By Conrad Egusa, Oliver Griffin and Vicky O’Shee
Since the late 1980’s, Argentina has faced economic woes. Stemming from when the country was plunged into the deepest recession of its history, Argentina has weathered bond defaults, payment restructuring plans, and high inflation that would put a lesser country off of the investment map for good.
Yet Argentina has managed to stay afloat. Through hard work it has remained an economic and global power. Including Mexico and Brazil, Argentina is one of just three Latin American countries in the G20 and its startup ecosystem is promising. With a new government in place, the country is investing in venture funds and creating new legislation to make it easier to start and invest in companies. The startup scene continues to grow, with a new generation of companies on the move. This includes Y-Combinator backed Bluesmart, satellite startup Satellogic, which raised $27M in funding earlier this year, online marketplace Agrofy, “identity-as-a-service” company Auth0, and crowdfunding platform Crowdium.
Argentina’s economic history has trained its population to be resourceful in the face of adversity, and today there are a number of success stories within Bitcoin and Fintech that reflect this. Take Affluenta, a peer to peer lending platform that raised $8 million last year. AgTech is also going well with startup Rootstock among others.
Much of the strength of Argentina relies on the human capital of its population. Historically the most successful companies in Latin America came from Argentina, and they were the most effective at targeting international markets.
As told to us in person many times, the culture of Argentina’s startup ecosystem is changing. Lisa Besserman, founder at Startup Buenos Aires, explained that earlier there was much less collaboration. However, the culture has shifted.
The successes of businesses like MercadoLibre, Digital Ventures, and OLX give Argentina a better track record over other regional startup hubs – chiefly Santiago of Chile and Bogotá of Colombia – but this is still a relatively risky place to invest. For this reason, President Mauricio Macri is working to address concerns about inflation and economic uncertainty. The hosting of WEF Latin America in Buenos Aires, and Argentina’s chairing of the G20 next year, are all helping to make people more optimistic for the future.
Argentina’s startup ecosystem goes back much further than many in Latin America. After almost a decade of recovery following a catastrophic economic shock, startups arrived in 1999 in the form of e-commerce platform MercadoLibre. Arguably Argentina’s most famous success story, MercadoLibre was founded by duo Hernán Kazah and Marcos Galperin. The platform functions as a market that connects buyers with sellers, and has subsequently spread across swathes of Latin America. Both Kazah and Galperin have become prominent investors and mentors within a now established tech community.
MercadoLibre launched in ‘99, but it wasn’t until 10 years later, in 2009, that AreaTres – the first co-working space of its kind in Buenos Aires – launched. In the last eight years, the co-working venture has expanded and become a hub for entrepreneurship. The space’s launch was followed in quick succession by NXTP Labs and Kaszek Ventures, both in 2011. NXTP Labs, which was founded by Ariel Arrieta, Gonzalo Costa, Marta Cruz and Francisco Coronel, is today the most active early-stage fund for tech companies in Latin America and has locations in Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay. Kazak Ventures – launched by MercadoLibre’s Kazah and Galperin – has grown to become the leading LatAm venture capital firm.
Since that time, there has been something of an explosion in Argentina’s startup ecosystem, with each new year bringing bigger and bigger players into the fray. In 2012, Quasar Ventures – an organization that builds businesses from scratch – was founded. Quasar picks an industry, then builds a team and guides them through to successful execution. One year later, in 2013, Startup Buenos Aires, a community-led organization that inspires startups and entrepreneurship in the city, as well as further afield, was founded. In 2011, Wayra, the global accelerator from Telefonica with a presence in 12 countries, opened its first office in Argentina.
In 2015, Buenos Aires’ city government got involved, creating Academia Buenos Aires Emprende, an initiative to educate citizens about enterprise and business building. Also in 2015, ecommerce startup Avenida raised $30 million in Series C funding led by Naspers, with participation from Tiger Global.
From 1999 to 2017, progress has been a hard road for Argentina, but the country’s startup ecosystem is truly starting to flourish. This year the country passed its Ley de Emprendedores, supported by the Association of Entrepreneurs in Argentina (ASEA) and Argentina Association of Private Equity, Venture and Seed Capital (ARCAP), to better promote entrepreneurship in the country. The law provides tax incentives, a fast track for company registration, support for accelerators, and public funds to co-invest with private investors in order to promote projects. NXTP Labs Co-Founder Marta Cruz outlined the new law here.
The Buenos Aires region is the largest in Argentina, with over 3M inhabitants, and much of the economic activity occurs here. According to those we spoke to in Argentina, 90 percent of all startup activity in the country is based in Buenos Aires. The city and surrounding province is filled with highly educated talent. Argentina is a net exporter of developers and, when compared to neighboring Santiago in Chile, Buenos Aires has a better track record when it comes to success stories. This is doubly impressive as Argentina does not have access to the type of government-backed funding that is present in Chile, such as Start-Up Chile, a publicly funded accelerator that gives startups equity free funding.
Buenos Aires is famed across Latin America for its high level of education and talent. Some even say it is without parallel in the region. The aforementioned hard economic times have cultivated an ingenuity and perseverance – as well as the concept of side hustles – that lends itself well to entrepreneurship. This is evidenced by the strong ecosystem of bitcoin entrepreneurs and founders in the city, which has thrived due in part to the country’s currency issues.
AreaTres, a center of entrepreneurship in the city, is one of the largest co-working spaces in Latin America and includes over 220 members and more than 65 companies. It is led by Martin Frankel and it recently announced a partnership with Google for Entrepreneurs.
Another center in the city is Startup Buenos Aires, founded by Lisa Besserman. Besserman’s Startup Buenos Aires co-hosted the first startup week with the government and now hosts regular events and even created a global outsourcing hub out of Startup Buenos Aires.
Palermo, a popular neighborhood in the city, is known for its startup activity and for being host to Palermo Valley. As TNW’s Anna Heim wrote, “The term “Palermo Valley” was coined as a joke: Palermo is a neighborhood in Buenos Aires where many tech companies are based, although many are also based elsewhere in the city. More than a specific place, it refers to the very successful networking community created 4 years ago. At the time it was launched, there were many entrepreneurs and tech workers in Buenos Aires but they didn’t know each other. Thanks to networking events gathering up to 600 people, Palermo Valley managed to create a real community.” On its website, the most recent organizing team of Palermo Valley in 2014 is said to be Anita Massacane, Sebastián Nader, and Martín Vivas.
The city, which is well known for its development talent, is also fortunate enough to be on the same timezone as the east coast of the United States for much of the year. Compared to other countries in Latin America, it has a high proportion of English speakers. It’s large population – the fourth largest in the Spanish speaking world – make it a great strategic entry point for new businesses that want to launch a business in a new world region.
Buenos Aires has a reputation of a world class city, and is sometimes referred to as the Paris of the southern hemisphere. While prices for certain things are very expensive, rent is still affordable in the city’s central district which makes it attractive for talented expatriates who want to try an adventure elsewhere. There are exciting verticals such as e-commerce, the Internet of Things (IoT) and FinTech. Equally promising, the government is promoting initiatives to help promote female entrepreneurship.
Leading accelerators in the city include NXTP Labs and Wayra. NXTP Labs, which was founded in 2011, has made over 183 investments to date. The founders are now raising a large venture fund aimed at providing access at scale.
Strong venture capital funds include Kaszek, Casar, and Patagon, which cater for Seed, Series A and higher funding rounds, while Clarin and Xpand Ventures are prominent corporate VCs. There continue to be waves of promising startups including Restorando, Papumba, and Avenida.
As told of to us in person many times, Bitcoin startups in particular are thriving in Buenos Aires. Espacio Bitcoin, which was started in early 2012 by Wenceslao Casares, is a meeting place for Argentina’s Bitcoin community. Franco Amati, who is one of the leaders of the local Bitcoin community and is the founder of Signatura, is based there. According to the Latin American Private Equity & Venture Capital Association (LAVCA), investment firm Medici Ventures also recently made an investment in Argentinian bitcoin platform Ripio.
It’s important to note that the government is based in Buenos Aires. Historically the government has been more interested in promoting social programs, as opposed to benefits to relatively few startups. Mariano Mayer, the Secretary of Entrepreneurship and Small and Medium sized businesses, explained that Argentina is now looking to be friendlier to investors and entrepreneurs. Today, investors can deduct tax income of up to 75 percent of the initial total investment, up to 10 percent of the total income tax they owe. The government is also looking to support entrepreneurship by investing in vehicles to help venture funds.
Additional local leaders in the city include Martin Frankel, founder of Area3; Santiago Sena, Director of Entrepreneurship for the City of Buenos Aires; Juan Iriguia, Head of Google for Developers; Alec Oxenford, co-founder at OLX; Vanesa Kolodziej; Marcos Galperin; Mariano Amartino, and Hernan Kazah.
Argentina’s second city, Córdoba is a location famed for learning and education. So much so, in fact, it even has the nickname La Docta, in reference to its reputation. Increasingly, it is becoming famed for the number of startups and accelerators that operate within its boundaries. Successful business include Fligoo, Winclap, GiFlyBike — which has seen successful crowdfunding — Aivo, and Tambero, which has received praise from both Fast Company and Forbes.
It is fitting, too, that the cities universities play the main role as incubators for promising young businesses. The National University of Córdoba (UNC) boasts its incubator, while the Blas Pascal University is home to Doing Labs. Lastly, Córdoba is also home to the FIDE incubator, a joint effort from UNC, the National Technological University (UTN) and local government.
Universities are also incorporating entrepreneurship in their syllabus. As well as the aforementioned institutions, XXI Century and the Catholic University of Córdoba (UCC) are teaching students about starting and organizing businesses and startups. In fact, the Founder Institute, started by Adeo Ressi and Jonathan Greechan, opened its first branch in Argentina in partnership with UCC back in 2016. There are also a number of government-backed programs, including Córdoba Acelera, which matches funds and co-invests between the government and tech startup accelerators, offering subsidies of up to 50 percent. Additionally Programa Emprende Industria from the Ministry of Industry works to bring tech/industrial entrepreneurs together with established SMEs that are willing to mentor them.
Xpand General Partner and 500 Startups Mentor Vanesa Kolodziej, which recently opened an office in Cordoba: “We opened our first branch in Córdoba, in partnership with La Voz del Interior, because the province has a vibrant ecosystem, including universities, NGOs and service providers, and the local government is taking an active role to foster entrepreneurship.”
There are a lot of strong cards in Córdoba’s hand when it comes to establishing itself as a startup hub. Entrepreneurs have an easy access to information and support, and there is a common agenda that is shared by more than 40 institutions. Luciano Nicora, President of Endeavor Córdoba and Vice President of Endeavor Argentina, says that coordination is what makes Córdoba different.
There is also strong access to investment in the early stages, and, importantly, good access to talent. In Córdoba, 10 percent of the population is studying at university and locals say that entrepreneurship runs in their genes.
Of course, there is still room for improvement. Accelerators are still not equipped to provide consolidated support to entrepreneurs, especially with regards to global connections and later stage capital. Additionally, accelerators, by and large, are too generalist. “[They] must specialize in one defined vertical,” urges Luciano Crisafulli of Agencia Córdoba Innovar y Emprender. Lastly, there’s a sense that the city relies too much on universities to train its young entrepreneurs, with industry not pulling its weight.
Overall, Córdoba is making efforts to bring venture capital (VC) and businesspeople, the ones that have the resources to invest, to invest. Some are already board members of the Agencia Innovar y Emprender or Endeavor Córdoba. The city is less easily influenced by changes in national government, too; it has always been more autonomous.
New initiatives from national government are welcomed, but entrepreneurs in the city feel that Córdoba started promoting entrepreneurship way before the government did. Entrepreneurship culture in Córdoba is similar to that of Silicon Valley, local leaders say, in the sense that the government is another player in the game. Nicora insists that, “Córdoba has the potential to become one of the entrepreneurship capitals and talent exporters of Latin America.”
Close to the border with Chile, Mendoza is famed for producing wine. In recent years, however, a passion for startups and entrepreneurship has gripped the small city. The 2015 election has produced great results for Mendoza, particularly with regards to establishing a startup ecosystem.
Since then, public policy has focused on supporting entrepreneurs and facilitate the creation of businesses. Juan Pablo Bustos, a coordinator at Cuyo University’s UNCUYO — one of the most active university incubators in the region — says that 2015 marked a paradigm shift in entrepreneurial outset. “Support to entrepreneurs became a public policy to which Mendoza adheres”, he says. “Many credit lines still come from Buenos Aires but, slowly, sources of funding and inspiration are becoming more local.”
Consejo Consultivo Emprendedor (CCE) was founded in the same year that President Mauricio Macri took power, and is pulling Mendoza up by the bootstraps. It includes input from provincial and municipal government, seven universities, 28 incubators, of which 22 are public, and other groups such as Endeavor.
The mission of CCE is to promote entrepreneurship and innovation in Mendoza in a coordinated fashion, conducted under the initiative Mendoza Emprende. CCE hopes that, with Mendoza Emprende, 20,000 jobs can be created alongside 4,000 new businesses and 200 new investments. Keen to see success, the government is using a special commission to monitor results. The program has been awarded $3.5 million from the Inter-American Development Bank (BID), which will be shared out by incubators to startups that have high social, environmental, and technological impacts. These numbers were provided by Lorenzo Nieva, Director of Employement and Technology Development, and Guillermo Navarro, Director of Innovation and Sustainable Development in the Ministry of Economy, who are leading this and making sure they get the funds and support from the provincial government to carry out these initiatives.
Like both Buenos Aires and Córdoba, Mendoza also boasts a large population of university graduates and access to great talent. While there remains limited access to venture capital and a lack of investment overall, things like education and location are helping to put Mendoza on the startup map. In particular, renewable energies is a growing industry for the city, and Mendoza is becoming an energy city with a serious focus on environmental projects. The city in particular has an environmental focus given that historically it has had problems with water shortages. Additionally, as well as a green reputation, Mendoza is also well known for the ethics and morals of the businesses who operate there.
Successful startups from Mendoza include Energe, a triple impact startup that makes solar heaters and was built in the UNCUYO incubator; Eventioz, which was acquired by Eventbrite, who subsequently kept a developer team in the city; Xinca, Olpays, and Pizarra Blanca.
Just a few hours from Buenos Aires, Rosario is a city that is increasingly on the up. The city is in a privileged location, right at the heart of Argentina’s agro-industry. It is as far from Buenos Aires as it is from second city Córdoba, and is the home of the Rosario Board of Trade and the Physical Grain Market (BCR), the most important in Argentina in terms of its volume of operations, and provides reference prices for the national and international markets. Development has been slow, historically, but this is now changing with the new entrepreneurship laws. Rosario is also much cheaper than the cities we looked at earlier.
According to Alejandro Larosa, the co-founder and CEO of Agrofy, Endeavor Rosario is helping over 80 companies in the Santa Fe province with mentoring and training. Not only does this help local startups find their feet, it’s also building hype around the entrepreneurial mindset. Larosa said, “When I founded FuturosyOpciones.com 18 years ago I never hear of the word ‘entrepreneur’ before, not even during university. Nowadays things have changed dramatically, and an entrepreneur can now find a lot of support in Santa Fe to execute their ideas.”
Overall, now, there are some 40 organizations – both public and private – that are dedicated to helping entrepreneurs. These include Startup Weekend, Junior Achievement, Global Shapers and, of course, a number of universities. Lastly, there is a local credit line from Innovatec, which is sponsored by the Ministry of Production, with the goal of financing tech startups with a special focus on renewable energies and projects contributing to the competitive development of a regional productive system. Ignacio del Vecchio, the Secretary of Production in Rosario, is also having a large impact.
Looking to the future, there still remain a number of challenges that Argentina has to overcome. Perhaps the most pertinent is that other countries in Latin and South America – particularly Chile – are more economically and politically stable, making for a more attractive environment for entrepreneurs.
The historic double digit inflation rate spooks investors, too, and causes a significant capital flight that sees homegrown talent run for neighboring countries, or foreign talent touchdown in other countries that are more economically stable. Investment funds, unsurprisingly, choose to keep their money outside of Argentina – often in Montevideo, Uruguay, which sits just across the Rio de la Plata – and only convert foreign currency into Argentine Pesos on an ad-hoc, as needed basis.
Argentina’s economic history has trained its population to be resourceful in the face of adversity. Even people with stable employment hoard sources of income, hedging their bets against future turmoil. In the LatAm region, the country is an exporter of software developers, which is seem most notably via development power-company Globant. This is no surprise given the high quality, free university education that Argentinians receive, which contributes to the country’s coveted source of technical talent.
Argentina is not for the people who can’t give up the amenities they’ll find in places like San Francisco. There are political roadblocks and dealing with banks and money can both be challenging. Also, entrepreneurs who aren’t thick skinned will struggle, as Argentines are famed for telling it like it is. The slow start of the national startup scene means that a lot of talent has left, making it more difficult than it should be to find worthy workers for Argentina’s fourth industrial revolution.
But there is good news. The most successful Latin American startups have come from Argentina, and there are a number of up and coming businesses that show great promise. “Argentina is our secret weapon. Having access to incredible talent, we have built a world-class team that is building innovation for the world,” says Bluesmart CEO Tomi Pierucci. Led by organizations like Startup Buenos Aires, AreaTres, Incutex in Cordoba, Endeavor NOA, NXTP Labs, Wayra and Startup Mendoza, the national ecosystem continues to grow.
As the new centrist government seeks to stabilize the economy and reduce inflation, time will tell as to whether or not Argentina will be able to retain more homegrown talent while simultaneously attracting the brightest minds from further afield.