Tech Entrepreneur Puts Colombia's Start-Up Scene On The App
Grenoble Ecole de Management graduate Agustin Pelaez runs a tech start-up and animation business in Colombia. He is part of an entrepreneurial wave sweeping across the country.
It’s 7:30AM in Medellín. Beyond the walls of Socialatom Ventures, the Colombian start-up accelerator, it is warm and humid. But inside, Agustin Pelaez is keeping a cool head, excited and alert ahead of another day of the entrepreneur’s grind.
The Grenoble Ecole de Management graduate is already two years into his second business, but there is still so much more to be done. Not that he has lost any of his fighting spirit; I apologize for the early call but he shrugs off the comment. Start-up business owners don’t follow a nine-to-five.
Agustin and his co-founders have pooled $50,000 of their own capital into Ubidots, a company which has developed a cloud service to capture and make sense of device data. But there are still many bumps in the road ahead.
“When you try to innovate in an ecosystem that is different from Silicon Valley or Grenoble [France], you face a lot of challenges. Things haven’t been done here before,” says Agustin.
The company collects real-time data from devices like wireless sensors. It creates "alerts" when business events take place in health institutions, food storage chambers, retail stores and oil and gas fields.
It was just last October that he was in Boston’s “innovation district” on a four-month program with MassChallenge, the largest start-up accelerator in the world, which dishes out millions each year. A young tech company may have an easier ride in the San Francisco Bay area or South Boston, he agrees, but that would steer him away from his ultimate goal.
Ubidots has some developers based abroad, but is a Colombian business at heart. Cut the start-up in half, and it would bleed yellow, blue and red.
“Doing things 100 per cent abroad takes the sense of wanting to do something in Colombia away. Which was the motivation behind my Master’s and companies," Agustin says.
But he has returned from Boston to bring Colombia’s start-up scene to life.
If you ask an MBA what the Silicon Valley of Latin America is, they may well point to Medellin or Bogota, its southern neighbour.
In that sense, his choice of business school was an obvious one. Grenoble is the lesser-known technology hub of France; up-and-coming start-ups are putting the city on the map.
His choice of sector bears a striking resemblance to his background too. It has only been five years since he left Airbus Group, the global leader in aerospace and defence technologies, but so much has changed.
Agustin began his career as an engineer at a telecoms company, before working as a developer on image processing software at EADS Astrium.
That is part of the reason why he chose a specialist business Master’s and not an MBA, the latter a more generalist qualification. “I wanted something specialized. My main motivation was to learn, and apply that to innovation," he says.
And why didn't he study in Latin America? “Grenoble is a technology hub. I wanted to learn more about innovation, somewhere where the professors were experts. The snowboarding in the south of France isn’t too bad either," he jokes.
Agustin is hoping his businesses can engineer a start-up revolution in the Latin American county. It is a big task when you consider that not so long ago, the Colombian capital, Bogotá, was plagued by violence.
But he is confident that times are changing. “In our city there was a lot of talk around innovation and how to go from a violent capital and turn it into a talent hub, that attracts businesses,” Agustin says. "“We didn’t think we would even get to this point."
Beneath old reputations, however, there is a thriving entrepreneurial community.
Medellin was one of only two Latin American locations to be a finalist in a Wall Street Journal advertorial poll on the most innovative cities in the world. There are three consolidation incubators in the region that are supported by the Colombian government.
And a new initiative, Vive Digital, was recently designed by Colombia’s Ministry of ICT to promote digital entrepreneurship in the country – to reduce poverty and create jobs. There are also a raft of co-working spaces and incubators in Medellin, including ESPACIO, and Socialatom Ventures – Ubidots’ current champion – which has teamed up with NXTP Labs, the Argentine accelerator which is regarded as one of the most important in Latin America.
The government sees the potential too. Ubidots was given a grant worth about $90,000. The business started in healthcare and among the company’s initial set of clients were three of the top 25 hospitals in Latin America. They have since swelled to more than 1,000 users, but Agustin wants more.
And we haven’t even mentioned his other business venture. Agustin lights up when we talk about Ubidots, but Bombillo Amarillo, an off-shore animation studio specialized in 2D and 3D, was his first foray into start-ups.
The company provides content for advertising, entertainment and gaming industries, and has been featured on TV channels in Australia, as well as newspapers and magazines in Europe.
Bombillo Amarillo banked about $50,000 from an initial seed round, and the co-founders grew the business from two to 14 employees over three years. There is no doubting, however, which company is Agustin’s main focus.
“The animation studio runs itself,” he says. “We don’t expect to raise venture capital because it’s more of a service company.”
He has plans to launch another Ubidots service in October and the main goal is to “grow the user-base and increase income”.
His MSc in Innovation and Entrepreneurship from Grenoble allowed him to see the market opportunities.
Yet his goals are far more ambitious than his own start-ups. When compared to Argentina and Brazil, Colombia has a long way to go in terms of generating scalable and fundable start-ups. But Agustin is undeterred.
“My main goal is to establish a local tech community that brings foreign companies and start-ups to the area, because this increases the chance of start-ups becoming successful in Colombia,” he says.
“We need to see a major acquisition. We need to see things that will tell the world to come here.”
Maybe Ubidots will become that major business attraction? “I hope so,” he laughs. “That’s where my two goals meet.”