By Riley Kaminer
When people talk about Silicon Valley’s tech ecosystem, they are almost always thinking about the wider region, not an individual city or town. The reality is that in Miami we have a similar phenomenon: a diverse region of founders spanning across three counties – even though the spotlight often shines on the Magic City.
Perhaps one of the most innovative within this region is Boca Raton, a city that’s closer to a cutting-edge university town than its sleepy-retirement reputation might have you believe.
In her almost two decades living in Boca Raton, Maria Hernandez has been at the center of this innovation hub. While there, she has held a wide range of tech roles, most notably as Chief Innovation Officer for IBM’s Latin American division. She eventually joined Modernizing Medicine early on through a strategic deal between the (then) startup and IBM, before launching her own consulting firm.
Hernandez’s passion for Boca’s tech community led her to become the city’s Innovation Strategist, a role she assumed this summer. We caught up with Hernandez to hear about her experience thus far, learn about the progress she’s already made, and get her thoughts on Boca’s place in South Florida’s tech ecosystem.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
What does it mean to be Boca’s Innovation Strategist? What do you hope to accomplish in this role?
The Innovation Office was put in place to continue to position the city of Boca Raton as a leading technology hub for developing tech companies through the creation of programs and partnerships. Our ultimate goal is to increase the growth of technology jobs – attracting investors and companies who want to work, live, and play within the city. I hope to bring stronger collaboration within the ecosystem as well as spearhead some new initiatives to retain and attract more companies, investors, and talent into this great city.
I was attracted to this role because I’ve been embedded into this tech ecosystem for a while. I have been an FAU Tech Runway mentor for nine years, for example. Having been with IBM, it made sense for me to bring my skills and experience within the ecosystem to this role.
What initiatives are you currently working on or are most excited about?
I’m only 6 weeks into the role, so much more to come and I’m still formulating a plan. But in the short time I’ve been here, I’ve started to focus on a few initiatives.
1) Gathering data to understand the landscape of companies and VC investments that have been made into startups in the city.
2) Creating an ecosystem map, identifying resources and mapping them to each stage of a startup’s lifecycle. That will make it easier for entrepreneurs to navigate our ecosystem to get help they need.
3) Bringing the ecosystem closer together by spearheading a roundtable to share best practices and coordinate efforts. Top of mind is working together to create a holistic plan and activities for Global Entrepreneurship Week. There’s strength in numbers, so we need to collaborate with each other.
4) Putting an additional focus on second stage companies so that we have a strong pipeline of companies moving from early stage to second stage and then to later stage.
5) Lastly, focusing on women founders, and bringing a peer-to-peer group together to help and support each other through their entrepreneurial journey. Statistics show that women founders are not getting funded at the same rate as male funders. I plan to create initiatives to change that.
What are your thoughts on the rapid growth of South Florida’s tech ecosystem? What role does Boca Raton play?
It’s terrific to see the growth of South Florida’s tech ecosystem. It’s about time, as we’ve been building and strengthening the ecosystem over the years. Now we’re becoming more visible with tech startup successes.
Investors and talent are relocating and discovering South Florida as a great place to live and do business. Boca has the resources from three university campuses, incubators and accelerators, a Research Park, and so much more – as well as a city government committed to support and harness this growth. The Boca Raton Innovation Campus is also a huge attraction. Not many cities have a facility of that magnitude.
Innovation is a journey, and we’ve firmly gone down that road in the region. I think there’s more work to do so we can not just work as isolated cities but rather come together as a region. That way, we’ll all become more visible and attract even more companies, talent, and investors to move here.
I’m also looking at potentially declaring some centers of excellence for Boca, like Miami has for crypto and the blockchain. More to come on that!
What resources does Boca’s innovation ecosystem need?
Like most ecosystems, we’re looking to attract more sources of venture capital funding for our startups. That, alongside talent, are two of the key challenges we hear from local startups.
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