Building Bridges: IATA Aims to Foster Innovation Across the Americas

Houston—In recent weeks, about 50 students from five Latin American universities have been exploring ways to promote innovative technologies related to connected cars and automotive production.

The group has spent the last two weeks in the central Mexican city of Puebla, which is home to manufacturing plants for many multinational car companies such as Volkswagen and Audi. “VW has been here for 50 years,” says Houston entrepreneur Neal Murthy, who created this program. “They see the potential for participating in getting some new ideas.”

The boot camp is the first phase of a bigger effort that Murthy has created called Innovation Across the Americas, an entrepreneurship and technology-focused NGO aimed at encouraging innovation connections across the western hemisphere—especially between the U.S. and Mexico.

Despite the political rhetoric inflaming the relationship between the two countries, Murthy says he continues to believe that “the more trade that occurs, the more transactions that can occur between countries. That improves the status of all involved.”

Among the top prizes awarded were Rutas Alpha, a real-time bus transportation information app, which is now invited to present at the second annual International Conference on Smart Cities and Smart Data in Puebla in October.

Second prize went to HIPU, which is making facial recognition technology that serves as a security system for cars. This startup received six months’ free admission to Bridge for Billions, an online accelerator founded by Pablo Santaeufemia. The third-place team, Smart Windshields, is developing LCD windshield technology controlled via smartphone and will attend an entrepreneur camp in the Mexican state of Hidalgo.

Though Murthy says he is pleased with the outcome of the student boot camp—and already planning next year’s—he says IATA will not solely focus on students. Since serendipitous connections can be a catalyst for innovation, he says, he wants to create “deliberate connections” between universities, governments, and companies among the Americas.

“We want to help them find ways to connect, share knowledge, and eventually innovation comes out,” Murthy says.

The current boot camp involved three Mexican universities in Puebla. Murthy hopes to have the University of Houston—where he teaches—join as well. In addition to VW, Murthy says he’s recruited corporate partners such as IBM, T-Mobile, and Booz Allen Hamilton.

For example, Murthy says one of the corporate sponsors at the boot camp, which he declined to name, would like IATA to come in and help create a corporate innovation program internally.

IATA—the acronym also works in Spanish, in which it stands for Innovación A Través de las Américas—is being founded by Murthy and Clarisse Molad, a business consultant who is currently a Peace Corps volunteer in Mexico and has taught at the University of Houston, among other institutions. Her Peace Corps project involves working on tech transfer at Mexican universities.

He says that they both believe that entrepreneurship in technology and engineering is going to fuel economic growth. Eventually, Murthy says he plans to set up the non-profit organization with a headquarters in Houston.

“The time is right for improvement, not only in innovation at the ecosystem level but at multinationals across the Americas,” Murthy says. “We have enough in common and enough connections trade-wise that we can build upon many of those.”

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