When picturing hotbeds of entrepreneurship and innovation, the usuals come to mind: Silicon Valley, New York, Stockholm. But Santiago, Chile? Probably not—but not for long.
Chile is a Latin American country prized for its exports of minerals and metals (copper) and agricultural products (timber). It’s not considered a developed country yet—though former President Sebastian Piñera set a goal for a first-world Chile by 2020—but it’s well on its way thanks to exciting things happening in its capital, Santiago, now cheekily referred to as “Chilecon Valley.”
Spurring much of this entrepreneurial excitement in Santiago is the Chilean government organization Start-Up Chile (SUP Chile). Launched in 2010, the goal of this private-public partnership is to encourage the globe’s youngest companies to relocate to Santiago, where SUP Chile can supply the burgeoning brands with equity-free money and a place to live and work, along with access to training; mentors; and, importantly, investors in the global marketplace. In return, the city gets a fresh surge of young, driven, vibrant minds—and a refreshed persona in a region eager for reinvention.
A young and mostly urban population props up Santiago’s delicate new entrepreneurial ecosystem, one now supported by Autodesk’s Entrepreneur Impact Program. These entrepreneurs are hungry for growth, community, and a healthier world. It’s precisely that philosophy that is driving Chile to shift its energy system to one with an emphasis on renewable energy—a move that, while great for Chile as a whole, is also intriguing for some of the country’s new startups.
Take, for example, clean-tech energy company Suli Labs. Suli is passionate about one thing in particular: access to light. The company’s portable solar module does not require electricity or special equipment. “We believe that being in a country where nature is so powerful and extreme gives us the vision of taking care of our environment, as well as creating new solutions in a different way—more human-centered and more creative,” says Ximena Muñoz, founder and executive director of Suli Labs.
Suli Labs’ creative team developed its initial idea around 2013 (originally as another company called Luxia Lighting), but it wasn’t until receiving an investment from Innova Chile and CORFO, a Chilean-government–backed department that supports innovative startups like Suli, that the brand really excelled.
“We think Chile wants to show the world, in some way, that we can be more than just a raw material exporter—also an exporter of products with added value, such as design, technology, and innovation,” Muñoz says.
A group of three American friends, the guys behind Bureo (which means “waves” in the native Chilean language of Mapudungun) see that same promise in Chile. Ben Kneppers, David Stover, and Kevin Ahearn are avid surfers and eager young professionals who travel to all corners of the globe seeking out waves and adventure. But it’s Chile that shaped their future in ways they might never have imagined.
“Unfortunately, we were continually confronted by the problem of plastic pollution around the world,” says Ahearn, a trained mechanical engineer now living in Los Angeles. “Witnessing the problems firsthand sparked in us the desire to put our educations and professional expertise to use in a way that directly impacts the places we love the most.”
The trio moved to Chile in the fall of 2014. As participants in the Start-Up Chile program, they set up a supply chain to take one of the fishing industry’s dirtiest issues, waste from abandoned plastic fishing nets, and turn it into a product—and hopefully a profit.
Kneppers, who still lives and works in Chile, collects from the continuous supply of waste fishing nets and ships them to a recycling center in Santiago, where they’re recycled back into pellets, the most basic form of plastic. From there, the pellets are transformed into skateboards at one of Bureo’s manufacturing facilities in Chile or California. The skateboards are aptly named after their aquatic beginnings: Minnow and Ahi. They even have details resembling fish scales and fins.
“Surrounding yourself with an environment, and with people who believe in what you’re doing and can support you, is one of the most important things you should focus on when starting a business,” Ahearn says.
Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans comes from a variety of sources. Fishing nets aside, billions of pounds of plastic are tossed away every year in the form of food packaging and wrapping. In some cases, cumbersome packaging (not to mention sleek marketing and design) is driving up the price of the foods within.
If they could just reduce the amount of packaging, Jose Manuel Moller and Salvador Achondo reasoned they could save people a lot of money every year. Today, their company, Algramo, delivers food in small reusable containers to stores in Santiago.
Foods such as lentils, chickpeas, and rice are available from their slot-machine-like vending machines. To save even more money, customers pay tax only on the first container purchase. When they’re finished, customers return the containers or refill them. It creates less waste and requires less money than traditional shopping methods.
With more than 450 machines throughout Santiago the end of 2015, Moller and Achondo are now planning to expand to other cities in Chile.
Many of the startups coming out of Santiago are focused on helping the environment or providing for those in need. In that vein, Babybe provides much-needed assistance to Chile’s most vulnerable citizens: premature babies. When cofounder and industrial designer Camilo Anabalon witnessed preemies lying alone in their incubators—a necessary precaution to avoid infection but one that is utterly isolating for newborns and their parents—he wondered if he could create a device that would replicate the sensations and sounds babies experience while they’re with a parent.
Specifically, Anabalon wanted to re-create breathing, heartbeats, and the rise and fall of a chest. “I wanted to take the physical manifestations and replicate them in real time for the baby inside the incubator,” Anabalon says.
Parents, who often can’t pick up their premature babies for several days or weeks, took to the new technology immediately. “When they try it, they realize there’s another way to be with their babies when they cannot be with them physically,” Anabalon says. “There’s a powerful reaction.”
Since launching in January 2012 and joining Start-Up Chile a year later, Babybe is now about a year away from seeking approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
But as so many other budding businesses have found, the resources, connections, and funding made possible by SUP Chile and the public-private partnerships of the Chilean government have built an entrepreneurial ecosystem that is driving a startup revolution—one that is sure to change the world for good.