Emerging Technologies in Colombia

Colombia Isn’t Just About…

One of the perks of this job is that I get to visit some very interesting places that one wouldn’t normally be able to justify visiting on purely commercial grounds, so this week I found myself in Medellín, Colombia for three days. It’s a city with a variety of reputations: many people still,associate it with Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels, while in the Spanish speaking world Medellin is famous for having the most beautiful women on the face of the earth.

So the city is changing, and Medellín is fast becoming a hotbed of technology, encouraged and facilitated by political support from City Hall, and this week playing host to the EmTech (Emerging Technology) conference organised by MIT’s Technology Review, and it’s a sell out!

From my perspective it’s one of the conferences I love to participate in – although I’m discussing nanotechnologies and 21st Century medicine there are others taking about smart cities, genomics, transportation, urban planning, gaming, education, and putting that all together in 48 hours offers would be entrepreneurs a glimpse into myriad future opportunities, but why on earth are all the business plans I see so unimaginative?

Let’s See Some Real Business

Every conference of this type has some kind of investor forum – it’s a good hook to get would be entrepreneurs to attend, and the venture capItal industry to sponsor an event – but sometimes it feels very much like the dotcom era all over again. Instead of taking advantage of the possibilities enabled by technological and social change, we get endless location based service ideas, localised versions of Facebook, online travel reservations systems and just about anything that a couple of smart guys with a laptop and no imagination can come up with. It’s not a Colombian problem – the entrepreneurs I  met were as lean & hungry as anywhere in Silicon Valley – but is more symptomatic of a general lack of ambition among digital startups.

The Venture Capital industry is partly to blame – their idea of an emerging technology is more of an emerging application, and it’s understandable as an Instagram is easier to sell for a billion dollars than a nanobio business, requires smart marketing rather than a development lab, and doesn’t have to spend years crawling through regulatory systems. It all sounds very attractive, apart from the fact that there is only room for one PayPal, Facebook or Salesforce.com, all the rest will always struggle and eventually fail – just look at Digg.

While there is no guarantee that any science based business will fare better, there are plenty of examples of companies which neither made it to the billion dollar IPO nor failed, and went on to provide a decent return for their investors.

It sometimes seems the web based business model is binary, but the rest of live in an analogue world.

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