Business Management

Uruguay: The growth of tech startups for social change

The Chamber of Uruguayan IT companies, CUTI, notes that 700 IT organisations currently operate in Uruguay. It states this is partly because the sector is constantly promoted and developed by the government and the software produced for export isn’t subject to profit tax or VAT. And adds that a Harvard University study identifies it as one of the most advanced software development centres in Latin America.

This means many ambitious tech entrepreneurs are flocking to the tech hub in Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, in the southern tip of the country. And some people are specifically coming to Uruguay to start tech-related businesses.

Evan Henshaw-Plath arrived in 2008 and funded Cubox SA, the first Latin American agile Ruby on Rails consultancy. Henshaw-Plath is “a technologist who explores the intersection of product, engineering, and the social system in which they exist” and was the lead developer and architect for startup Odeo, which went on to create Twitter.

This began as a way for friends to communicate, explained Henshaw-Plath in a recent YouTube video but evolved into a vehicle for communicating the world’s important social issues. In some cases, these communications triggered change.  

This may be a famous example, but across Uruguay there are many startups which are specifically promoting change on a local level. This is facilitated by organisations like Ashoka, which offers financial support to social entrepreneurs who are leading and collaborating with “changemakers”.

Ana Luisa Arocena is one such “changemaker”. As a chemist at a global pharmaceutical company in Uruguay, she discovered that the country had not established norms for handling hazardous wastes.

Arocena was in charge of disposing of excess vitamins, whose by-products included arsenic and lead, into a river near a poor neighbourhood. With Ashoka’s support, she and her husband invented new technologies for waste management, and created a new waste-management business called Triex.

This greater social need is seeing workspaces springing up to left, right and centre. Sinergia Cowork is one such facility and as Executive Director Macarena Botta told IDG Connect: “I think through spaces like Sinergia we create collaborative communities of empowered people who have vision and tools to create sustainable business by solving social problems. Collaboration is the only way to forge a better world.”  

In keeping with the collaboration philosophy, Sinergia Cowor also offers an incubation program, which starts twice a year and lasts for six to nine months. Each approved project receives seed capital of $25,000.00 from the National Agency for Research and Innovation [Spanish].

Along with affordable rental rates, Sinergia Cowork offers mentoring and entrepreneurial workshops. Many of the mentors have had their own successful tech businesses, like Matías Colotuzzo who founded Clinixon, a system that helps medical clinics monitor their patient’s progress, check compliance and educate their patients. And Nicolás Jodal who founded ARTech Consultores S.R.L. and serves on the advisory board of Greentizen, an app that leverages social media as a means of promoting and coordinating environmentally friendly actions.

Thanks to these features, Sinergia Cowork is quickly becoming the networking place for Uruguay’s new generation of social entrepreneurs. Fuelled by each other’s energy they brainstorm new tech startups for the greater good. One of these is Ecoalsur, a sustainable travel app which works towards the dual goal of inspiring environmentally responsible travel and delivering clean, safe drinking water to South America’s Gran Chaco.

Available for iPads and iPhones, this offers guides to eco-friendly destinations in Latin American and Africa. Each app costs $7.99, and 20% of sales go to water access in region. Organisations working with Ecoalsur develop alternative solutions, such as water filtration systems.

“Technology democratised the ability to generate solutions to the major problems of humanity,” Raf Fremd, who designed an app called Oportunidar [Spanish], which allows online shoppers to round out the price of their purchases and donate the difference to charity, told us. This is not a new idea of course, in Uruguay Plan Ceibal was described by Irina Bokova, Director General of UNESCO, as something which “transformed the privilege of few into a right for all”.

This is just a tiny handful of Uruguay’s 600 non-profit organisations that the general public rarely hears anything about. But as all of these organisations address the needs and wider issues in Uruguayan society it is important that someone speaks up on their behalf.


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Lisa Marie Mercer

Lisa Marie Mercer is a freelance writer living in coastal Uruguay. She and her husband help small businesses get online via their Southern Cross Social Web business and help people learn about moving to Uruguay at Uruguay Expat Life.

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