Start-Up Chile: Wadhwa is “Blown Away” by Entrepreneurial Energy

By Patrick HallerIs it plausible to change the impression of a country’s entrepreneurial spirit in a period of just three months? Looking at what is happening in the …

Vivek Wadhwa, Vice President of Innovation and Research, Singularity University.

By Patrick HallerIs it plausible to change the impression of a country’s entrepreneurial spirit in a period of just three months? Looking at what is happening in the Chilean tech sector from the point of view of one of its advisors, this is not as impossible as it seems.  By all accounts Start-Up Chile (SUP), an ambitious initiative launched in 2010 to stimulate the global ambitions of Chilean developers by attracting foreign entrepreneurs to the country, has exceeded initial expectations.

Initiated by the then newly elected Chilean government, SUP’s main goal is to convert Chile into the innovation and entrepreneurship hub of Latin America. One way they hope to accomplish this is by showing Chilean developers that they can create products for the global market.

The first round of SUP brought together 23 teams from different countries who were vetted during a formal application process.  Each team was given a $40,000 subsidy and a one-year visa to stay in the country, with the requirement that they engage the local population and “work in a global mindset, believing that the route to success is via expansion not isolation.”

In May 2011, we spoke with one of the founders and chief Advisors of SUP, Vivek Wadhwa, a professor at UC Berkeley and Duke University and world reknowned expert in entrepreneurship, who –at that time– had a decidedly pessimistic view of the Chilean entrepreneurial drive. “Entrepreneurs here are far too conservative, afraid of failure, secretive, and entrepreneurial networks are very weak. So this is far from Silicon Valley. But that is what Start-Up Chile is trying to fix—to change the local culture and ways within two to three years. This has never been done before and I believe that we will see rapid evolution here.”

“This bodes well not only for Chile, but Latin America. It shows that they can be like their kin in the Valley” – Wadhwa

Change Agent

Three months later, Wadhwa’s perception has undergone an incredible change. Tweeting from a Start-Up Chile meetup this week, the professor was decidedly glowing in his remarks. He told us that “When I advised the Chilean government to try something like this, I was optimistic that we could do a pure “people play”—in other words, focus the entire investment in people rather than infrastructure and industry as is the norm for regions. I am totally blown away—as are the Chileans—with its success.”

He went on to say that the foreign entrepreneurs were networking with locals “Silicon Valley style.” The event where Wadhwa was the featured speaker, organized in less than 24 hours, drew an audience of nearly 300 people most of them Chilean. This alone is an encouraging sign that a mind-shift is occurring. “Tonight’s event could have been in Silicon Valley for all the sharing and excitement,” he said.

Brenna Loury, Communications and PR Manager for SUP, sees a lot of progress and detects that the foreign developers are having a positive effect. “It’s been very successful in the local community because many Chilean entrepreneurs haven’t had the push to go global, they’re really excited,” says Loury.

Another requirement to participate in the program is that the company must have a globally scalable business which Loury doesn’t see as being a problem. Loury also sees that they are “very calculated with their decisions after their participation in the program. They’re careful not to seek funding too soon and we always require them to plan out their specific stages properly.” Thus, reducing the risk of launching too quickly.

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Chile Breakthrough

Although the first phase of SUP focused on “importing talent to kick-start the local entrepreneurship scene,” the current round is also open to Chileans. According to Loury, Chilean developers are starting to break  from a tradition of isolationism, by working to raise their level of professionalism and global reputation. Loury mentions CruiseWise, Junar, Vendder, and Piccsy, “graduates” of the first round as early examples of SUP’s success.

“They are learning from each other, helping each other, and forming networks which give them a huge long-term advantage,” reports Wadhwa, “They [the foreigners] are teaching the locals about global markets and about how to take risks. The energy and excitement is unbelievable.”

Wadhwa and Loury are not alone in their enthusiasm for the progress SUP is making. Craig Barrett, former Intel CEO, was also in the country this week and met with around 20 of the participants. Barrett commented that the program “is a great innovative idea that is at the forefront of the action.”

Wadhwa is obviously thrilled with what he is seeing and believes that, “This bodes well not only for Chile, but Latin America. It shows that they can be like their kin in the Valley.”

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