YES, the tech innovation scene is alive and kicking in the Caribbean! But…

This is a response to Michelle Marius blog post from her blog ICT-Pulse.com, where she asked – Is the tech innovation scene is alive and kicking in the Caribbean?

As someone who has been an 8 year pioneer in helping to build the Jamaican and Caribbean Startup Ecosystem, I can say categorically that YES, the tech innovation scene is very much alive and kicking. It is still very much emerging like that of Africa, so while we have begun the process, and progress has been made, we have a long way to go and this is going to be a process that is beyond political election cycles, beyond the length of international development agency contracts and programmes. If we are seeking to do it right and I believe we are, it will require a clear vision, all hands on deck and the grit, to play what is, a long game.

Through my organisation Connectimass we kickstarted Jamaica’s Startup Movement and Scene in February 2007, with the first every tech community meetup in the country and the Caribbean- it’s called Kingston BETA. Since then, we’ve had over 60 events, over 6000 attendees from 5 Caribbean countries, guests from Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley plus over 200 aspiring and current entrepreneurs have pitched their ideas on its stage.  Through our 8 year old Caribbean Tech News Blog SiliconCaribe.com we also have been a platform of information, connection, helping to chronicle the who has been doing what across the Caribbean Tech and Startup Ecosystem.

So my frame of reference is going to be from 2007 until now and since then, I’ve witnessed alot happening across the region. Also, this  blog post will show a clear bias for a bottom up – community driven strategy for ecosystem development.

Ok with the context out of the way, here is what I know, what I believe and how I see things.

What is the Vision?
We have to ask ourselves what are we working towards, what do we want to achieve and why? We in the Caribbean, nation by nation and maybe even collectively. This vision, has to come from us, from within, and it has to be about how so we as a region, want to leverage this Digital Age, this time of unprecedented access, possibility and entrepreneurship – to raise our social status and economic output, to increase our global competitiveness – by embracing a digital mindset, encouraging and facilitating disruption and innovation across all sectors, from our current and aspiring entrepreneurs and businesses.

We at ConnectiMass, we believe that Tech Entrepreneurship Can create Economic and Social Change and so our mission, is to put a dent in the high unemployment rate and digital skills gap among our youth and women. We have been working our process by primarily Inspiring, Connecting and Training individuals by providing Content, Community and Events. And God knows we have become very aware, how one helluva process it is and will continue to be, yet we are fully committed to it.

caribbeantechnologyEverything is a Process
Michelle said in her blog post, that while the event  OECS Business Solutions Think Tank & Hackathon, had over 100 attendees, 11 prototypes submitted by 11 teams in the hackathon – over the past year or so, the number of and software application development and tech innovation-related competitions across the Caribbean seemed to have dwindled. Yes and here’s why I think that’s the case.

It seems we are peaking at the hype phase of our Ecosystem Development process and thank God if this is so. By the hype phase I mean this – Entrepreneurship, Startups and Innovation have been major buzzwords for a while and has spawned a global movement, a fundamental shift. In the Caribbean we’ve seen this, read about it and also been brought projects  in by others, that speak to it. That seeped into the consciousness of alot of people, ao that spike in hackathons, mobile apps competition, conferences and festivals I believe came from the initial place of excitement and openness to the possibilities – but also alot of me-too-ness. Everybody was having one, and for whatever short term reason. Nothing wrong with it all generally, it’s a start, but I believe that a clear vision, a blueprint and the grit to go the distance – is going to make all the difference. We’re talking about a game-changing shift for every single Caribbean nation.

When it all comes down to it, I’d always preferred to focus on what drives progress, than what is popular at the moment- because this business of a startup ecosystem – is a process. Alot of Caribbean countries from Jamaica, to Trinidad to Aruba has said that they want to be the Startup/Innovation/Entrepreneurship Hub of the Caribbean. That’s great, but it has been and going to continue to be a really long slog. And only the entrepreneurs, community leaders, non profits, governments with the political will to change policies; university and private sector allies – who have the vision, resources and guts to play the long game – will win. And then what is the win that they seek?!

caribbeanstartupecosystemStatus of the Ecosystem and What’s Needed
So even as the Caribbean Startup Ecosystem is emerging and some Caribbean countries are more ahead in the development process (Jamaica,Trinidad, Dom Rep for example), there is alot more to do.

Countries like Jamaica are ahead, at this moment anyway, in terms of Startup/Creative/Developer Community Development; Capacity and Community Building Events such as meetups and Startup Weekends, Angel Networks, a Venture Capital Conference and Research; a university based incubator; a government-led accelerator; production of conferences and regional hackathons –  it still sucks in a few things.

There is the ease of doing business, mentorship networks, unclear overall vision for Entrepreneurship and Innovation from government with early defined roles, not to mention their over reaching into areas they have no business in. Then we have business leaders who have not fully leaned in beyond talk and every now and again sponsorship. There are no true coworking spaces either.

Trinidad has been pushing rapidly with their startup community development thanks to LaunchRocket via Startup Weekends, plus they have Co-working spaces and a range of events. And countries such as Martinique, Aruba, St Kitts have launched their own Events as well as Barbados, Dominican Republic, Dominica, Grenada.

That said, The shopping list of needs for the continued development of the Caribbean Startup Ecosystem looks like this:
-Each Country must craft a clear vision of Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Digital Age and create a blueprint.
-Each Caribbean Country must seek to have a strong startup communit. This is likely to be made up of a number of clusters for Entrepreneurs, College grads, Creatives, Developers etc.
-More Hubs, Coworking Spaces, Accelerators
-More Events, Events, Events – Meetups, Networking, Workshops, CodeSprints
-A clearly defined Role for Private Sector
-A clearly defined Role for Government
-Role of Academia/ Schools
-Role of Funders Who Get it
-Role of Mentors Who Really Want to

So things are developments and countries are at various stages.

kbcommunityphoto-300x212The Power of Community – Connection and Storytelling
Let me share with you, what I’ve learnt from doing 8 years of Kingston BETA and blogging right here at SiliconCaribe.com, being involved as a co-creator, speaker and attendee of so many type of events across the region. Nothing beats the power of connection and storytelling.

That’s why when you get the right people in the room at your events, so that connection and collaboration  happens – the results are stunning! Entrepreneurs find co-founders and project mates, attendants get inspired and new startups are formed; the culture of experimentation, sharing and collaborating grows; mindsets and cultures are transformed and that’s just the beginning. When people can meet others who have done it before or are pitching to do it – it feels like you are on a journey with like minds and that is so, so important.

Additionally, I’m  an unapologetic believer, that meetups, startup weekends, hackathons, pitch competitions, mobile apps competitions, workshops geared towards tech entrepreneurship and innovation –  must be planned, executed and hosted primarily by entrepreneurs, developers and community leaders. The difference in the results are always glaring.

Also, having written almost 1000 articles over the last couple of years about entrepreneurs, startups, initiatives and events, there is nothing again like when an aspiring and current innovators read or hear what others are doing and how. This single blog has created a point of conversation, controversy, information sharing and inspiration and helped to connect so many people across the region that I can’t count the number of emails and calls we’ve gotten about this. So thanks to all those the scores of people, who’ve also contributed their insights here.

The power of creating platforms that facilitate connection and storytelling is immeasurable.

Again I recommend anyone who is already part of building the Caribbean’s Startup Ecosystem and who wants to be – to read that book by Brad Feld- “Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City”. You will gain greater perspective and also be inspired to maybe craft you own unique vision for your organisation and country. So onwards and upwards my fellow Caribbean people we have alot of great work to do.

SIDE BAR: An Ecosystem Map + Manifesto To Come
Since I’ve been a tech entrepreneur and also helping to build the Caribbean Startup Ecosystems these past 8 years, been in the trenches creating and helping to kickstart other startup, developer and creative communities; built hundreds of key relationships across the region on all levels, consult with government and development agencies – I’ve been gathering alot of data and I’ve been gaining some insight into what we’re doing right and what we can do better at.
I now have a growing ecosystem map and been working on a manifesto as well. So many people have contributed to this and continue to do so. I will share those with everyone soon enough.  Onwards and Upwards!

Further Reading

The Caribbean is one big startup ghetto!? Do we follow Dave McClure’s (500 Startups) argument, or not?

SiliconCaribe.com’s Top Caribbean Startups to Watch in 2015