- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000

MIAMI BEACH They are mostly young, single and up all night.

But they are not your usual Miami Beach party animals.

Instead, what is drawing this crowd is South Florida's latest self-reinvention this time as the Internet capital of Latin America. They're calling it Silicon Beach.

Miami has long considered itself the gateway to the Americas for everything from air travel to commerce and banking. The Latin American Internet boom seems set to further cement South Florida's role as the region's hemispheric headquarters.

New billion-dollar underseas fiber-optic cables are being laid to beef up international telecommunications capacity. The system also will link within Florida, providing faster and more reliable Internet access statewide.

Sophisticated data switching stations packed with "next generation" computer networks are being built, expected to make the Miami Beach area more attractive for Internet businesses that need to be close to their high-tech support systems.

New Internet start-ups appear almost every week here, providing a job market for a talented mix of bright, young computer programmers, Hispanic entrepreneurs and Ivy Leaguers.

"It's definitely the new shining star of the Miami Beach business community," Mayor Neisen Kasdin said. He realized its impact recently when he was walking to lunch with an Internet executive along Lincoln Road, a trendy pedestrian-only street that is fast becoming the beach's new cyber strip.

"I'm the mayor of Miami Beach, but he was saying 'hello' to more people than I was," Mr. Kasdin said.

Industry experts estimate that 70 to 80 dot-com companies have set up in South Florida in the past 18 months, mostly on the beach.

"We needed to be in a place where our programmers could walk out the door at 3 in the morning and still find life around," said Gustavo Morles, senior vice president at Yupi.com, one of the industry leaders with 4.1 million users. "Miami Beach was a natural."

Created three years ago, Yupi offers Spanish-language Web surfers in the United States and Latin America links to news, business and sports sites, as well as chat rooms and free e-mail.

Employees who live close by come to work at Yupi on in-line skates and skateboards. There's a bicycle rack in the street outside the new offices just off Lincoln Road. For those on a frequent "all-nighter," David's Cafe next door offers thick, sweet Cuban coffee.

Yupi, with 300 employees spread throughout Latin America and $110 million in investment capital, was among the first to set up on the beach. "We are the local boys. We created a trend," said Venezuelan-born Mr. Morles, 45, who grew up in Miami and studied engineering and economics in the United States and Paris.

While older than most dot-com employees, Mr. Morles has a background that is typical of the kind of international talent on Silicon Beach.

"We are Mexicans, Argentinians, Dominicans. In Yupi, everyone's a minority," he said.

Not everyone is Hispanic. Some companies have located in other parts of Miami, or farther up the coast in Broward County, home to a host of big technology firms.

Computer scientists David Cole, 33, and Sunil Guptha, 37, of LearningSoft were conducting brain-mapping tests in Fort Myers when they came up with the idea for jugamos.com, an interactive Web site for children.

Gregg Keough, 33, founder of zonafinanciera.com, a financial services Web site, moved to the Internet after serving with the CIA in El Salvador. He says peace in Central America made work at the CIA dull. He enjoys the excitement of the Internet. "It's like the CIA when the wars were going on," he said.

Nathan Clement, 32, of the company LatPro.com, an on-line recruiting center for Spanish and Portuguese-speaking job-seekers, is a former smoke jumper for the U.S. Forest Service who grew up in Seattle. Both he and his partner LatPro CEO Eric Shannon, 31, from Delaware learned Spanish while working overseas.

Frustrated by bureaucracy and other obstacles in their home countries, Latin American entrepreneurs have flocked to join the U.S. Internet frenzy.

"Miami is where it's going to grow," said Adriana Lozada, 28, chief creative officer at loquesea.com, a popular youth site whose Spanish name translates as "whatever.com." With cropped blue hair and pierced nose bridge, Mr. Lozada feels at home on Miami Beach.

"There's a very young and budding creative community from all over Latin America, as well as U.S. Hispanics who grew up here and have that Spanglish mix of U.S. and Latin culture," he said.

Mr. Lozada started the company in Caracas, Venezuela, as an offshoot of a weekly youth magazine. It recently won $13 million in investment financing and has 170 employees in seven cities.

Argentine Marcos Galperin, founder of mercadolibre.com, an Internet auction site, forged his idea with friends while studying for a business degree at Stanford University. "We were typical Latin Americans seeing all the money flowing around Silicon Valley," he told a packed meeting of First Tuesday, a monthly gathering of dot-coms at a Miami Beach nightclub.

"It made me sad to go back to my own country and know I wouldn't be able to trade stocks on line anymore."

He graduated last June and opened the site in Argentina in August. The headquarters moved to Miami Beach in January.

Since then, Mr. Galperin has been on a roller-coaster ride, typical of the frenetic business style of Internet start-ups.

Miami's Internet boom also has begun to attract veterans of California's Silicon Valley, lured by the potential they see in Latin America. They can relate to what Miami is going through.

"It's the beginning of an Internet culture. You have to be open to ideas, take risks and move quickly. It's exhilarating," said Peter Campbell, 39, who moved to Miami from Silicon Valley to www.joinguby.com, one of Latin America's largest Internet search engines.

"I have seen from Silicon Valley that there's a certain critical mass that develops. It's clear to me that's beginning to happen in Miami."

Perhaps the most positive sign is the colossal investment being made by the telecommunications industry. In response to the projected demand for high-speed Internet links, major firms are spending as much as $5 billion in underseas fiber-optic cables, the vital infrastructure that soon will link South Florida with the consumer capitals of South America.

The new lines will improve connectivity in the region tenfold. One company, GlobeNet Communications, is laying a 13,950-mile underseas cable loop, Atlantica I, connecting Boca Raton and Brazil.

"Miami has a lot going for it," said Eldon Blust, a senior vice president at GlobeNet. "It will be a watershed event when all this capacity becomes available."

• Distributed by Scripps Howard.

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