Ruta N Technology Incubator Anchors Medellin’s Innovation District, Driving Business Growth And Social Inclusion
While Colombia’s center of government may rest in Bogotá, the second largest city of Medellín has always been an economic engine and home to some of Colombia’s largest enterprises. Free of the confrontational politics and scandal that have often plagued the country’s capital, Medellin has for at least the past decade enjoyed a relatively collaborative approach to government and an atmosphere of public-private partnership that has resulted not only in profits for business, but real efforts at social inclusion that have improved the quality of life and quantity of opportunities for residents from all sectors of society.
Finance Colombia recently toured “Ruta N” (Ruta = Route) the giant business incubator on the city’s north side, and free zone sponsored by the government of Medellín; UNE, the regional telecom operator now merged with Millicom’s Tigo; and EPM, the municipal owned utility. Ruta N is anchored by Hewlett Packard, but is designed to accommodate businesses as small as sole practitioners, and the leanest of lean startups. The facility, located in Medellin’s special innovation district of 114 hectares (roughly 282 US acres) around the Sevilla neighborhood, is not in one of Medellín’s luxurious south side neighborhoods or commercial areas, but just a block from the University of Antioquia, and steps from the University and Hospital metro stations. Adding to accessibility, within Ruta N’s green campus (the building is LEED Gold Certified) is a bicycle sharing station, walkways, as well as accessibility and secure storage for those commuting on two wheels.
The idea behind Ruta N is to create a shared working environment that mixes established businesses with startups, and various disciplines from high-tech to social entrepreneurs, professionals and researchers that can generate “sum is greater than the parts” synergies. Not only is this expected to stimulate employment, but to do so broadly across the social spectrum. In addition to flexible office space that can be configured according to an entrepreneur’s needs, rents for startups are low, starting at a remarkable (approximate) $60 USD per month for the smallest workspace suitable for an individual. The technology park is not only for startups and small businesses though; Ruta N is home in Medellín to Hewlett Packard, the software giant Globant, and other large firms such as the Swiss cement concern Holcim. This fits with Ruta N’s strategy of creating an environment where global corporate and early stage startups can breathe the same air, hopefully nourishing one another, and the surrounding city.
While touring the business complex, Finance Colombia was able to have a conversation with Ruta N’s Angela Prieto, where she talks us through the aspects that make Ruta N unique both in and outside of Colombia.
Angela Prieto: I have been working here at Ruta N for 3 years, at District Management in the Center of Technology and Innovation. We belong to one of the most sensitive areas of Ruta N, so I will start by telling you what we do. Ruta N is the corporation of science, technology and innovation of Medellín, in charge of directing all those projects and businesses that focus in these aspects. Therefore we have a series of guidelines from the mayor’s office and a plan for science, technology and innovation, which is our guide, our reason for existence. This plan of science, technology and innovation gives priority to health, energy and information technology sectors. You might know that in Medellín there are six prioritized clusters.
Finance Colombia: Yes, they were telling us about it.
Angela Prieto: The six prioritized clusters are construction, textiles, tourism, health, energy, and information & communications technology (TIC for its initials in Spanish). The three clusters, health, energy and TIC are located here, precisely because Ruta N offers the development support in knowledge sector businesses. Medellín has transformed itself from an industrial capital in the country. Due to its location and where we are today, the mayor’s administration has wanted to transform from an industrial capital to a capital of the knowledge economy. Precisely due to our location, we are not competitive with other cities [for things like heavy shipping and maritime logistics], so with the knowledge economy, we want to boost the market and to generate new businesses for entrepreneurs without abandoning the current industry base. So Ruta N, by giving tools to those entrepreneurs and to those companies to be able to boost their projects through the different tools; nowadays we have projects such as a pipeline in which companies come up with projects, from the very original idea, all the way up until its commercialization and internationalization.
Finance Colombia: So if for example, an entrepreneur is contemplating the possibility of locating his or her business here in Medellín, or the company already exists but wants to grow, do you serve as a middleman when connecting?
Angela Prieto: Yes, we facilitate, and Ruta N connects. For instance, here in the [Innovation] District, we have some 177 hectares around Ruta N. What we want to do, through the tools Ruta N offers, is to help those who want to establish here or are already here, to facilitate and give them the tools to launch those projects and businesses, based on science, technology and innovation. A company, for instance, who comes from a foreign nation needs help in the landing, that is why we are with [Medellín’s investment promotion authority] ACI, the right hand of Ruta N, where they help to do all that “soft-landing”, where we can help them to
gather human talent, along with schools and universities. There are programs devoted to acquiring human talent in the short, medium and long run, filling requirements for specific abilities, and additionally, we connect those companies with the market. All those arriving companies, we help to boost up and exploit all their capacity in order to be successful, that is our objective. We want those companies to be able to generate quality employment, knowledge work. We offer tools from this innovation ecosystem so we are able to continue generating projects and the development of new companies.
Finance Colombia: That is exactly what Silicon Valley has.
Angela Prieto: Correct. In the end, that is what we want and it is already happening, you can find it here. We now have in Ruta N, a network of companies. This ‘fabric’ so to say, is settling itself here. We have 51 companies interacting, generating the ability to approach and to get to know people from other companies and generating solutions.
In that sense, it is the same as being able to sit here with you and having you in Ruta N, in our facility, because the ecosystem brings you close to the main actors in the innovation system. And we can effect the connectivity with institutions of higher education, universities, research groups, the directors of the clusters of energy, health and TIC, also experts in those subjects—the 36 most important research groups from Universidad de Antioquia [across the street], that is, you have a group of supporting and generating actors surrounding you. It does not matter if, for example, one project is not successful, nothing happens to the ecosystem because the economy is so stable and dynamic that it won’t slow down. This fabric, the stronger it is and the more actors exist, the stronger it will be and people will find more opportunities for development.
As I was telling you, inside Ruta N we have a program, called “Landing” where we are partners with ACI. From there we bring in the companies, offer them a location completely adequate for them, and we help them to establish as a local company in a period of two months. All the legal aspects, the corporate by-laws, the visas, the cedulas [national identification cards], so people come here and have the support to look for not only where to establish, but also financial support, where they can live, etc. And the companies simply arrive: it is like “fly in and start to work.” We offer complete services, you pay a monthly fee, and with that you have the administration, cleaning and maintenance, security.
Finance Colombia: Full service.
Angela Prieto: Exactly. So, the companies are located in the three areas of the building. One of them is here, the fourth floor and on the third floor, 60% of the companies are foreign, the other 40% is Colombian. 60% is TIC (Communications and Information Technology), more or less 30% belong to other sectors like consultancies and social innovation, which are included because they are synergistic with rest of the areas. What they do is act as catalysts for growth and development in health, energy and TIC, and although they are not necessarily prioritized, we accept companies who have a high degree of innovation in their business model.
Finance Colombia: Is Ruta N focusing specifically in developing the north of the city or the Aburrá Valley [where Medellin is situated] as a whole? What is the purpose?
Angela Prieto: Ruta N in general serves the whole city, but we exist within the district, developing the northern part of the city. Ruta N’s impact is throughout Medellín, but from here we serve as an additional benefit to those establishing companies who are betting on the innovation district [in the Sevilla neighborhood].
This area has a mixture of institutions. Ruta N didn’t get put here because there was a space, but because of the mixture that exists here. We are near the most important hospitals, the Planetarium is here, the University of Antioquia, the research labs, the botanical garden, Parque Explora, museums—there is an interesting mixture so that the people who come here can live, and study and work; to have access to everything here.