June 6, 2014 6:36 pm

Colombia breaks away from its traditional business mindset

©AAU CUBESAT

In a lab located in a crowded apartment of a nondescript 1970s building in a middle-class neighbourhood of Bogotá, engineer Iván Luna points at a “CubeSat” compact satellite his company is making inside a small clean room. “When we said we wanted to start a satellites business here people thought we were crazy,” says Mr Luna, the co-founder of Colombia’s Sequoia Space.

“A traditional satellite could cost some $40m. So we want to make small satellites, with less instruments not to be too overwhelming for the user, for $2m or $3m,” he adds. Mr Luna’s aim is to make aerospace products available to universities and government agencies throughout Latin America, as the cost of making and launching satellites falls worldwide.

The satellite company is currently working with Colombia’s air force – still busy fighting leftwing guerrillas and drug traffickers – to build its first satellite (which is scheduled to launch next year) and develop a space programme. Sequoia was instrumental in the launch of Peru’s first satellite earlier this year and is working on aerospace programmes with universities across the Andean region. The company has set its eyes in developing satellite technology for Bolivia and Costa Rica.

Sequoia started in 2007 with three partners and an initial investment of just $100 out of their own pockets. “We had no idea how to make a business plan, let alone sell something or find an investor,” says Mr Luna. Today, Sequoia has 10 employees and last year it reached sales worth $1m.

Colombia is keen to encourage an entrepreneurial culture. Flush with funds from the country’s energy and mining riches, the government launched iNNpulsa Colombia in 2012. With a budget of $50m, it is an initiative to help local entrepreneurs across a whole range of sectors see their ideas reach fruition.

“Colombia has all the bits and pieces: knowledge, innovation, first-class talent, money because this country has grown impressively, but this was not working as a unified ecosystem to make entrepreneurialism a reality,” says Catalina Ortiz, chief executive of iNNpulsa. “Now, we are using the industries of the present to look out for the industries of the future. We have the potential to be the regional leader in entrepreneurialism.”

As security and the economy improve in Colombia, entrepreneurship is helping to improve the global perception of the country beyond being a byword for drugs and leftwing rebels. Many now suggest the country is challenging Mexico for second place as the most positive entrepreneurial environment in Latin America, trailing behind Chile, the region’s leader.

A tech boom in the capital has been spurred by a rise in the amount of available funds, accelerators, mentoring networks and shared workspaces, says Alex Torrenegra, who created Bunny Inc. and its most popular service VoiceBunny, a “crowd voicing” service that recruits voiceover artists globally.

“Things are pointing in the right direction, but we need more successful Colombian ventures that are scaleable,” says Mr Torrenegra, who also started a mentoring programme. He says that Colombia needs to measure success “not if there’s an IPO or if someone will come from Silicon Valley with a big pile of cash and buy them, but in local terms, based on how many jobs they create and how they contribute to society”.

Several already exist. For example, Tappsi is a taxi-hailing app that emails the driver’s information to the user to avoid robberies and kidnappings.

Others are tapping into the country’s rich biodiversity. InBiotech, for example, uses native plants for use in shampoo and cosmetics; and Solar Ciencia Agrícola tries to find solutions for agricultural problems worldwide from its base in Colombia’s countryside. The young owners of SCA describe themselves, says Ms Ortiz of iNNpulsa, as “farmers wearing Converse All-Star trainers”.

According to Isabella Muñoz, who heads ColCapital, the recently created local association of private equity and venture capital funds, the industry in Colombia grew from almost nothing nine years ago to some $4.6bn this year. A big part of that, she says, is available to the growing number of entrepreneurs.

“We used to be a very traditional country when it came to businesses,” she says. “Now people are staying in Colombia and starting their own businesses. The government and big private corporations have started to actively create programmes to help entrepreneurs, and venture and seed capitalists mushroomed. The mindset has changed in recent years.”

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