Cuba’s Tech and Startup Scenes – On the Verge of Connection
It is an unmistakable sign of technical sophistication when developers are capable of discussing and debating code at a conceptual level — as opposed to simply executing on tasks. Mastering the underlying concepts allows coders to unlock the door to high-level problem solving, the gold standard for object-oriented programming and most of the other tools powering today’s Internet.
For Zachary Kim, the CTO of Zaarly, a San Francisco startup innovating in the home services business, such sophistication was a pleasant surprise when he recently visited Cuba for the first time as a guest at the Merchise Startup Circle Meetup in Havana.
Given the many challenges faced by Cuba’s nascent developer community (coders are sometimes referred to as developers), not the least of which includes a lack of accessible computer hardware and a scarcity of Wi-Fi access, Zachary confessed that he, “clearly underestimated both the level of technical knowledge and the level of enthusiasm he would find at the event.”
The Cuban developers who had gathered at the Merchise Startup Circle Meetup exchanged ideas that demonstrated a deep understanding of vital coding concepts like rapid learning, agile software development and other skillful adaptations (sometimes called “hacks”).
“Working around all the challenges is really hard to do,” said Zachary, “but the way Cuban developers are solving these problems is incredibly interesting – and inspiring.” The Meetup attracted approximately 50-60 attendees, with a 60/40 ratio of male to female.
To discover one of Cuba’s hidden depths at a tech meetup seems counterintuitive. Coming from San Francisco, where developers set their pulse to the rapid pace of commercial and technical innovation in Silicon Valley, Zachary reveled in the attendees’ entrepreneurial spirit. Coding concept questions evolved naturally into questions about capital raising and business development.
With private property and private sector employment either a very recent development or outright illegal in Cuba, these questions suggested a connection to a far away yet familiar pulse – and also to an emerging sense of vitality about what the future will bring for Cuba’s tech and startup scenes, as changing political and economic circumstances create new opportunities.
The History of Merchise
The Cuban tech scene is not brand new. The Merchise Startup Circle can trace its roots all the way back to the early 1980s, when a small group of computer science enthusiasts first created “Merchise” (pronounced “mer-cheese-eh” in Spanish) at the University “Marta Abreu” of Las Villas in Santa Clara, Cuba.
Merchise was c0-founded by Medardo Rodriguez, who taught programming theory at the university, along with a small group of like-minded collaborators who were also students. One of Medardo’s co-founders, Miguel Cepero, came up with the name Merchise based on an ancient Mayan wizard diety.
At the time, the computer science faculty was an amalgam of researchers from physics and mathematics. Many of the math, physics and computer textbooks of the day were in Russian – along with some of the keyboards. This made the task of studying and applying advanced programming languages all the more complex.
Medardo and Miguel restricted membership to about 20 members. The group shared one computer that was available only on nights and weekends. Members adapted a sleuthy habit of surveilling for other students asleep at their computer terminals in the “Centro de Cálculo.” Paired programming was the norm.
The impetus for the Merchise group’s formation in 1991 stemmed from a passion to explore the possibilities of computer programming outside the narrow scope prescribed by the university administration. Merchise soon gained a reputation for innovation and freethinking and attracted interest from far too many students than the informal group could handle.
Like many other students studying programming around the world, gaming became the main preoccupation. It played to the strengths of the Merchise group members who had been working – officially – on TCP/IP networks and programming, network configuration and graphic design and animation. Looking back on it today, gaming was only the first instance of those early Cuban coders sharing a passion with computer geeks everywhere.
La Fortaleza (the Fortress), a game developed by Miguel, become popular in Cuba and Mexico. It was a role playing game (RPG) and the first in a series of games that would gain increasing popularity and notoriety. Later came “Escape del Castillo de la Fisica” (Escape from Physic’s Castle), a visual point-and-click game.
According to Medardo, David Izada Rodriguez, a researcher and ad-hoc advisor to the Merchise group, was, “a genius in programming and certain branches of mathematics.” In the 1970s, David was a promising young Cuban at the tip of Cuba’s digital spear. The field of cybernetics – at the intersection of mechanical automation, control and programming – appealed to central planners’ vision of applying linear computational methods to economic planning problems. Working with a Russian clone of an IBM System 360 (it had 4k internal memory!), David proved himself with assembly programming languages (Fortran, Cobalt) and found a home as a university researcher. He even developed Cuba’s first anti-virus software.
In 1995, a Canadian software company, Oceanus Communications, engaged members of the Merchise group to develop multi-player games using Internet integration. Eventually, several members relocated to Ottawa, Canada and helped Oceanus develop several more successful games that enjoyed international adoption.
Other members of the original Merchise group included Alex Medina, Luis Hereira, Alcides Morales, Lorver Duarte and Leandro Marrero (also known as “Kowa”). Since those early days, many original Merchise members have scattered around the globe like so many other Cubans. David eventually moved to Chile to be a software engineer and today works for leading software companies from his home in Nevada.
On the other hand, several remain in Cuba, including Medardo and Alex, where they are working on the next iteration of Merchise, the Merchise Startup Circle.
The Merchise Startup Circle
In the past year, the Merchise Startup Circle has sponsored a variety of tech meetups and other ambitious startup-focused events, just like the one Zachary attended. One thing is for sure, the Merchise Startup Circle seems to crave combustion. If last year’s activities are any indication, it appears the Cuban tech scene is getting its legs riding the wave of Internet adoption and the communities around it.
One of the most notable accomplishments of the Merchise Startup Circle was helping to organize Cuba’s first Startup Weekend event in Havana this past November. Startup Weekend is the wildly popular “hackathon” where budding entrepreneurs build and launch tech-based businesses over the course of a weekend.
With the launch of Startup Weekend Havana, Cuba’s tech community joins the ranks of a global community of over 80,000 budding entrepreneurs who have participated in Startup Weekend events in over 135 countries around the world. Yet another connection was the event’s co-sponsors, .CO, the domain extension that has become synonymous with tech innovation and entrepreneurship globally.
Startup Weekend Havana was facilitated by Santiago Zavala, Venture Partner at the well-known venture capital fund, 500 Startups. 500 Startups is an auspicious name to have involved in Cuba’s first Startup Weekend. Perhaps it is because Dave McClure, the outspoken founder of the fund, has laid down the gauntlet for seed stage startups as a $50b/year global business opportunity driven mostly by aspiring, hungry and scrappy coders and entrepreneurs — just like the members of the Merchise Startup Circle group.
The Future of Cuba’s Tech and Startup Ecosystem
The people and history behind the Merchise Startup Circle are a representation of Cuba’s dislocation, but, more importantly, it could be a symbol of Cuba’s possibilities. A little known facet of Cuban society is that they are believed to be the best-educated in Latin America, with the island nation graduating more than 4,000 IT engineers annually. Education, aspiration, a changing political and economic landscape — Cuba appears to be a combustible place for a tech driven impact that could shape every aspect of the country’s future.
What’s next for Cuba? For a variety of reasons, entrepreneurs and the tech sector offer what Cuba needs most – like investment and private sector employment – without risking what the Castro’s fear the most – loss of control. There are many examples of developing countries that have adopted their own style of economic development by helping to foster a vibrant tech and startup ecosystem. And, most appealing to Castro, there are no direct examples of startup communities fomenting anti-revolutionary thinking and regime change.
Cuba and the United States seem to be reaching in the dark for something – perhaps akin to annulling a divorce. US policy explicitly targets “the Cuban people”, while Cuba’s policy explicitly targets US travelers – not US businesses. This dynamic was on display last month when the US FCC Chairman visited Cuba in hopes of creating a private sector partnership with Cuba to crack open Internet access to a broader swath of Cubans. Cuban officials demurred only to announce, a week later, a pilot project to bring broadband Internet connections into Cuban homes and businesses in partnership with a Chinese company.
In giving shape to the future economic landscape of the country, the Castro’s have made it clear they will not accept the boundaries assigned to Cuba by the United States. In the end, that’s okay because the tech and startup ecosystem has a pulse all of its own – its the pulse of innovation and entrepreneurship from around the world.