An Innovation Snapshot of Medellin, Colombia

Opinion

As we fly over Cuba en route from Fort Lauderdale to Medellin, I am already imbibing the upcoming culture change from the happy chaos at the departure gate in Florida. The plane is surprisingly not full and my fellow passengers, primarily Hispanics, are in a sleepy good mood. We will be arriving at 1am and I have to navigate a taxi or Uber to the hotel. From my quick research, Medellin is a progressive city of 3 million, about a mile above sea level and being just about at the equator, temperate year round. It is the only city in Colombia with a bike share program, and I am looking forward to touring the city on bike over the weekend.

I am attending the first TTS Latin America conference [Editor’s note: the conference took place November 15-16] and will be speaking about my experience as Managing Director of the Office of Technology Development at Boston University. (The conference is part of the TTS Global Initiative, an effort to accelerate life sciences and biomedical research “from the lab to the patient and the market.”) There are almost 200 people registered, and I hope to meet many South American university technology transfer practitioners. I am arriving just a few weeks after Colombians voted against a peace agreement with the separatist FARC movement, their version of Brexit or the unexpected election of Trump. I am particularly interested in learning how Medellin is transforming itself from the illegal drug distribution capital of Colombia to an entrepreneurial hotbed.

Airport was clean and staff very friendly. Consistent advice from people working at the airport was to take a taxi rather than an Uber. The taxi driver didn’t speak English but was able to read the address of the hotel on my phone. Rickety Hyundai that he drove at breakneck speed along windy and hilly roads. Beautiful view of Medellin as we descended into the valley from the mountain top. The driver accepted payment in US$. At 2am the city is hopping with nightlife. The nighttime temperature was a pleasant 70 degrees.

Over the next couple of days of sightseeing I was impressed by the quality of the public infrastructure. A metrorail ran for about 15 miles along the spine of the valley with mini-buses running up the hills on either side. The cost was proportional to the distance travelled and was approximately $1 per ride. Taxis are abundant and cheap; even a taxi ride from one side of the city to the other was $5. Uber was readily available but hard to arrange pickups not knowing Spanish and the drivers not understanding map locations. The economy appears to be strong, with retail diversity: hawkers selling peanuts for 30 cents to high end stores at malls. Christmas decorations were going up everywhere, and I heard that Medellin has a world-renowned Christmas light display. Apartment buildings in gated communities were spreading up the mountain everywhere. I was told that a 3-bedroom apartment in a top building went for $300,000, which I confirmed on the Internet. Boston’s cost of living is 162 percent higher than Medellin, according to www.expatistan.com.

Infrastructure and cost of living are huge advantages, but in order to expand tourism they will need more English speakers. The 5-star hotels, top restaurants, taxi drivers rarely had any English speakers. I had a particularly hilarious exchange with the restaurant in my excellent hotel when trying to get tea to go, and ended up with café con leche in a cup. The most popular tourist destination was Parque Arvi, a 1700-acre state park about 2,000 feet above the city that took two cable car journeys to reach. The first cable car was part of the Metro and flew over the Medellin version of a favela, or slum. The homes were densely packed in terraced rows up the hill. Unlike the favelas in Rio de Janeiro, the structures were of better construction and had roads traversing through. Minibuses made their way up these roads with barely 6 inches clearance on either side. The second cable car took us over the top of the mountain and dense forest to the park entrance. There were mainly local people there on a holiday long weekend, with a handful of tourists. There was a farmer’s market at the entrance that was well organized.

The city was surprisingly clean and orderly for an emerging metro with a GDP per capita of about $12,000. By comparison, New Delhi in India has a similar GDP per capita but is chaotic and undeveloped as compared to Medellin. As one would expect, the city was moving from houses to high-rise apartment buildings. The further up the hill you went the better the gated apartment complexes. The favela was the opposite: the higher up the hill, the shabbier the dwellings. There was a thriving small business ecosystem in manufacturing and retail. The infamous drug trade was not visible aside from police shaking down small groups of young adults who I was told were selling marijuana.

From 1960 to 2003, Colombian GDP grew from $4B to $94B (average increase of $2B annually). From 2003 to 2014, GDP grew to $378B (average annual increase of $26B). In 1999, Colombia was Latin America’s fifth Largest economy and had a GDP per capita of only $5,500; however it surpassed Argentina to become Latin America’s third largest economy, and the world’s 27th largest in 2013. Poverty levels were as high as 63 percent in 1999, but decreased to under 25 percent by 2014. This economic turnaround was a result of IMF-driven reforms. Colombia suffered a major recession in the late 1990s, and as a condition of IMF loans reformed its economy, including floating its exchange rate.

TTS Latin America is hosted by the University of Antioquia, the state university located in Medellin, which is the largest city in the state. TTS LatAm replicates the template of the TTS Asia, TTS Europe, and TTS North America conferences organized by Christian Suojanen and Morris Berrie. I have participated as a speaker in past TTS events in Paris and Singapore and have found them to be well organized and highly relevant to the host countries. My fellow speakers came from Colombia, Spain, and Chile, as well as U,S .universities (Stanford, Miami), companies (Roche, Colgate-Palmolive) and VC firms (Bay City Capital). The audience, of about 200, was primarily from Colombian universities though there was one local VC.

The level of discourse was not dissimilar to those in other parts of the world, and in fact I found two patented research projects at University of Antioquia to be promising, both led by women research faculty. The local VC industry is … Next Page »

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Vinit Nijhawan was Managing Director, Office of Technology Development at Boston University where he launched 8 venture-backed spinoffs. Vinit teaches MBA courses on Entrepreneurship at BU Questrom School of Business, over 350 students have taken his courses. Follow @vinit44

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