(Relentless Creators: Slim use of Internet time means USB sticks are golden. Photo: NPR)
This week was a big week for Cuba tech startups. Ten young Cuban tech leaders were awarded a chance at more “next level” resources. We realize that most foreigners view Cuba as a place stuck in time with its old cars and 19th century architecture, but the bodies that inhabit these relics are now hungry millennials chasing the 21st century. Today, hundreds (maybe thousands) of Cuban youth are graduating from computer science schools into a country with barely any internet. Most Cuban businesses do not even have a proper website, although there is a large trend in business owners building at least a Facebook page. It’s only been the last 1-2 years, that we’ve discovered a few company websites and mobile applications pop up in this country. After working tirelessly in their homes with no internet the last few years, a few Cuban tech stars have emerged from this clandestine scene, and are paving the way for newer generations to understand the potential Tech gold rush of their motherland.
If you’re an American and found yourself in Cuba, you’ve probably been frustrated at the fact you can’t Google your way through the country as a guide. Sure, there has been new US/Cuban phone company deals with Verizon, Sprint, and AT&T, but if the roaming charges haven’t murdered you, then the spotty service has blocked the search anyways. Cuba is not yet an open satellite culture for checking internet easily. Logins require “pay by the hour” scratch off cards issued by State owned phone company, ETECSA. But things are moving at a bizarre tortoise pace since 2015 (some believe too slow, others fear it’s too fast). The fact remains, Cuba has tripled the number of Wifi zones on the island, from 65 (at the end of 2015) to more than 200 at the beginning of September 2016. The latest news is that ETECSA announced it will make 5 miles of the Malecon, Havana’s famous seafront boulevard, a Wifi spot by the end of 2016. Despite all these announcements, at home full internet is another conversation and a ghost of a service, much less trying to start a new tech business this way. Laptop sessions in public parks are a big thing in Cuba. Still, the young ones find a way. “Resolviendo” or “Inventando” are the common words spit out.
(The Team at Alamesa. Photo by @Engage_Cuba)
But things are changing for users. If you had been really dialed into the scene before arriving to Cuba, you would have been tipped off to a cool restaurant app called Alamesa, which lists 900 restaurants with addresses, phone numbers and reviews — and it works brilliantly offline. Game-changer. Who is the creator of this app? His name is Ariel Causa Menendez, and this week, the young Cuban was awarded for his invention by the recent 10X10KCuba contest along with 9 of his industry peers in a competition that sought to select the 10 most promising Tech startups in Cuba today.
What exactly is this contest? “10x10KCuba seeks to help talented programmers and entrepreneurs in Cuba integrate themselves into the startup community in the Americas” says John McIntire (Chairman of Cuba Emprende Foundation). More importantly he adds, “It also provides them with the resources and networks to support the growth of their businesses”.
The 10 winners this year are:
Alamesa (Havana) Entrepreneur: Ariel Causa Menéndez. www.alamesa.nat.cu
An information platform for users who wish to explore and be involved with Cuban gastronomy.
Conoce Cuba (Havana) Entrepreneur: Eliecer Cabrera Casas. www.cnccuba.com
A platform for the advertising of and search for businesses, including a directory and maps, which allow the businesses to display any information they wish to consumers.
Cuba-Room (Havana) Entrepreneur: Wendy Rafael Bokly Plana. www.cubaroom.net
An online service to search for and book lodging in less than 24 hours, for travellers looking for bed and breakfast accommodations at different price points.
Cubazon (Havana) Entrepreneur: Bernardo Romero González. www.cubazon.com
An online marketplace for purchasing any product produced by the private sector in Cuba, to be delivered to family or friends resident on the island with the utmost security and professionalism.
GuiArte (Havana) Entrepreneur: Adan Leiva Blaya. www.lbpromo.com
A continuously updated digital directory for domestic and international users of activity in Cuba’s arts and cultural scene, with the information organized by categories and profiles.
Isladentro (Havana) Entrepreneur: Indhira Sotillo Fernández. www.isladentro.net
An easy-to-use platform offering a quick and reliable guide for information and geographic location on any place, business or other points of interest. An app where your business will make an impact.
Ke Hay Pa’ Hoy? (Havana) Entrepreneur: Juan Luis Santana Barrios. www.kehaypahoy.com
A digital platform aimed at promoting Cuban culture, in which customers have the opportunity to showcase their offerings through different channels.
Knales (Havana) Entrepreneur: Luilver Garces Briñas. www.knal.es
An efficient SMS platform to advertise events, products, services and other information, customized for each user.
MiKma (Havana) Entrepreneur: Janse Lazo Valdés. www.mikmacuba.com.
Advertising and booking platform for house rentals (in Cuban pesos) which will revolutionize the way that market operates.
NinjaCuba (Havana) Entrepreneur: Victor Manuel Hernandez Moratón. www.ninjacuba.com
A website for finding talent and searching for jobs in Cuba’s tech sector.
Each of the ten winning businesses receives the following prize packages, conservatively valued at $10,000 per winner:
• Two Dell laptops via EMC
• One year of cloud credits from Rackspace
• Online English or Mandarin courses from iTutorGroup
• For two entrepreneurs from each business, two weeks of immersion in a tech/start-up environment in one of our four destination cities, all expenses paid: Boulder, CO; Mexico City, Mexico; Miami, FL; and Palo Alto, CA.
• Miles to cover flight expenses between Cuba and our destination cities from American Airlines
In each city, the network of accelerator/university partners (including Boomtown, 500 Startups, NXTP Labs, Stanford University’s School of Engineering, and TechStars) will provide a customized experience to enhance the business and tech skills of the winning entrepreneurs. There will also be additional mentoring and networking through local tech busineses and entrepreneurs. Other supporting Foundations and Corporate Sponsors include: Knight Foundation, Tinker Foundation, and Americas Society/Council of the Americas, American Airlines, Dell/EMC, iTutorGroup, and Rackspace.
The contest is one of the most innovative and unprecedented collaborations between United States and Cuba’s young tech leaders on the forefront of a nascent underground. This year, the contest drew 88 applications from Cuban entrepreneurs, but we foresee next year hopefully drawing double/triple these numbers as we’ve seen internet proliferate deeper in the nation since Obama & Raul Castro’s normalization talks began December 17, 2014. More tourism and internal reforms have created new demands for these inventions as well.
Ric Herrero (of #CubaNow) and Co-organizer of this contest understands the big vision of these new thinkers, and aims to foster these voices to greater heights. “The winning entrepreneurs have the talent and resourcefulness to succeed in any tech company in the world” he says, “and we couldn’t be prouder of their commitment to growing the startup community in Cuba.”
Here’s to tomorrows tech leaders, and making life just a little more convenient and connected for residents and foreigners. I was told by my parents that Pre-Revolution Cuba was a very forward-thinking, innovative, and experimental place in the Caribbean to launch ahead-of-its-time technology (including the first color TV’s in the Americas).
Well, grab a seat. We’re about to witness the most exciting comeback in history. We realize this is an ambitious thought, but Cubans never reach for anything less than the stars. Somewhere in this pack of educated and cultured minds is the next Jeff Bezos or Steve Jobs, hungry to capitalize on the gaps of the Cuban market which are very unique today. As the nation redefines itself in a new era of self-identity, it is also looking to reposition itself into the global economy. This will be a long road, and dependent on how fast the island gets wired up.
Content is king and information is power, so keep those inventions brewing, young Cubans. We’ll be rooting for you all the way from America through programs like this.