Here are our picks for some of the biggest stories of the year.
By Nancy Dahlberg and Riley Kaminer
Pivotal, explosive, momentous, and yes, hype-filled all describe the year #MiamiTech just dropped, a year like none other, as hundreds of founders and investors from the Bay Area and NYC made the Miami area their home. The tech momentum kicked off by Mayor Francis Suarez’s famous “How can I help?” tweet in December 2020 only accelerated on multiple fronts as the year went on, with national and international tech media taking notice of our little tropical paradise for the first time. But at Refresh Miami, we’ve been bringing together the community and chronicling #MiamiTech stories since the early days, so here, in no particular order, are some of our biggest stories, themes, events and milestones of the #MiamiTech rocketship that was 2021.
Crypto, NFT, and blockchain enthusiasts descend upon Miami
This year, Miami made big strides in the race to become a cryptocurrency capital.
The flagship event of this year’s crypto scene was the Bitcoin conference in June. 12,000 crypto enthusiasts flocked to Wynwood to catch a glimpse of everyone from Jack Dorsey, Anthony Pompliano, and the Winklevoss twins to Tony Hawk and Indy Car executives. During the conference, El Salvador’s president announced that the country would move to make Bitcoin legal tender. That news will be hard to beat, but something tells us that next year’s Bitcoin conference (April 6-9th) is up to the challenge, with organizers already expecting upwards of 35,000 attendees.
Miami also made it into the global spotlight for MiamiCoin, a cryptocurrency that aims to bring revenue to the city and promote citizen engagement in the process. MiamiCoin has already added over $24 million to the city’s coffers. In November, Mayor Suarez announced that residents will receive a dividend from these proceeds (in cryptocurrency, of course), but few details have been released so far.
There has also been a score of good news for Miami-based startups and scaleups active in the crypto space. The homegrown QuickNode has helped hundreds of companies and developers set up on the blockchain and counts Alexis Ohanian, SoftBank and Tiger as backers. ‘PayPal for crypto’ MoonPay landed a $555 million Series A (no, that’s not a typo) at an eye-watering $3.4 billion valuation. Crypto hedge fund Orca Capital moved to Miami and now has $60 million under management. Two crypto education platforms launched in the Magic city: Defy Trends and BitcoinHub.
Meanwhile, Miami’s NFT space also heated up this year. Art Basel week saw a proliferation of NFT events, exploring the nexus of art and technology. At the inaugural NFT BZL, put on by Mana Tech and sponsors, FTX Arena was teeming with crypto-curious entrepreneurs, investors, artists, and more (see photo at top of post). Mana Tech’s Michelle Abbs says NFT BZL will be back in 2022.
The Shrimp Society, a local organization for early-stage tech entrepreneurs, launched an NFT project and unveiled an NFT-themed mural in Wynwood. Faraway, a blockchain-based gaming studio, scored a $21 million Series A. NFT studio OnChain raised a $7.5 million seed round led by Andreessen Horowitz to develop an interactive toy, gaming and entertainment universe built on the blockchain. RECUR grabbed a $50 million Series A to help brands design and develop NFT experiences. Meanwhile, Meta4 launched a fund – with Andreessen Horowitz as a lead backer – that will invest in historical and collectible NFTs. And up in West Palm Beach, art collectors and dealers came together at the Norton to discuss the impact of NFTs on the art market.
Mayor Suarez launches Venture Miami
Mayor Francis Suarez’s now famous Dec. 4, 2020 “How can I help?” tweet that brought in hundreds of investors and techies into Miami was the rallying cry and the MVP, but how do you ensure the momentum continues? You build a team.
The mayor’s Venture MIami was born in February, headed by Saif Ishoof, FIU’s VP of Engagement and Miami’s unofficial “connector-in-chief” and including the mayor’s Senior Advisor for Innovation and Technology, Kevin Ruiz of the Miami Downtown Development Authority, Melissa Krinzman, Miami’s first VC in residence and City of Miami CIO Mike Sarasti. Since then advisors for Miami Dade County and the area’s universities were added to the team. The mayor’s platform includes near-daily cafecito talks, creation or sponsorship of new programs like the recent Venture Miami Opportunity Program, resource sharing, data gathering, social media and more, much of it orchestrated by his Venture Miami office.
Charting the rise of fintech
Move over healthtech! There’s a new sector in town that has exploded in 2021: fintech. For the first time in South Florida, fintech overtook healthtech as this year’s most active sector in terms of venture capital raised – both in dollars and by number of deals.
We can’t possibly highlight all the developments – there were far too many – but here are a few. Bank Novo, an online bank focused on small businesses, opened a major office in Miami before announcing a $40.7 million Series A fundraising round led by Peter Thiel-founded Valar Ventures. Around the same time, the former CEO of PayPal launched a new consumer banking venture in Miami. Meanwhile Milo, a Miami-based digital banking and home mortgage startup, raised $6 million in seed funding. And Technisys, which offers a digital banking platform already used by 100 million customers across 16 countries, closed a $50 million Series C financing round.
Lula, a homegrown Miami startup that is shaking up the insurance space, landed a $18M Series A round co-led by Founders Fund and Khosla Ventures in July. British/Californian startup Pipe, which helps SaaS startups transform their recurring revenue into upfront capital for scaling, made Miami its home in late 2020 but saw massive growth in 2021, raising $250 million of funding in May.
Miami’s position as a bridge between Latin America and the US played a large role in the city’s fintech success this year. Finconecta spearheaded expansion efforts this year, making it easier for traditional banks to deploy cutting-edge tech tools. Challenger bank Fortú raised $5 million to develop digital banking products for Latino and Hispanic US residents. Colombian-founded hiring and payments startup Ontop raised $20 million from Tiger Global and Point72 Ventures. And Swedish fintech MAJORITY put down roots in South Florida this year to develop its suite of banking products focused on immigrants. Check out what Marco is doing to help small and medium exporters in the region, too.
Of course, the South Florida fintech space still has a ways to go before competing with hubs like New York, San Francisco, and London. But this sector is top of our list as one to watch for next year.
Signs of our times
The Miami billboards in San Francisco may have helped, but if you looked it wasn’t hard to see signs of Miami’s momentum. They were everywhere. A few of them:
Founders Fund and Atomic put down stakes: In March, we reported that iconic venture capital funds Founders Fund, Atomic’s venture studio and Founders Fund General Partner Keith Rabois’ e-commerce startup, OpenStore, had leased a significant chunk of Class A office space at the Annex in Wynwood. Calling the moves “proof that Miami is well on the way to becoming the capitol of capital,” Mayor Suarez said at the time: “I am excited about all of the opportunities for impact that will be unlocked for founders, job seekers and innovators as a result of the arrival of these iconic firms to Miami.”
OpenStore itself is a sign. OpenStore’s CEO and co-founder Keith Rabois, a recent arrival that is one of Miami’s biggest fans, has said he wanted to prove what could be built in Miami. OpenStore, launched this spring, has raised $105 million and is reportedly valued at $750M. A requirement is that the entire team is in Miami, bucking the remote-first trend, and the startup plans to triple its workforce to about 150 over the next year (and may be relocating to a larger space)
FTX buys naming rights to Miami Heat arena. There’s your sign.
More signs went up — or are soon to — on offices and in co-working spaces as #MiamiTech welcomed a flood of new investors, founders and tech startups this year. Some of the relocation or expansion stories we covered included Swagup, Eight Sleep, Silicon Valley Bank, Red 6, Pareto Holdings, Blockchain.com, Okcoin, eToro, Introhive, SeedInvest, Zilch, Teal, Zumper, 100.co, SelfDecode, StatusPro, CourMed, DNALabs — too many to list. Another positive sign: The homegrown Papa built out quite the HQ in the heart of Miami and moved in this summer – see it here.
Marquee player coming soon – Microsoft’s new regional hub: The tech giant is leasing about 50,000 square feet at 830 Brickell, the city’s newest Class A office tower now under construction. It will be home to Microsoft’s Latin America team as the company’s regional hub.
Cranking up the celebration, building community
It started with Miami Tech Life. Demian Bellumio’s weekend boating outings and bike rides that brought newcomers and OGs together spawned massive WhatsApp and Telegram chat groups that have taken on lives of their own. It’s no doubt quality of life may have i attracted our initial techodus residents-to-be but it would be community that would keep them here. Many efforts followed, including a quickly organized Miami Tech Week in April.
Then came the inaugural Miami Hack Week, August 2021: Perhaps steamy August during a pandemic wasn’t the ideal month to launch a big event, but don’t tell that to #MiamiTech. Community builder extraordinaire Ja’dan Johnson, Lucy Guo and Dave Fontenot of Backstage Capital, and hacker house hosts pulled it off as if Miami had been doing this for years. Parties and celebrations, yes, but there was also serious – and award-winning – hacking going on. In all, about 500 techies participated, with some flying in and checking out the scene.
Next came Miami Art Week, usually all about the art. Not in 2021! “Techbasel” included 150 tech events this year, from happy hours, parties and a Tech Insiders brunch for 750 people to full-blown conferences NFT BZL by Mana Tech, La Casa by eMerge Americas and Florida Funders, 500 Global’s PreMoney and more. Felt like the energy of the earlier years of SXSW, some said (with, sigh, more traffic). “We helped to create a unique space for tech events during Art Basel and received a phenomenal response from the community,” Johnson said,
Miami Hack Week, the 2022 edition, returns Jan. 23-30, with many more Hacker Houses planned and 1,000 hackers expected. Will Techbasel be back in 2022? “1,000% yes,” says Johnson. Look out for Miami Tech Week April 17-24 with Serena Williams keynoting eMerge Americas, too.
Hey, #MiamiTech includes Broward and Palm Beach, too!
While #MiamiTech might be the hashtag, the growth in our tech scene was undeniably regional. Broward and Palm Beach Counties both saw significant growth this past year in their tech sectors. Two of the most prominent regional tech organizations, Tech Hub South Florida and TechLauderdale merged to form South Florida Tech Hub.
This year also featured the launch, growth, and expansion of various regional hotspots for innovation. Nova Southeastern University, in conjunction with Broward County, launched the Levan Center this year (pictured below). This 54,000 square foot tech hub, based near Fort Lauderdale, features a focus on space tech, a military-grade cybersecurity range, an AV studio, a range of programming for entrepreneurs, and more.
At Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, the Global Ventures program continued to welcome international scaleups looking to increase their US footprint. In Juno Beach, FPL doubled down on South Florida’s startup scene with its 35 Mules incubator program.
Mitigating the risks of climate change was a particular focus for a few Palm Beach startups. NEPTUNYA Ocean Power started making waves in Boca Raton with their goal of harnessing the power of the ocean to create clean, renewable energy. Another startup in Boca Raton, Carbon Limit, is designing tools for carbon capture and storage. And West Palm Beach startup SustainaBase has amassed an impressive roster of clients for its carbon emissions tracking platform.
Throughout the year, companies from Hallandale Beach to Jupiter closed record levels of funding. Boynton Beach-based Corellium secured $25 million to help companies keep their digital devices safe. Boca Raton cannabis tech startup Springbig announced its plans to go public via SPAC. EdTech startup Nearpod was acquired for $650 million and expects to keep its headquarters in Dania Beach.
Some key players in the Broward and Palm Beach tech scenes continued to grow rapidly. Hollywood-based ClassWallet grew 700%. Premier Virtual organized its biggest virtual careers fair yet this year. Under the helm of Lil Roberts, Xendoo’s bookkeeping platform now helps small businesses in 46 states and 12 countries. And Boatsetter, the ‘Airbnb of boats,’ launched new offerings focused on fishing and luxury experiences.
Here’s to more northerly momentum in 2022!
Tech talent: From talk to action
This fall, the Miami Downtown Development Authority reported that 11 new companies collectively have committed to create 1,069 jobs in the next two or thrree years as part of its Follow the Sun incentives campaign. What’s more, Blackstone Group is adding 200 mostly tech jobs in Miami, Miami-based REEF plans to add 1,000+ local jobs in the next few years, Ingram Micro Cloud will be doubling its Miami area workforce to 400 next year, Globant plans 150 new tech jobs here and new startups like Traba have big plans to scale. Would there be enough talent to fill all these jobs?
The conversation about Miami tech talent moved from talk to action. The Knight Foundation was one of the first to throw in major support, funding Florida International University and University of Miami to develop more programs to meet Miami’s tech talent needs. FIU will receive $10 million to expand what will soon be known as the Knight Foundation School of Computing and Information Sciences and UM will receive $4.3 million to grow its Institute of Data Science and Computing.
Knight also funded CodePath, which aims to increase diversity in computer science and engineering by offering software engineering courses and career services, free to students, that complement their computer science curricula and better prepare students for competitive internships and software engineering roles at leading tech companies. And And there’s more to come from Knight, says Raul Moas, Knight’s Miami program director,
SoftBank teamed up with FIU, UM and MDC to offer its SoftBank Operator School. Focused on developing the skills that tech startups need, the semester-long program in the fall offered for-credit classes and workshops taught by university faculty and an accompanying masterclass series featuring top entrepreneurs in Miami and Latin America (the community was invited to masterclasses as well).The investment giant also brought data science programs to the Magic City.
Also in 2021, one of the country’s largest student hackathons took place and a microintership program launch. Then in December at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson downtown campus, Miami-Dade County, the City of Miami and Florida International University,, Miami Dade College, University of Miami and Florida Memorial hosted a massive Venture Miami Tech Hiring Fair. More than 500 job seekers came out, many applying for jobs on the spot.
Not another Silicon anything, thank you
While a tech hub is developing, multiple groups are working to help make sure it is inclusive ecosystem, not one that is only for tech bros. According to the recently released REDI (racial equity, diversity and inclusion) Scorecard by aire ventures, Miami still has much work to do. One of the most important findings for Leigh-Ann Buchanan, CEO of aire ventures, is that women entrepreneurs and Black leaders lack the effective support needed to thrive. In particular, the Scorecard noted the need to increase access to capital. That’s also an issue Jeanine Suah highlighted so well here.
Fortunately, the Center for Black Innovation and Black Angels Miami, both supported by the Knight Foundation, are two groups working on this. CFBI also received a $500,000 grant from the City of Miami this year to support its efforts. What’s more, CFBIs co-founder Felecia Hatcher is leading Pharrell Wiliams’ new Black Ambition nonprofit, headquartered in Miami. Black Ambition will fund and support projects and companies started by Black and Latinx founders through a series of national prize competitions. Endeavor MIami launched EndeavorLAB cohorts and pitch competitions aimed at women and founders of color, and more recently, eMerge Americas launched The Startup Studio, a multiweek program for minority-founded startups, with City National Bank.
Inclusion is also one of the three focus areas of the Miami-Dade Beacon Council’s Opportunity Miami, a new economic development effort led by Matt Haggman. And this month, at a time when Miami’s ecosystem is growing at a record pace, a new national organization, Gender Equality in Tech (GET) Cities supported by philanthropist Melinda French Gates, will be setting up a hub in Miami to help ecosystem organizations achieve their shared mission of closing the disparity gap for women in technology.
“I think what we build in Miami can be a best practice and a model for other markets,” Buchanan said earlier this year. The work continues.
Venture capital soars in South Florida
The Miami movement powered an explosive year for venture capital in the MIami-Fort Lauderdale metro area.
The final numbers aren’t in yet and could go higher, but by my early estimations, South Florida companies may have raised over $5 billion in venture capital in 2021, more than doubling the record high previously set. The number of deals likely won’t have doubled but we will likely see at least a 60% increase, my early estimates show, which also signals the deals are getting bigger. The explosion of second half venture activity will pull Miami back into the top 10 metro areas by dollar volume. To be sure, this kind of venture escalation is also playing out in other emerging tech hubs around the country – the Rise of the Rest.
In South Florida, this boom played out with prominent funders like SoftBank, Founders Fund, Tiger Global, Khosla, Andreessen Horowitz and General Catalyst finding deals in the region that saw hundreds of investors and venture-backed startups relocating from the Valley and New York in the last year. For some, it was the first time betting on a Miami-based company. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s Capital of Capital is already bearing fruit in venture capital activity.
2021 was also marked the rise of crypto/blockchain funding (see also our crypto category)), with new and homegrown companies such as Moonpay’s meteoric Series A, and blockchain-focused QuickNode and Securitize luring sizable rounds. We also had a healthy dose of mega-deals, including Pipe, Healthcare.com and Papa, startups that also joined Miami’s unicorn herd this year, and OpenStore could be next. Magic Leap also pulled in a mega-round, signaling its enterprise strategy pivot is paying off.
How it started: SoftBank opened the year with Marcelo Claure announcing with Mayor Suarez an announced initiative to invest $100 million in Miami startups. At the time, it didn’t announce a timetable.
How it’s going: In October SoftBank announced it had already invested $250M and counting — that was before Papa and several other SoftBank-backed deals closed. SoftBank’s initiative invests not only in Miami-based companies but in startups significantly expanding here as well.
An active year for exits
After a few quiet years since Chewy’s 2017 exit, exit activity showed signs of life. Cyxtera and Appgate, two Manny Medina founded cybersecurity companies, went public in billion-dollar plus SPAC deals. We saw unicorn MDLIve — the telehealth player founded by Andrew Parker’s dad, Randy — get acquired by Cigna; Wyncode (BrainStation), SpeedETab (Wix) and Arora Project (Republic) also were acquired for undisclosed sums.
The year was bookended by two OG and very Miami deals: In January, the homegrown edtech Nearpod, founded in 2012 by three Argentine friends proving that they could scale without being in Silicon Valley, was acquired for $650 million. In December, the 100% bootstrapped EveryMundo, a pioneer in airfare marketing technology founded by a Russian-born immigrant raised in Cuba and Spain, was acquired for $90 million. Under their new owners, both companies, which together employ hundreds of people in South Florida, will continue supporting and adding jobs to the local economy.
Traffic still stinks, but new micromobility options soften the blow
Car traffic in South Florida returned to pre-pandemic levels in 2021. This omnipresent issue is top of mind when it comes to discussions about South Florida’s future as a tech hub. On the bright side, this year saw a flourishing of micromobility options and plans across the region.
The most hot-button topic in the mobility space this year was the City of Miami’s on-again-off-again relationship with seven micromobility providers. But that didn’t deter Lime, which doubled down on South Florida this year. Wheels also increased its presence in South Florida, expanding to Miami Lakes. California-based startup Swiftmile scooted in to provide charging stations for e-bike and e-scooter riders.
The Brightline, a high speed train line currently running between Miami and West Palm Beach, came back online in November after a year and a half long pandemic-induced slumber. E-bikes and scooters, along with shuttles and car transport, are also part of Brightline’s new services to get to and from the station.
Fort Lauderdale also featured in the mobility news this year, starting with Elon Musk’s Boring Co. and its plan to build a tunnel to alleviate gridlock. They have some competition, however: Silicon Valley startup Glydways also shared their vision for building multi-modal transportation to Broward County’s most congested area. Never one to miss out on the action, Mayor Suarez is also reportedly is in talks to bring Boring Co.’s innovations to Miami as well.
The sky’s the limit for mobility options in South Florida! Miami-based REEF Technology has partnered with Archer and Joby to provide vertiport space for air taxi services in the Magic City. Will this take off? We’ll see, likely in 2024.
At Refresh Miami. we were honored to bring you these stories and more (over 460 Refresh posts in 2021 alone!), chronicling a momentous year for #MiamiTech. As always you can find our coverage on Refreshmiami.com/news, where there is never a paywall, and you can sort stories by categories. such as “Fundraises and Exits” and “Relocations & Expansions.” What were our top-read stories of 2021? Glad you asked: Find them here.
We’re excited for what’s ahead for #MiamiTech. Bring on 2022!
In 2021 we lost an incredible MiamiTech entrepreneur, investor and friend, Aaron Hirschhorn. “To know Aaron was to love him. He gave of his time selflessly, always eager to help others in the community. While Aaron may no longer be with us, his memory and impact on this community live on. During Aaron’s funeral, his wife Karine put it best — ‘because of him, we are all better.” That’s what Refresh Miami’s Maria Derchi Russo wrote in a beautiful tribute that also included heartfelt remembrances of his friendship. generosity and impact by a number of fellow MiamiTechies.
Thank you for reading and supporting Refresh Miami this year. If you aren’t a subscriber to our free weekly newsletter, sign up here. Follow us on Twitter – @ndahlberg @rileywk @mariaderchi @refreshmiami – to keep up with the latest in #MiamiTech
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