Starting up in Chile, not Silicon Valley

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The twenty-nine-year-old signed on with Start-Up Chile (SUP)

Just over a year ago, George Cadena from Los Angeles, California, packed up his solar-panel startup Aeterna Sol and hit the road less taken.

Before waving goodbye to California “I had to Wikipedia Santiago,” says Mr Cadena, who has his master’s in electrical engineering from Caltech University. The search results shattered his “drugs and corruption” image of Chile and Latin America.

Unfazed by his nonexistent Spanish skills, which throughout his life had rendered him incapable of communicating with his monolingual Bolivian grandmother, the twenty-nine-year-old signed on with Start-Up Chile (SUP).

SUP dangled a $40,000 grant as a carrot, tore down government red tape, and hurried one-year visas to entice 25-handpicked start ups to bootstrap their businesses in Chile for six months.

Hot commodity

SUP is government-sponsored. Its goal is to put Chile on the map as an innovation hub for entrepreneurs. A promotional video on SUP’s website spells out the mission: “They arrive. They work. They connect. They leave, and Chile stays connected.”

Thirteen months later, nine of the 22 start ups that came to Chile never completed the “they leave” part. They opted to stay put.

Immigrant entrepreneurs are a hot commodity. Between 1995 and 2005, immigrants are said to have started up about half of the new businesses created in Silicon Valley. The United States, the UK and Greece, vying to draw multi-national entrepreneurs of their own, recently launched similar start-up programmes.

The SUP entrepreneurs agree that the Chilean government is friendly to business, but it isn’t the low 20% corporate tax rate that seduces them to stay.

At the outset, only a “small minority had intention of staying,” says Mr Cadena, but SUP created a “summer camp environment; real solid friendships are formed here.”

The buzz

SUP’s new headquarters in Providencia, Santiago, buzzes with dozens of young entrepreneurs. The half historical mansion and half glass-box lounge houses the second round of 87 start ups and a handful of the original 22. The entrepreneurs hunch over their laptops clustered around highly organised tables, sporting techy t-shirts and cordless headphones.

“What’s important is what you can do with the network of people created by this programme. They give us hints and helps,” says Tiago Matos, who came from Portugal’s second-largest city Porto. He co-founded Vennder, a trilingual site that sets up storefronts, which he describes as “[free blogging website] Blogger for small businesses.”

Recently, he needed a lawyer in the US. After a quick conversation with a North American start up in the SUP programme, the problem was solved.

See Also

When he and Portugal parted ways in 2010, Vennder hosted about 200 stores. Now he has 3,500 customers – 15% of which are Chilean.

He attributes the jump to translating his site into Spanish and English, and to SUP’s connections, which rooted Vennder in Chile.

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