Alejandro Pelaez doesn’t take Medellin’s achievements lightly.
A byword for narco-trafficking until the 1990s, the Colombian city home to some of the country’s largest companies is now known as a hub for social inclusion and responsive urban design. In recent years, various sources have ranked it a top global tourism destination.
“None of us would have thought that Medellin could be the city that it is today back then,” said Mr. Pelaez, open innovation and strategic alliances manager at Bancolombia, standing before compatriots seated around a conference-room “campfire” at Georgia Tech.
Overseen by the global arm of the university’s Enterprise Innovation Institute, or EI² , the storytelling exercise was designed to give the group of visiting companies, nonprofits and universities a chance to frame new narratives for their city around key terms like “success,” “confianza” (trust) and “collaboration.”
“It’s not common in the world,” Mr. Pelaez said of the way city stakeholders came together to clean up Medellin’s act. “We have done it, but we don’t believe it.”
With Georgia Tech’s help, Medellin is aspiring to write another historic chapter, once again grounded in unprecedented collaboration.
Twelve companies, four universities and two economic development agencies have come together to create Georgia Tech’s Medellin Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, strengthening the city’s entrepreneurial ecosystem in a private sector-led effort to take the city’s transformation to the next level.
The goal? Create a self-sustaining innovation ecosystem that doesn’t rely on government backing, yet reinforces on itself to create jobs and grow community resiliency.
Georgia Tech is providing the models and experience; Medellin is providing the commitment and the manpower, with some of Colombia’s most influential corporations lending valuable their top executives to the initiative. That includes Bancolombia; Celsia, the renewable energy production and transmission arm of cement and construction firm Argos; and insurance giant Sura, to name a few.
Many of them visited Atlanta this week to learn about incubators, initiatives and resources like the Advanced Technology Development Center, the Georgia Tech Create-X program for student-led startups and Engage, the venture fund that brings together some of Atlanta’s largest companies. I-Corps, a nationally funded initiative to help research labs commercialize innovations, is another program that Tech looks to help replicate in Medellin.
For Santiago Henao Restrepo, director of operations at Georgia Tech’s Medellin center, the visit was about “building bridges” and learning from the achievements of Atlanta, a city with a head start on figuring out how to bring academia, civil society and corporations together for the good of the community.
“They are not better than our city, but we can improve our city with the things that we are learning,” Mr. Henao said, speaking during the campfire exercise as a third-person narrator about his visiting “a mysterious city that starts with A” once upon a time.
Launched in March, the Georgia Tech center in Medellin is set to see many initiatives begin in earnest this fall, with EI² leaders set to go down this week to start “training the trainers” to get programs like CREATE-X up and running. The center hopes to have 100 student-led startups created by the end of the year across the four participating universities: Universidad CES, Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, Universidad EIA and Universidad EAFIT.
Brandy Nagel, who facilitated the campfire exercise and leads some of Enterprise Innovation Institute’s global programs, was scheduled to make the trip; she offered the group some encouragement for its collaborative commitment to their city’s transformation.
“What you are working on organizational change, which is incredibly difficult. Humans don’t want to change,” she said, noting that Georgia Tech is coming in not to take over, but simply to provide apoyo, or support — another prompt found on the PostIt notes used during story time.
“We are here to support you. But you have to do the difficult work,” Ms. Nagel told the group. “What you’re doing is not easy, and I think it’s not natural. I think what you’re doing goes against human nature, but that’s what innovation is, to do something that has not been done before.”
While the innovation center opened its doors this year, the initiative was born after years of work in and with Medellin. EI² in 2018 conducted a full assessment of the city’s ecosystem, working to understand key players, stakeholders and “constraining factors” that keep entrepreneurs in Medellin and the surrounding state of Antioquia from reaching their full potential.
Georgia Tech alumnus Luis Fernando Restrepo Echavarría, a Georgia Tech Advisory Board member and CEO of Medellin-based apparel firm Crystal, championed the idea of putting a new center in Medellin, the first such facility operated by Tech in South America.
The university then lined up a $2.5 million anonymous endowment as a seed fund to kickstart the Medellin project.
“When the companies realized we were invested in Medellin and willing to put in money, they came along and said, ‘We need this,’” Sara Araujo, Georgia Tech’s Colombia-based managing director of development for Latin America, told Global Atlanta.
The center will start with a five-year pilot with the goal of becoming self-sustaining by its end, Ms. Araujo said.
In addition to the four universities, corporate partners on the project include: Bancolombia, Celsia, Globant, Crystal, Sura, Comfama, Conconcreto, ProAntioquia, Microsoft, TCC, Alianza Team and Iluma. The two economic development organizations represented are the Cámara de Comercio de Medellín para Antioquia, and ProAntioquia, the government investment and trade organization for the state and the city of Medellin.