepreneurs are looking to tech for a future.

One person who’s watched the change is Francisco Gudiño. Gudiño won a Startup Weekend event in 2012 with an idea for a Mexican version of Yelp! He then threw himself into the project, attempting to find collaborators willing to take a risk and leave their steady jobs. He found none.

A year later, Gudiño halted his project, seeing that something else was needed first.

“I ended it to start a community, and open the idea of entrepreneurship to more people,” said Gudiño. “I felt a lot of apathy toward collaborating in projects.”

Since then, though, Startup Weekend has helped rouse people from the reluctance Gudiño perceived. Startup Weekend “was the beginning of what we’re seeing now” in tech, he said.

Gudiño now works for the city government, as chief of Tijuana “Innovation and Entrepreneurship,” a department just created by new mayor Jorge Astiazaran to provide skill instruction and support to the surging numbers of young entrepreneurs in Tijuana.

At the most recent Startup Weekend, the winning project was a virtual fitness training app—Tu Coach de Salud—that tracks an individual’s exercise and diet.

Yet a thicket of issues lie ahead for the creator of Tu Coach de Salud. The idea’s owner, Cynthia Cowan, will have to find developers to help her create a beta version of the app. Then somewhere down the road, maybe there’ll be financing.

For Tu Coach de Salud, as for Tijuana, Startup Weekend is just the beginning.

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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