An Innovation Snapshot of Medellin, Colombia

Opinion

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virtually non-existent, and the one person who had a small fund mentioned that he spent three years trying to raise a bigger fund with little success. Many of the young people I met, particularly women, wanted to continue graduate studies in Spain, Argentina, and the U.S. One participant said that he was especially encouraged by stories of success of technologies spun off from universities by entrepreneurs, referring to my chart of the many spin-offs from Boston University while I was leading the Office of Technology Development.

It is ironic that in today’s border crossing, Internet-enabled economy, one constant that I see, from my students to potential entrepreneurs around the world, is that people seek personal stories of entrepreneurial success. From these stories they glean encouragement and “how-to” tips that they can employ in their own local startups. Mentors with past careers in startups are needed in new venture accelerators, university incubators, and as angel investors. Old fashioned apprenticeship, providing advice and money, needs to globalize and scale. The U.S. has the largest number of these mentors, with China and India catching up. South American countries are actively trying to engage with these mentors to apprentice their budding entrepreneurs.

My instincts suggest that Colombia is on the brink of economic greatness. It is an ethnically diverse, urbanized, geographically blessed country on the verge of an end to its 52-year-long, low-level civil war. While I only experienced Medellin, the country’s second-largest city, from the descriptions of people I met from Bogota, that city is also in an economic expansion mode. Colombian universities have enthusiastic students and faculty, with pockets of world-class research.

Colombia has historically been aligned with the U.S. in spite of our acknowledged role in supporting Panama and leaving Colombia to become its own country (the U.S. paid Colombia $25 million in 1921 as redress). Colombia was the only Latin American country to send troops to Korea in support of the U.S. in the 1950s. With the support of the U.S., Colombia has moving beyond an illicit agrarian economy (cocoa and cannabis) to a vibrant services-driven economy. There is also a vibrant arts culture with world-renowned artists such as Botero (painting and sculpture) and the pop musician Shakira. There was much live music in Medellin, both traditional and contemporary—such as Cumbia, which originated in the ethno-African population on the Colombian coasts, and Reggaeton, adopted from Puerto Rico.

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Vinit Nijhawan was Managing Director, Office of Technology Development at Boston University where he launched 8 venture-backed spinoffs. Vinit teaches MBA courses on Entrepreneurship at BU Questrom School of Business, over 350 students have taken his courses. Follow @vinit44

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