The big picture
Medellín had long been a victim of branding, working to shed its reputation as a hotbed for cartel violence and inspiration for narco novelas. The city largely succeeded, with vacationers, digital nomads, and homegrown techies alike flocking to Medellín for its lush scenery, cheap cost of living, and tech-friendly economy. The city has scored the status symbols befitting a global destination, including the coveted New York Times “36 Hours” treatment, and has been instrumental in Colombia’s record increase in tourism, at least prior to Covid-19.
Emerging, though, is the operating word for Medellín’s tech aspirations. Unlike other global giants, such as Bengaluru or Tel Aviv, Medellín hasn’t yet had a generation of successful startup IPOs and acquisitions. The city doesn’t even have any homegrown unicorns — Colombia itself only has one, Rappi, which is based in Bogotá. What it does have are good universities and a vibrant coder community that hosts some of the biggest meetups and conferences in all of Latin America. Today, the city has been able to rebrand itself.
Medellín’s goal is to leverage the talent developed by foreign companies into a thriving, endogenous ecosystem supported through government-financed incubators and technical education programs. The foundation is already there. With the pandemic decentralizing the technology industry and the nature of work, Medellín’s goals of becoming an international hub are only accelerating. With its new mayor, a former software developer who also headed the government’s entrepreneurship and innovation agency, the Medellín government is coyly referring to itself as the “Valley of Software.”
Big Stat: 379
Over the past six years, Medellín has recruited 379 technology and innovation companies to set up offices in the city, creating more than 11,000 jobs, according to innovation center Ruta N. The most valuable tech companies in Medellín are all international, including AI Fund and the New York–based Skillshare, which has raised over $110 million in funding and has an engineering office in Medellín.
View from the ground
Not everyone is sold on Medellín’s “Valley of Software” reputation. “Don’t tell me you’re writing another story on the Silicon Valley of Colombia” is how Sergio Guzmán, a political-risk analyst based in Bogotá, answered the phone when Rest of World called. For Guzmán, the arc about Medellín is both too tidy and too sensational. It plays into the fact that foreigners are entranced by the Pablo Escobar saga — a narcotics-filled chapter of the country’s history — and that they like transformation stories. “I think Medellín is great at marketing itself like that,” Guzmán told Rest of World.
Even Elkin Echeverri Garcia, the former planning and foresight director at Ruta N, said that Medellín isn’t vying for the moniker. “The system we’re searching for isn’t to have more unicorns or to win the Nobel Prize,” he told Rest of World. “The process should be to improve the standard of living.”
The city’s reinvention has still managed to attract top talent. After 16 years in Europe, Carlos Alzate returned to Colombia as general manager of AI Fund’s 50-person office in Medellín. He said the city has its charms: It’s the right size, has the best weather and the nicest people, and helped him to convince his family to move back with him. “If it was in Bogotá,” Alzate told Rest of World, “I wouldn’t even consider it.”
Neighborhood spotlight: Sevilla
Medellín was the industrial capital of Colombia in the 1950s when it created Empresas Públicas de Medellín (EPM), a public utilities company that also functions as one of the largest corporations in the country. Today, this corporation contributes hundreds of millions of dollars each year to city development through direct financing of social programs. One of the organizations funded by EPM is a public innovation center called Ruta N, which helps incubate local startups and create networks of investors. Its three-building complex serves as the physical epicenter of Medellín’s tech scene, located in the city’s Sevilla neighborhood, right next to the University of Antioquia.
For decades, U.S. companies would keep operations staff close to home; if they set up offices outside the United States in countries like Colombia, they would typically be focused on sales, customer service, or some peripheral software project. In contrast, Ruta N aims to attract companies that not only bring high-paying jobs, but view Medellín as a partner for developing top talent. According to Caroline Duffy, a former investor at AI Fund, Ruta N helped the company with everything from hiring to finding office space.
The big name: La Haus
The city’s goal is to leverage the talent developed by foreign companies into a thriving, endogenous ecosystem supported through government-financed incubators and technical education programs. The foundation is already there. Crunchbase lists almost 200 active startups in the city, including the buzzy property marketplace La Haus, which has raised $58.2 million in funding.