Since parallel18 began, Sebastián Vidal, our past executive director, has dedicated himself to designing a Puerto Rican accelerator focused on serving local entrepreneurs and the rest of the world.
In 2015, the year that parallel18 was founded by the Puerto Rico Science, Technology & Research Trust (PRSTRT), the island faced the need to restructure its economic model and diversify industries through entrepreneurship. At that time, Sebastián embarked on the challenge of creating a Puerto Rican accelerator with a model similar to Startup Chile, where he collaborated before establishing in the island. Now, he transitioned to a new role and responsibility as Chief Innovation Officer at the PRSTRT.
This is why our new executive director Juan Carlos Hernández Torres is added to the parellel18 team. “Juca”, as we affectionately call him, encourages Puerto Ricans to create innovative solutions as a manifestation of the resilience that defines us because: “Puerto Rico has infinite talent. I want them to stay here because there is a great opportunity to make the island a universal destination for other countries to want to innovate with us ”.
Puerto Rico faces new challenges caused by a series of events: the havoc of Hurricane María, last year’s earthquakes and the current global pandemic crisis of COVID-19. Once again, Puerto Ricans showed their resilience in the face of adversities that motivated a sense and need to innovate.
Also, he won multiple awards, including: The World’s Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company 2 years in a row, Techcrunch’s NFL 1st & future competition at Stanford University, Visa Everywhere Global challenge, and won Gold and Silver Lions at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity.
Furthermore, we sat down to talk with Juca about the future of parallel18 and its programs; since he told us that Puerto Rico has unique elements that must be projected globally as an emerging hub for the startup ecosystem.
Juan Carlos focuses on the high presence of the STEM field in Puerto Rico, because 60% of the college graduates of the island are in this field, which is 6 times more than the highest states. In other words, Puerto Rico has a great advantage in human capital over other universities in the world and the potential to increase professional growth opportunities from within the island.
As the future of startups is becoming decentralized, more global ecosystems and opportunities will emerge. Not only is access to capital no longer concentrated in Silicon Valley, but the virtualization of the fundraising process becomes the new norm. The rampant growth and accessibility to the virtual world in LATAM enables tech-driven industries to flourish and develop at a fast pace.
Consequently, LATAM has raised and developed 24 unicorns in the last four years. This represents the importance of redistributing the ecosystem to better position itself in emerging markets, which have always received a mere fraction of the funding and resources available for the U.S. startups.
As for Puerto Rico, we are part of the emerging market where international startups can thrive and eventually land into the United States’ ecosystem. Juca is deeply aware of the current value and potential the island holds as an emerging hub for innovation; he believes we’ll have our own unicorn on the island at some point in the future!
Clearly, Puerto Rico is becoming the center of it all: where investors land, entrepreneurs meet, emerging and fully developed markets link up.
So, taking all these elements as a starting point, we asked the new Executive Director a series of questions to learn from his perspective the entrepreneurial ecosystem he aspires to see on our island.
What made you want to be part of parallel18? What made you want to come back to Puerto Rico after a professional career in the US?
The first thing was the pandemic. Going back to Puerto Rico was like falling in love with the island again. I felt I had the responsibility to do something for Puerto Rico. This is how the idea of doing a venture firm came up; to generate more capital for companies here. That’s how I started talking to Lucy Crespo (CEO of the PRSTRT), and she saw the potential of my ideas. Later, she offered me the opportunity to join parallel18. In the process, I also had several coffees and conversations with Sebastián Vidal (Chief of Innovation of the PRSTRT), who continued to introduce me to the ecosystem and parallel18 as such. I have made it my mission to empower and uplift individuals of all backgrounds, especially LatinX.
What knowledge and past experiences from your career do you bring to parallel18?
I was privileged to be chosen as a founder to participate in the prestigious Disney Accelerator program and Techstars. Those experiences helped me establish a networking base, connect with investors, build partnerships and get to know the ecosystem better. I have both insights: the entrepreneur side building successful startups and an Angel Investor side; by investing in over 20 startups. The capital that I invest in startups comes with a lot of value behind it because I consider myself a “silent co-founder”. I love helping entrepreneurs grapple with the unknowns of building a new company by providing them with an initial capital amount and operational support.
What elements do you look for in the next startups that participate in our programs?
The main thing for me is looking for entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities. This type of founders are driven to undertake by their resilience; they are entrepreneurs who do a lot with little. I like working with Puerto Ricans, because their ability to innovate in the midst of so many adversities is incredible.
On the other hand, as a Puerto Rican founder, resilience plays a huge part in my life too. Not giving up is one of my secrets to success, and if you asked other founders, most would agree that their unwillingness to quit has played a huge part in their success as well. I look for founders that have overcome difficult times in their lives personally or professionally. Overcoming adversity builds character, and it prepares a founder for the journey ahead. I want to give them a light in the midst of everything so that they can grow as a person and in their startups. I believe that entrepreneurship can unlock human potential and make the world a better place. I look for big problems in the world that have technological solutions and look for mission driven, relentless and determined entrepreneurs who want to join us to accelerate their journey.
Any specific industry that you consider has the potential to grow exponentially on the island?
Puerto Rico is harnessing the power of technology to confront some of the most pressing challenges. Driven by local talent, the island’s tech sector spans digital financial services to Artificial Intelligence- and blockchain-based software development to cyber and information security. This vast and quickly growing scene is supported by island-wide Information & Communications Technology (ICT) and Software Development infrastructure, including 5G rollouts by multiple companies and new 0G networks that connect devices in Puerto Rico with international IoT grids.
A prime example of innovation in Puerto Rico is the growth of the local blockchain scene, as entrepreneurs and pioneers have found the close network of business and community leaders to be the perfect complement to competitive incentives tailored specifically to service exports, digital assets, and financial services. Whether it is through AgTech or HealthTech, virtual power plants or virtual reality, Puerto Rico stands to be a global leader in tech innovation
What do you consider the future of accelerators to be? How do you envision the future of parallel18?
Accelerators are going to become platforms for innovation. Beyond being accelerators, they will have an investment fund and access to a Venture Studio that can provide everything an entrepreneur needs from the moment the idea begins until it is launched in global markets. I visualize the creation of several subgroups within parallel18. Accelerators are in their infancy and are one of the most powerful tools for generating economic impact and creating a better world for tomorrow.
What is distinctive about the Puerto Rican startup ecosystem? What is there here that you have not seen in another part of the world?
Talent. In Puerto Rico we have very good quality universities that graduate tremendous professionals annually. The students here are often the same or better prepared than those who come from Stanford, Harvard or any prestigious university in the United States. Here we have thousands of engineers graduating each year and we must give them the opportunity to stay. I recognize that the last few years have been challenging and I would like parallel18 to somehow provide them with the tools to stay. Also, compared to accelerators in other parts of the world, here it is more accessible to settle and live in while you participate in our program.
Describe a situation with a startup founder where you feel like you made a difference.
BrainHi is a startup that I have been involved with since its beginning and I have provided many opportunities for them. The same thing happened to them as to me: they were forced to move to San Francisco (United States) to raise capital. Before the pandemic, investors preferred to physically connect with startups, to see their performance closely to provide them with capital. So beyond helping them get there, I also gave them many intros for potential investors to establish their own community in the United States.
Finally, we officially welcome Juan Carlos to parallel18 and we are excited to see how Puerto Rico will continue its journey in positioning itself globally as a destination for entrepreneurs. We know that, as Executive Director, positive changes and new challenges will come. From Puerto Rico to the world!