Q&A with the Levan Center’s John Wensveen on creating connections across South Florida’s tech ecosystem

The leader of the ‘world’s first theme park for entrepreneurs’ shares his vision for an interconnected, international innovation hub

By Riley Kaminer

John Wensveen, the Executive Director of the Alan B. Levan | NSU Broward Center of Innovation and the Chief Innovation Officer at Nova Southeastern University, is more than a visionary leader. A year and a bit after the official launch of the Levan Center, it is clear that Wensveen prioritizes the execution of the innovation center’s ambitious mission just as much as planning it.

Of course, it’s far from “mission accomplished” for the Levan Center, which aims to have a local, regional, national, and even international impact. But it has already made many strides in helping to unite innovators from Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade – all with just six full-time employees.

We sat down with Wensveen to hear about the progress the Levan Center has made thus far, its future plans, and his vision for a unified South Florida innovation ecosystem.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Refresh Miami: Tell us about how the Levan Center has grown since you officially opened your doors in April 2022?

John Wensveen: In the last year, we have supported more than 100 entrepreneurs. We have generated more than 425 new jobs in South Florida indirectly as a result of the companies that we’re serving. We know that at least $6 million in new revenue has been generated by the early stage startup companies [that the Levan Center serves]. And we are fairly certain that over $2 million in investment dollars have been put into the startups that we are serving or have served – with commitments for another $2 million on top of that.

The numbers that we expect to see next year will be doubling and tripling and quadrupling depending on the category from where we started. And when you put those metrics together and compare ourselves to other innovation centers, the metrics that we’re producing here are usually not attained until year five or 10. So it shows you that we’re doing something right.

How has your programming for startups been going?

Well! We see the founder’s journey as four cycles: ideate, incubate, accelerate, post-accelerate. We have successfully completed multiple cohorts of ideate, incubate, and accelerate – almost 20 cohorts at this point, with a 99% completion rate. And all these programs are free, which is a really big deal.

In September, we plan to launch post-accelerate. It’s a completely unique and customized program for established companies that are primarily looking for a merger/acquisition, IPO, global expansion. We’re looking for companies that are Series A or B, well-established, with revenue, employees – and are ready for that next level of growth.

We’re also working on a new initiative called the 100 startup project. Our goal in the next fiscal year is to secure 100 startups scholarships of $5,000 each to the Levan Center for 12 months. We’ll give them a free workspace, access to our programs, events, wraparound services, and the networks that we’re affiliated with. The goal is to build their businesses to the next level depending on what stage they are at. Memorial Healthcare was the very first organization to step up, and they gave us $50,000 to identify 10 underserved entrepreneurs. That’s a great start – and we’re only two weeks in.

One of the most unique aspects of the Levan Center is your country desk model, which focuses on establishing partnerships with innovation nations from around the world. How many countries are involved now?

So far, we have the Cayman Islands, Dominican Republic, and the Kingdom of the Netherlands. We’re now negotiating terms with half a dozen more countries from Latin America and Europe. 

The ultimate goal is to identify innovative nations around the world that are growing entrepreneurial ecosystems. And this becomes the landing pad for those entrepreneurs in those countries where they can legally incorporate their company right here though the Levan Center and partake in our programs, events, and services. And then we help them with a successful US market entry. And we’re getting a lot of interest and when one country finds out that another country has done it, they want to know we get involved in this. So more to come on that for sure.

What are your thoughts on the state of South Florida’s tech scene these days?

It’s still hot. I don’t know if the ‘tech hub’ designation will ever happen – or if we even want it. We talk more about innovation hubs, because it’s an innovation hub that leads to the creation of these new technologies plus a whole lot of other things that align with our goals.

I do believe that because of the funding challenges that exist, it’s definitely slowing the momentum down. Like anything, it is going to have peaks and troughs. But I feel comfortable and confident that the whole scene is still a positive environment that’s just going to continue to grow overall. 

Traditionally, there have been walls between Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties. There really has not been any kind of organization that’s looked at each of these counties independently to link up where there’s an overlap of opportunity. The Levan Center is uniting all these stakeholders through the common goal of stimulating innovation.


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Riley Kaminer