Chilean accelerator aims to bring high-tech start-ups to Latin American market
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Chilean accelerator aims to bring high-tech start-ups to Latin American market

Until recently, Komal Dadlani didn’t know what Start-Up Chile was. In fact, she didn’t know what a start-up was, had never worked in the world of seed funding, accelerators, and VC pitches. Dadlani, a biochemist, never expected to found a company. But then, necessity often brings about the most unexpected results.

Dadlani became aware of the dearth of viable lab equipment in many parts of Latin America while studying for her master’s degree in Chile. Even at the university level, students were often asked to work with scarce or outdated equipment, or to do without entirely. The problem extended to high school and lower grades as well. Dadlani was alarmed.

“Science education is the pillar that sustains research and development,” she said. “As a region, we try to do so much. But we have core problems we haven’t solved yet.”

As of 2010, Chile had only 317 researchers per million people working in R&D, according to The World Bank. Brazil had 710 researchers per million people; Colombia had 154; Guatemala, only 25. The need for improved science education in the region is clear, and Dadlani set out to meet it, one high school and university at a time.

She founded Lab4U, a start-up developing technologies that transform mobile devices into lab tools such as sensors. The company is building low-cost lab solutions that enable instructors in physics, chemistry, and calculus classes to provide hands-on science learning experiences using the smartphones and tablets their students use every day. Lab4U has launched six successful pilot programs in Chilean high schools so far, with plans to expand beyond Chile as well.

“We want to allow future researchers and developers, future Einsteins, to have a lab in their pockets,” Dadlani said.

Her company was accepted into Start-Up Chile’s prestigious accelerator program and also worked with Socialab, another Chilean organization supporting start-ups. Start-Up Chile Executive Director Sebastian Vidal hopes to see more companies like Dadlani’s apply for the program in the future. The current round of applications closed at the end of May, but the organization is ramping up its efforts to attract startups in the robotics, healthcare, biotech, clean energy, and education fields.

“Our focus is on global impact start-ups,” Vidal said. Although Start-Up Chile will continue to support software companies, and Vidal says he expects those start-ups to make up the majority of the applicants and participants, he and his team believe Chile offers uniquely attractive opportunities for high-tech start-ups.

“In an organic way, the program is attracting high-tech entrepreneurs, companies doing something more innovative,” he said. “There’s a good start-up opportunity in Chile. There’s something here that is unique.”

Chief among those opportunities is access to natural resources, he said. “The continent has always been exploding in natural resources, and companies can get access to these areas in a short period. [It’s a good environment] for companies that need more time to develop their businesses,” he said.

Start-Up Chile can use its vast network to help agricultural start-ups, for example, by “plugging them in easily” to the industry. He referenced one Canadian start-up developing clean fish nets that was able to do extensive tests in Chile’s salmon industry.

Phage Technologies is a biotech company that develops antibacterial technologies. Nicolás Ferreira, one of Phage’s founders, said his team spent two and a half years working on in vitro tests, and Start-Up Chile helped bring their solutions to market. The company’s first product, “Milkeeper,” is a powder additive that helps prevent animal deaths during calf rearing.

“Start-up Chile was really important for us because of the internal mentorships that they offer … from commercial to biotech aspects,” Ferreira said in an email. The mentors and advisors there helped them develop their marketing strategy and pricing structure before entering the market.

Milkeeper is being sold through veterinary retailers in Chile and has been used on more than 15,000 calves, “reducing field losses related to animal deaths, antibiotics, and weight loss,” according to Ferreira. The company plans to expand throughout Latin America and in the U.S. and Asia.

Dadlani had similar praise for Start-Up Chile’s program, saying it was a transformative experience both personally and professionally. Dadlani said the experience “changed the way I think” and that the resources, mentorship, and community helped drive Lab4U forward. As a scientist with no business background, the program was invaluable for creating a successful company structure and mindset.

Start-Up Chile’s efforts to attract more high-tech start-ups dovetails with ramped up initiatives to entice companies to stay in Chile and Latin America once the six-month program ends. The organization recently launched its SCALE follow-on fund to provide additional funding to some of its graduates, provided they are willing to stay in Chile, thereby helping develop the nascent tech ecosystem.

Securing investments from Chilean companies is a challenge, and Dadlani noted that receiving funding between the early and late stages can be particularly difficult. Ferreira said he believes the country needs to see more success stories in order for the tech and entrepreneurship sectors to grow. The SCALE fund may help achieve those goals, propelling the industry, and the economy, forward.