The LAB Miami

Catalina Ayubi

A Wynwood tech incubator is at the heart of America's newest start-up scene.

Wifredo Fernandez and Daniel Lafuente started the LAB Miamiout of necessity. Friends from childhood, they had an idea for an Internet-based firm but had “no technical background and difficulty meeting techies,” Lafuente, 27, says. “There wasn’t a go-to place where entrepreneurs hung out. We wanted to create that.” The two had grown up in the city and moved back after college because they had faith in Miami’s potential. “It isn’t just beaches and clubs and real estate,” Lafuente says. “We knew that innovative ideas, disruptive technologies and smart people were here, too.”

So in 2012 they built a 10,000-square-foot coworking space in Wynwood, a warehouse-filled neighborhood that has rapidly transformed from “a place where you’d go to get shot,” as the LAB’s managing director, Tamara Wendt, puts it, to the city’s street-art-filled, burgeoning version of Silicon Valley.

LAB, which currently has about 160 members, even picked up some of the idiosyncratic informality of West Coast start-up culture. Stonly Baptiste, one of the space’s first members, doesn’t have an office and instead wanders around with a laptop. Shortly after arriving, he met Shaun Abrahamson, an angel investor from New York City, who works from a treadmill desk. By late 2013 the two had formed Urban.us, a fund focusing on young companies addressing civic challenges like transportation and governance. Within nine months, they had made 13 seed investments.

Another start-up to emerge from the incubator is Kairos, a facial-recognition company founded by Brian Brackeen, a former Apple executive who moved to Miami from the Bay Area. The Wall Street Journal deemed it one of the top 24 start-ups in the country.

Apart from the sun, which Silicon Valley also has plenty of, and lack of state income tax, one of the biggest reasons Miami can attract entrepreneurs of Brackeen’s caliber is the Knight Foundation, which supports an astounding number of culture and tech organizations in the city. When Matt Haggman became the foundation’s program director for Miami in 2011, he chose to focus on boosting the city’s start-up community. Miami had some success stories in that area, but “they were happening in isolation,” he says. “We could try to build the ecosystem.” One of his first investments was the LAB.

“I know a lot of people who left because they didn’t think it was possible to raise money here,” says LAB denizen Brian Breslin, who founded Refresh, a monthly meet-up for the tech community. That doesn’t happen so often anymore. Miami’s tech sector is not yet as important as Austin’s—let alone New York’s or Silicon Valley’s—Breslin admits, “but we’re getting there.” There are more angel investment groups and a growing pool of talent in critical areas like engineering. “Three years ago if a start-up failed, you were up shit creek,” Breslin says. “Now there’s another one waiting to hire you.”

LAB Miami is at 400 NW 26th St.; thelabmiami.com.