By Patrick Haller
While the world may be waking up to Colombia’s commercial dynamism, the country itself seems to finally be coming to grips with its potential as a source for IT innovation. From Barranquilla to Medellin to Bogota, there are increasing expectations that Colombia is fertile ground for startups – especially in software product development. The government is poised to ease restrictions on software products and trade groups are focused on raising quality standards in an overriding effort to put Colombia on the map as a credible tech player. [Our top four picks among the new generation of Colombia IT innovators appears below.]
Alberto Pradilla, President of the Board of Fedesoft, the Colombian software developers association, is optimistic about what’s ahead. “Colombians are very creative with the development of software applications; 85% to 90% of software used in Colombian banks were developed here,” he says. “Other industries using software applications developed in Colombia include healthcare and transportation that base their operations on well-developed processes. It has been only in the last three or four years that some local firms have searched for opportunities in the United States.”
Colombian companies also provide services to Latin America, Central America and Europe. Monica Villarreal of Software Quality Assurance, based in Medellin, told us that multinationals are looking to Colombia for software development due the quality of the work, and software is seen as one of the world-class Colombian industries.
Fedesoft, along with the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, is developing Colombian software as an export product. “The most important program with the Ministry is Transformacion Productiva (Productive Transformation) which is targeted to identify the strengthening of the industry, and to remove some of the barriers,” Pradilla says. “We want to target the US market, particularly the southern states. We have increased productivity; several companies are CMMI Levels 3 and 5. The industry is maturing as is our capability to serve the US market. The knowledge of English is increasing, there is a program with Invest in Bogota and the government to bring English speaking talent to the US market. One of the difficulties we face is that there is no customs position on exporting software and it is difficult to obtain a Certificate of Origin. However, there is a Decree that the president is ready to sign that will categorize software as goods as opposed to a service.”
Villarreal agrees that this is an important measure: “If we see software as goods, it will lower taxes and make us more competitive.” The Ministry will provide USD $30 to $50 million to promote the development of new companies by partnering with private companies to provide funding to start-ups, or the development of innovative products.
Colombia’s track record in the tech sector, spanning over 40 years, has paved the way for today’s start-ups. Nearshore Americas has taken a look at some of the companies who are at the forefront:
Koombea was founded in 2007 by Jonathan Tarud when he returned to Colombia after studying and working for Boeing in the US. Always passionate about the work involved with start-ups, Tarud created Koombea to assist new tech companies with developing unique products for the web and mobile applications. “I wanted to make sure that we weren’t just a web agency, our process and approach is very different in general.
The principal is to launch early and fast. Make sure we are validating the product early on. If the client has done customer development, and figured out what they need to build, we will translate that into designs. We try to define the client and their customers. Get the initial set of features out into the hands of the client’s customers; we will figure out where they are and find the market fit.” Another distinction about Koombea is their hands-on approach, and how they assist clients with transitioning from relying on Koombea’s services to establishing autonomous operations. After two years of aggressive growth, the financially strong Koombea has a mostly bi-lingual staff of 60 of “absolutely the best” programmers and support personnel servicing their predominately US clients.
ZenOK, founded in 2008 by Ron Hessing who relocated to Colombia from Holland, has expanded the concept of data recovery and protection. “I wanted to do something new, and change where I lived. I saw an opportunity to develop software at a relatively low cost [in Barranquilla].” Hessing applied his data recovery expertise to create ZenOK, an application that monitors about 200 hard-drive functions, such as temperature and spin rate, and warns the user to a problem. ZenOK also includes a back up feature and a special virus protection to minimize the risk of data loss. “This is a great way to protect files, and we cover data loss with a warranty,” Hessing expressed. The warranty is a unique feature that provides up to USD$100,000 for data loss and recovery, or USD$500 per lost gigabyte. Hessing explained further, “42% of all data loss cases are due to electronic failure. We can prevent it. The warning is indicated by green (action required), orange (the problem is worsening and the warranty is diminishing), and red (fatal) to alert the user that they are no longer covered under the warranty.” Most of ZenOK’s clients are small to medium-sized businesses in the U.S.
eTask-it, founded in 2007 by Juan Manrique, offers a library of customizable Blueprints which provide users the ability to “define and govern each project within specific company frameworks and offer continuous feedback to improve best practices.” The company’s website includes an explanation that “moving from templates to Blueprint is like replacing a black-and-white, silent-movie view of a project with a 3D, surround-sound model of a service.” The frameworks include workflows, schedules, task guides, role definitions, risk registers and costing information. eTask-it adds a defining step where users can build the Blueprint and governance of services.
Carlos Alarcon, VP for Latin America, says, “Microsoft has suites like Team Foundation that need to be integrated, the eTask platform is already integrated.” eTask-it’s remarkable growth over the last two years has impressed colleagues and clients, leading the firm to be included in “The 2010 Nearshore Americas Red Hot Startups.” Currently eTask-it has offices in Colombia, the UK and the US, with customers in Europe, the UK and Colombia. Solutions for the Blueprint systems are constantly improved; a new dashboard and reporting model will be released in June 2011, followed by version 2.0 of the complete software at the end of the year.
4. Ceiba Software House
Ceiba Software House develops highly customized software using platforms such as JAVA, .NET and PHP. Ceiba has built its company by providing specialty engineers who help find and design solutions for its varied client base in industries ranging from insurance, cargo and transportation. As stated on the company’s website, “We offer a wide range of solutions on multiple operating platforms, supported by technology-oriented application development of Stand Alone applications, Client-Server and Web architectures. For the latter range our staff has the expertise to provide support for set-up, configuration and deployment of Applications on Web Servers and Application Servers consistent with the development platforms; Java: IBM WebSphere, Oracle 9iAs and 10G, BEA Web Logic and Apache Tomcat among others, for Microsoft .NET: Internet Information Server (IIS) and Apache technology for applications in PHP.” Ceiba conducts technical sessions and customized workshops so that clients can define and develop what they need from an information system. The company will also assist with the development of best practices and monitor the development process. Additionally, Ceiba offers services to develop corporate intranets, extranets and web pages.