The Rise of Argentina’s Startup Scene
July 24, 2016
Right in the center of Buenos Aires, “Espacio Bitcoin” (Bitcoin Space) is a meeting Argentina’s Bitcoin community. It was started in early 2012 by Wenceslao Casares, an Argentinean entrepreneur who developed an online bank in the 90’s and today is the CEO of Xapo, a Bitcoin Bank.
At Espacio Bitcoin they organize developer meetups to share notes and information on this new technology. Franco Amanti, one of the leaders of the local Bitcoin community, set up shop there. Franco is one of the founders of Bitcourt, a startup offering contract certifications in the blockchain, which is one of the tech infrastructure pieces supporting Bitcoin.
“Argentina and Venezuela are the two countries where Bitcoin is used the most”, Franco explains. It makes sense. Both Argentina and Venezuela have endured populist governments for years, closed economies and high inflation rates. However, winds of change are blowing these days. At least in Argentina. Mauricio Macri won the Presidential elections and became President in December 2015. The son of an important Argentinean businessman, Mauricio is the former President of the Boca Juniors Soccer Athletic Club, one of the most important soccer teams in Argentina and former Mayor of Buenos Aires. Macri started his presidential term with measures to immediately open up the economy and insert Argentina once again in the global markets. These events have spiked interest in the Argentinean Startup scene, the only country in the region with companies that have IPOed in the NASDAQ. This article offers a glance into the who's-who in the Argentinean Entrepreneurial Scene.
A Little Bit of History
In order to understand the Argentinean entrepreneurial ecosystem we need to start by looking at the 90’s when, after years of high inflation rates and a closed economy, Carlos Menem’s government propelled economic reforms to open up the country. This period coincided with the “Internet bubble” and Buenos Aires became the regional “dot com” hub . During that time, about 70% Latin America’s venture capital was concentrated in Buenos Aires. It was then that the equivalent of Silicon Valley’s “PayPal Mafia” was formed in Argentina.
A young group of entrepreneurs started the first “dot coms” in Argentina. Wenceslao Casares was one of them. Others include Marcos Galperin and Hernan Kazah, founders of MercadoLibre.com, eBay’s regional equivalent (where eBay is also a stakeholder) which IPO'd in the NASDAQ in 2007. Andy Freire and Santiago Bilinkis founded OfficeNet, which was acquired by Staples in 2004. All of them became inspirational entrepreneurial leaders in a country where, until then, people viewed the typical corporate managerial ladder as the only way for the middle class to move forward.
Silvia Torres Carbonell is the renowned Dean of the Argentinean Enterprise Institute (IAE) Business School, one of the most recognized schools in the region. She had a front-row seat overlooking the growing entrepreneurial ecosystem in the region. “20 years ago people rarely talked about entrepreneurship” She comments. “But by the end of the 90’s and the internet boom, becoming an entrepreneur became the path of choice”.
The 90’s did not end up well for Argentina. After a steep economic crisis, the country suffered a severe currency devaluation and defaulted on its public debts in 2001. In this traumatic context, Nestor Kirchner arrived to power, with a populist discourse aligned with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Kirchner was succeeded by his wife, Cristina Fernandez. In a hostile environment towards private enterprise, business froze. Even during this difficult business environment, an entrepreneurial group led by Martin Migoya, Guilbert Englebienne, Martin Umaran and Nestor Nocetti started the tech outsourcing company Globant, which IPOed in the NASDAQ in 2014.
Throughout this decade, the Argentinean entrepreneurial ecosystem has been propelled by its entrepreneurs’ creativity, the quality of the local universities and the difficulty in raising capital; mostly due to public policies working against foreign capital investment in the country. In this context of foreign investment capital scarcity, the successful entrepreneurs from the 90’s “dot com” era became the main suppliers of capital to Argentina’s startup ecosystem
Accelerator & Investors
Santiago Bilinkis, Andy Freire and Pablo Simon have spent a lifetime as an entrepreneurial group. During the 90’s they founded OfficeNet, and office supplies retailer, which they sold to Staples in 2004. In 2013, they starter Quasar Ventures, working under the “startup studio” format. Quasar looks for high potential entrepreneurial ideas and then chooses a team to execute them and bring them to fruition. They take 45% of the equity and the entrepreneurs take 55%. Their offices overlook the River Plate soccer stadium one of the most popular soccer teams in Argentina. Some of the most successful Argentinean startups in the most recent years were born and incubated there.
“Avenida.com” is the local adaptation of Amazon.com. They raised a Series C round in November 2015. Overall they have raised over U$D 50 million to date. Restorando, a restaurant table-booking platform similar to OpenTable in the US has raised U$D 24 million. One of Quasar’s latest creations is Rodati, which aspires to revolutionize the way car are bought and sold in Latin America.
“Argentina has a very good talent pool and a much lower cost than Silicon Valley” says Santiago Bilinkis. “That is why it is a great place to set up a platform to develop new projects aiming at both the regional and global markets”.
Quasar’s strategy is regional. It usually takes an idea or business model that works somewhere else and adapts it to the Latin American reality. They start in Argentina and then scale regionally. If they achieve traction in Brazil, with a 200 million people market, they can aim for a strategic buyer acquisition.
Quasar shows a typical strategy followed by many Argentinean startups. In general, they try to replicate the success seen in other geographies. Very few try to innovate globally. However, we find these cases too! The most salient one in Satellogic, a nanosatellites company founded by Emiliano Kargieman.
Satellogic, Running the Space Race from Argentina
Emiliano Kargieman is a serial entrepreneur in cybersecurity as well as a Venture Capitalist. While attending Singularity University in Silicon Valley in 2010, he came up with the idea for Satellogic. It is Headquartered in Buenos Aires’ Palermo neighborhood, where half a dozen scientists wearing bunny suits similar to the ones you can find at Intel’s manufacturing facilities assemble satellites as small as a soccer ball.
“Developing and launching a traditional satellite takes about 10 years and hundreds of millions of dollars” Explains Kargieman. “We plan to launch a constellation of small satellites at a much lower cost, connect them and make them work as a network”. Over 100 satellites will continuously orbit Earth while taking High Resolution images. This way we will be able to take pictures of our planet in almost real time, for applications from marine routes optimization to oil pipes control and harvest yield computations.
Satellogic was incubated at INVAP, a state enterprise focused on space technology located in the Patagonia region. It has a distributed workforce in Argentina, the United States, Israel, France and the UK.
“This kind of infrastructure will change the way we related to our planet” states an excited Kargieman, a big fan of Stanislaw Lem, the Polish science fiction writer. “Space is going through a revolutionary phase. This industry is becoming much more competitive. A new space race”.
Many startups in the Argentinean ecosystem start their journey applying to NXTP Labs or Wayra, Accelerator and Incubators that function with a similar format to Y Combinator. They take teams with some kind of prototypes or proofs of concept and invest U$D 20K to 50K in the venture. However, getting into one of these programs that not guarantee success. Problems arise later, when the need to raise a seed investment round of capital.
Mario Tapia, a specialist in the mobile market in Silicon Valley states: “a significant disadvantage for a startup located in Argentina is the lack of access to seed and angel investment financing”. Carlos Esnal, CEO of LugLoc, a company focus on luggage tracking comments: “in Silicon Valley, an idea written on a napkin can easily raise a million dollars. In Argentina, to get a million dollars the product needs to be much more advanced and show a lot more traction”.
These kinds of companies look for a seed investment round of about U$D400K to 600K. These amounts are usually raised from angel investment rounds in which each angle ponies up between U$D 50K to U$D 100K. The situation gets a little trickier if the company keeps growing to the point of needing venture funding.
“After the internet boom, when many funds from abroad came to invest, there was practically no venture funding in Argentina” comments Carolina Dams, Dean of Austral University’s School of Management Sciences and venture capital researcher. The VC funds did not trust Argentina which was nationalizing private pension funds and enterprises. One of the first post dot com bubble funds was CAP, which was formed by both private investors and the IADB.
“In 2007, when the CAP fund was launched, it was very hard to build a pipeline and deal flow because there were very few companies that fit the investment criteria for venture capital” points Manuel Mauer, CAP’s fund manager. “Today the ecosystem is much more developed, but still has its limitations. A traditional fund investment cycle of 6 to 7 years it’s usually too short for the timelines of a typical Argentinean startup. Moreover, there are very few potential buyers within the country to consider a strategic purchase of a company a viable investment exit”.
As opposed to many Silicon Valley funds, the CAP fund is a general fund, not specialized in any specific industry vertical. It holds investments in food, Telemedicine, Internet, and eCommerce. The CAP Fund participated in these investments with amounts from U$D 300K to 3 million. The ecosystem does not offer a big enough deal flow to justify specialization. The “Smart Money” and the experience to build companies with global ambition and not as abundant in Buenos Aires.
NXTP Labs is an accelerator created in 2011 by Marta Cruz, Ariel Arrieta, Francisco Coronel and Gonzalo Costa, following the Y Combinator format. They are Argentina’s most active early stage fund and an important player in Latin America.
They have a portfolio of about 160 companies with founders from 15 different countries, with offices in Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay and the US. NXTP lab invests in a wide range of tech companies, such a eCommerce, mobile, gaming, new media and digital marketing. They invest U$D 25K in exchange for 2% to 10% of the company. Fintech is one of NXTP’s latest vertical focus.
NXTP Labs is raising a U$D 120 million fund. “It will help us invest additional money (between U$D 1 to 5 million) in about 32 companies, of which 70% are coming from our current portfolio” Explains Ariel Arrieta, NXTP partner.
Wayra started in 2011 as an initiative from Telefonica Group. It has offices in 14 cities in Latin America and Europe. One of them is in Buenos Aires.
Wayra invests U$D 50K in each startup that makes it to their acceleration program, in exchange for 7% to 10% of the company. It offers entrepreneurs a great channel to commercialize their products through Telefonica’s mobile platform.
Wayra’s program is smaller than NXTP’s. They have invested in about 36 companies, in batches of 8 to 10.
Within Wayra’s investment portfolio we can find companies related to Internet of Things (IoT), education platforms and Big Data eCommerce solutions.
Kaszek was started in 2011 by Hernan Kazah and Nicolas Szekasy, cofounder and ex CFO of MercadoLibre. While founded by Argentineans and having an office in Buenos Aires, Kaszek’s investment activity in Argentina is small. They raised a U$D 95 million fund mostly from capital from the US, which they investment in 23 companies. They raised an additional U$D 135 million in January 2014 which they are still deploying today.
Some of their investments in Argentinean companies include Eventioz (ticket booking platform for events and shows, similar to Eventbrite in the US), Restorando and GoIntegro (Corporate HR platform) Kaszek focuses on Series A rounds investing amounts in the order of U$D 3 million.
In November 24th, 1960, the first computer in Latin America arrives to Buenos Aires, where it was used for simulation processing. It was 18 meters long and was installed at the University of Buenos Aires. They named it Clementina, because each time it processed a program it chimed the tones of the popular Clementine song. Manuel Sadosky, the mathematician leading the team, is considered one of the fathers of Computer Science in Latin America.
Argentina was always an advanced country in terms of science in Latin America. Argentina is the only country in Latin America with 4 Nobel Prizes in science categories. Universities like ITBA and UTN train very good software engineers. Many of them end up working in Silicon Valley, where salaries are more than three times the U$D 30K per year usually earned in the Argentinean market.
If Argentina is to keep its engineers, its needs to set up enabling policies for startups and attract foreign capital for investment. This is the large task ahead for Mariano Mayer, a startup attorney. Mayer has led many city government entrepreneurial initiatives in Buenos Aires, which former Mayor is the current Argentinean president Mauricio Macri. Today Mayer is the leader and responsible for all federal policy related to entrepreneurship.
“Argentina currently ranks very low on the World Bank’s Doing Business index.” Says Mayer. “The first phase involves changing the norm to enable and make entrepreneurship easier”.
This is the work being tackled by the new Entrepreneurial Law, supported by the Argentinean Entrepreneurs’ Association. The Law aims to simplify the paperwork needed to incorporate a business and boost seed investments in particular and venture capital in general. We can refer to Chile’s success case to see that this is possible and the kind of benefits it can bring. In 2010, Chile launched “Startup Chile”, a program that offers companies U$D 40K without taking any equity in return for companies to set up shot in Chile for at least a year. Many Argentinean entrepreneurs are heading over to Chile to start their companies, taking advantage of the seed investment in a country open to capital markets, with a clear legal framework and economic stability.
Startups Future in Buenos Aires
In the movie The Third Man (1949), the character played by Orson Welles says: “Italy, for 30 years under Borgia ruling, it went through war, terror, murders and blood baths, but it also produced Michelangelo, Da Vinci and the Renaissance. Switzerland, on the other hand, enjoyed a lovely time, with 500 years of peace and democracy, and what did they produce? The Cuckoo clock”.
Argentina’s history seems more similar to that of Italy than Switzerland, both because of the origins of its immigrant population as well as a recent past marked by blood and terror from a dictatorship ruling the country between 1976 and 1983.
Argentina provides contrast. At the beginning of the 20th Century, Argentina was the 8th richest country on Earth. After that it suffered decades of economic stagnation and political instability since the 1940s with Peron coming to power. After the steep crisis of 2001, it went through Kirchner’s populist ruling. Now, Mauricio Macri’s new government promises a new alignment with the West and an open economy to help boost the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
In their book Startup Nation, Dan Senor and Saul Singer study Israel’s success case in entrepreneurship, a country that has massively developed its entrepreneurial ecosystem in the last 20 years. The authors note that one of the key elements of Israel’s success is Chutzpah, the Hebrew word for a concept that could be translated as the “creative energy to overcome obstacles”.
Pablo Brenner is a Uruguayan engineer who lived in Israel during the time the entrepreneurial ecosystem was forming there. Today Pablo is the General Manager for Globant Uruguay: “There are some similarities and differences between Israel in the 90’s and Argentina in 2015” Pablo notes. “Both Israel and Argentina have good scientists and universities. “Chutzpah allowed Israeli companies to attain goals that seemed impossible to reach. Argentina is, without a doubt the country with most chutzpah in the region”.
Argentina’s history is one of individual’s success and collective failure. The land of Messi, Pope Francis and Jorge Luis Borges. While its citizens and venerated around the globe, Argentina has lived through decades of economic stagnation since mid-20th century. The new government promises economic integration with the rest of the world as well as setup the conditions for a country of 40 million entrepreneurs. This promise gives hope to many in this land known for its lands and beef, but which has much more to offer to the tech world.
Federico Ast. Studied Economics and Philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires. Enterprise Management PhD Candidate at the Argentinean Enterprise Institute (IAE) Business School. Entrepreneur, consultant, investigator and journalist specialized in tech companies. @federicoast
Leandro Margulis. Industrial & Systems Engineer. Yale MBA. Entrepreneur, investor, consultant and business accelerator in Silicon Valley and emerging markets. @leanmarg
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