Miami Tech & Startup News

Seen and heard at eMerge Americas: Thought leadership, new program announcements for the ecosystem - and we have winners

Seen and heard at eMerge Americas: Thought leadership, new program announcements for the ecosystem – and we have winners

By Nancy Dahlberg and Krysten Brenlla

As eMerge Americas wrapped up its 2022 edition with a full day of programming Tuesday, global titans of tech and innovation used the big stage to underscore the challenges ahead in navigating this unprecedented period of technological change, while local business and community leaders stepped up with announcements of programs and initiatives aimed at keeping the momentum going and making sure Miami can seize the opportunities ahead of us.

In that way, the homegrown eMerge Americas, founded by Manny Medina and run by Felice Gorordo and Melissa Medina with the mission of building South Florida into the tech hub of the Americas, was equal parts a celebration of how far the Miami area has come as a tech hub as it was a call to action: We’re not done yet. How can we all help?

From the big stage, tennis legend, fashion entrepreneur and venture capitalist Serena Williams, founder of Serena Ventures, expressed her excitement for the web3 transformation ahead, and discussed her own foray into NFTs and crypto, in a wide ranging conversation with Okcoin CEO Hong Fang. But Williams said more education was needed so that everyone – not just the rich – can participate. For instance, she said many people don’t realize that people can invest in just a small fraction of a bitcoin for instance, and build generational wealth from there.

Williams recently closed her first fund, and learned from mistakes early on, chasing the hot deals without enough reliance on her own team’s assessments and strategy. It’s about putting in the hard work, something she’s done all her life. “Diversity continues to be a big gap and drives how I think as an investor,” said Williams, who recently closed her first fund.

More broadly, she said that she worries about the low numbers of underrepresented minorities now participating in tech, specifically as software engineers, noting that just 5% of the nation’s software engineers are Black and only about 20% are women.  “Software engineers are building our future, we need these voices,” Williams said. Williams said she is an investor in Karat, an interviewing startup supporting  aspiring Black engineers through its Brilliant Black Minds program aimed at breaking down barriers in the technical interview process.

Paul Judge, managing partner of Panoramic Ventures and a judge this year for eMerge Americas, also worries about these groups – Latinos, Blacks and women – who are being left out of venture capital. Indeed, a report released this week that included a look at funding into women-founded companies in South Florida found that startups with at least one women founder received less than 7 percent of the $5.33 billion in VC funding that all Miami-Fort Lauderdale area companies received in 2021. For all-female startups: Just over half a percent. These numbers badly lag national averages, and that’s a low bar.

Paul Judge, Managing Partner of Panoramic Ventures

 “Black Founders represent 13-15% of the country and about 1/10 of that in VC funding,” said Judge, and the statistics are similar for Latinos and women. “It’s an order of magnitude broken,” he said.

Panoramic Ventures is among the funds trying to fix this. So far, about 44% of Panoramic’s portfolio companies have a diverse founder but as a firm, a city and a nation, “we still have work to do,” he said in an interview with Refresh Miami.

Consider the region stretching from the Southeast through the Midwest combined — Miami to Atlanta to Nashville to Indianapolis – that contains almost half the country’s population but receives less than 15% of VC funding, he said. “Miami and Atlanta are two of the most diverse cities in the country – if not here, then where?”

Judge says with much attention on the problem now, he’s optimistic. Progress comes from continuing to tell the story that diversifying VC is not just the right thing to do, but the profitable thing to do, and opening up the closed world of VC, making it easier for founders to get investor attention. That’s accomplished through events like eMerge’s Startup Showcase and Panoramic’s Startup Showdown.

“If you take down the walls and open up the process and open up access and make it closer to a fair playing field, diverse founders rise to the top.”

Williams’ and Judge’s message have been taken to heart by Miami’s leadership. “Equity is at s heart of our scaleup,” Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said in her opening remarks Tuesday. “We all share this common goal.”

To that end, new programs were announced at eMerge.  


Maurice Ferre, chairman and CEO of Insightec and serial entrepreneur in healthcare innovation, announced Founders Factory Miami, a branch of the global accelerator organization. Miami’s program will be focused on healthcare, one of the South Florida region’s most promising areas for tech, and is launching this fall.

Together with the University of Miami and Guidewell, Ferre said bringing Founders Factory to Miami will be pivotal. “This is a defining period of time. This is our time to think about big questions and solve the big problems.”

Ferre followed that up with an announcement of the Super Citizens initiative, developed by Salim Ismail and joined by dozens of local partnering organizations. Described as a “Peace Corps that solves problems with technology,” the organization will launch in Miami and they hope to scale it to cities around the world. With Miami’s large population of young people and the city’s pioneering spirit, it was a natural, he said. XPrize has also joined as a partner, Ismail said.

Another opportunity: Mayor Levine Cava and Commissioner Jean Monestime, announced a $1 million Business Innovation Start-Up Grant program – called BizUp – and the mayor put out a call to the audience to contribute more. To start, BizUp provided four minority-owned, local startups with $50,000 grants each, which were vetted by local stakeholders after applying to the eMerge Startup Showcase Program. Subsequent funds will be deployed at later dates in hackathons, with partners such as eMerge Americas, Black Ambition, and others.

The first four recipients of the BizUp grants were BON2, a patented toolset that allows people to create shoppable and branchable video content with Hedera Hashgraph Smart Contracts built into every scene; Crystal Clear, the first-ever mobile phone application that enables patients to select the optimal location for elective procedures based on price, performance, and in-network availability of high-cost physicians;  DINERAZO, a free financial education platform and one-stop-shop of financial services for Hispanics in the United States; and Storybook, an app that helps parents and their children prepare for bedtime.

Partners also ponied up additional opportunities for startups. For instance, as part of a new partnership with eMerge Americas, Google for Startups awarded Storybook’s founder and CEO, Francisco Cornejo, $100,000 in non-dilutive cash funding as part of Google for Startups Latino Founders Fund, a new Google fund supporting Latino entrepreneurs. Storybook created an app that helps parents combine bedtime stories with infant massage to improve sleep in babies and children.


Much of the speaker content on Day 2 was focused on web3, crypto and NFTs. Peter Smith, CEO of and investor Kevin O’Leary, discussed the need crypto regulation – done in the right way — and the challenges ahead. A panel of women, including Michelle Abbs of Web3 Equity, talked about ways of bringing more women into web3. There were tactical discussions with takeaways for founders, such as a discussion by the CEOs of Doodles and Miami’s own OnChain Studios discussing building brands in the web3 world.

But startups were front and center, and that was by design. Startups have always been the heart and soul of eMerge’s mission from day one, eMerge Americas President Melissa Medina said.

Founders Jaclyn Strauss and Nicole Mayer of 2ndVault, a local South Florida startup showcasing on the eMerge floor, would agree with that.

“There has been no event that I’ve attended – and I’ve worked in corporate for years – where I’ve seen such excitement and such good energy in the room,” Strauss told Refresh Miami. “We’ve had so many leads and opportunities for collaboration – our timing couldn’t have been better.”

The founders created 2nd Vault because they wanted an easy way for loved ones to find important information, for when – not if – users pass away. It was sparked by a near-death experience when Strauss had a post-delivery hemorrhage. “When I recovered, I realized I would have sunk my entire family because I had and knew where everything was,” said Strauss. “At 2ndVault, we create an experience that removes the thinking from the user to help you get your information together through a simple online quiz – think banking and pet information or even your favorite recipes.”

Also on the expo floor, co-founders Sean Fenton and Kham Roach of Miami were pitching their startup lifecache, a “location-based experience where the world is your room.” Ultimately, lifecache allows content creators to take immersive, 360 content and bring it on to the lifecache platform where other users can experience and mobilize this content in augmented reality – think of iStock but in the metaverse. “We have a portal for marketing managers and content creators to take that immersive 360 content and push it to any geographical location for other users to consume,” said Fenton.

Recently, they landed some investments and have partnered with Magic Leap, an enterprise-ready, augmented reality headset. “We’re working on a software experience through the Magic Leap headset,” continued Fenton. “We’re looking forward to seeing our eMerge contacts and relationships come to fruition.”

2nd Vault and lifecache were part of the Startup Showcase, 100 startups from South Florida and around the world that were chosen from about 1,000 applicants this year. They exhibited free of charge at eMerge and participated in a bootcamp. To get to the top 100, each of them was vetted by a group of judges.

The judging continued at the expo, with five startups chosen for the Shark Tank-style final competition, and the chance to pitch on the main stage in front of thousands of people – with put their fate in the hands of a panel of investor judges, including Mr. Wonderful himself. The prize: $420,000 in investments from Florida Funders, Panoramic Ventures and eMerge Americas.


Ultimately, the founders of Genially, from Spain, which helps users build interactive digital content (pictured at top of this post), TicketRev, a Boca Raton-based reverse event ticket selling platform, Cera, a Davie-based public safety startup, Togal.AI, a Miami construction startup, and MOVIA Robotics, a UK robotics company focused on helping children on the autism spectrum, pitched their hearts out to the standing-room only crowd at eMerge Americas’ grand finale and faced questions by investor judges. And the winner was Togal.AI.

Togal.AI was founded by CEO Patrick Murphy, the former US Congressman. He rejoined his family’s business, Coastal Construction, in 2017 and immediately saw a need to fill a glaring need  by one of the region’s largest industries by using technology to improve the estimating process. From there, Togal.AI was born. Launched in 2019, Togal.AI uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate construction estimates.

“The construction industry is ripe for innovation. With demand higher than ever, Togal.AI is making a huge impact by speeding up the building process,” said Murphy, in a statement. ”Getting validation from a Shark Tank judge is not only cool, but a sign that Togal.AI is worth investing in.”  


All photos with this post were taken by Nancy Dahlberg or Krysten Brenlla at eMerge Americas on Tuesday.


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