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HUB UDEP during an event. Photo: Andrew P. Rowan

By Andrew P. Rowan

Recently, I returned to Lima, Perú’s capital, after spending two weeks in Piura, a city in northern Perú. Piura is almost an hour-and-a-half plane ride from Lima and it’s located approximately 100 kilometers from the border with Ecuador. Today, Piura is still recovering from a massive flood that the city experienced in 2017 as a result of the El Niño phenomenon. Potholes, dust, and other forms of erosion seem to have taken over the city’s streets, making passage either slow and bumpy—or fast and full of side-winding maneuvers. 

My host was HUB UDEP, an incubator based at the University of Piura (UDEP), which launched two years ago and is one of the best incubators in the country, according to one Lima-based foreign investor. As part of my scope as the first-ever Entrepreneur-in-Residence supported by the Swiss Entrepreneurship Program (an initiative supported by the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs [SECO] and operated by Swisscontact) I focused on three areas during my 40-plus hours with HUB UDEP: community development, mentor selection for the Women In STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Entrepreneurship (WISE) program, and sharing lessons learned and best practices from my experience working in Vietnam’s startup ecosystem, another developing market.

During my time at UDEP, I also met—in person and remotely—with a variety of startups which are part of their portfolio with Crowdworking, an initiative of Spain’s Telefónica. Among the startups I encountered were Piura Verde, a budding organic retail food chain; Capacitate, an online learning community for engineers; and Aru Learning, a video platform for English teachers and learners. Overall, the state of the ecosystem in Peru is very early stage with most significant activity concentrated in the capital so it was refreshing to see that in the case of Capacitate, the founder had moved from Lima to Piura instead of the other way around. It’s a testament to how strong the value proposition of HUB UDEP is for Peruvian founders.

The first weather radar system in Perú at the University of Piura. Photo: Andrew P. Rowan

The WISE Program I supported is an initiative sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and is a creation emerging from Argentina, and active in Ecuador and Colombia, besides Perú. The coordinator of the WISE program at UDEP is responsible for organizing six five-hour workshops delivered jointly by a specialist and an entrepreneur to complement the curriculum delivery by the aforementioned specialist. However, the IABD only covers half the cost, so the 120 women enrolled in the program and the program’s leadership will have to raise the remaining capital (~$65,000) from local business sponsors or elsewhere as the program launches this month. (For example, I suggested reaching out to the Peruvian diaspora in the United States, which numbers over 600,000, as well as contacting the Peruvian American Chamber of Commerce as starting points.) 

Currently, HUB UDEP is the only space of its kind in northern Perú. Of note, the UDEP campus is located in a desert, a process that began 50 years ago, demonstrating the organization’s pioneering spirit, vision, and faith to create something in such a harsh environment. After meeting and working closely with HUB UDEP’s team of seven, it’s clear that they are active in the promotion of entrepreneurship and innovation for the university community as well as for the city itself. For example, from August 1 to 3, the HUB UDEP will host a hackathon, which is open to all members of the public, including the numerous Venezuelan migrants living, transiting, and/or working across the city.

On my last night on campus, I gave a talk about the current state of Vietnam’s ecosystem, and highlighted that one Vietnamese company has already arrived in the Peruvian market (in 2014) in the form of bitel, a subsidiary of the Vietnam Ministry of Defence’s Viettel, a telecommunications services provider. The audience, comprised of students, older community members, and founders, asked me pointed questions about how they could replicate elements of Vietnam’s success and seemed enthused by Vietnam’s spectacular transformation over the past 40 years. The talk was timely as it came on the heels of Abivin, a big data and Artificial Intelligence-powered logistics optimization startup, and one of the Finland-Vietnam Innovation Partnership Program’s (IPP2) portfolio companies, winning the Startup World Cup 2019 grand prize of $1 million in San Francisco, beating out thousands of other teams from around the world. (Disclosure: the IPP2 is a former partner-client of the author.)

Looking back on my time in Piura, being the first to do something is difficult, and by default it is courageous so credit to UDEP for having recently installed the first weather radar system in the country. Hopefully, now with advanced warning of incoming bands of rain during the next El Niño event, more lives and property will be able to be saved. What I realized during my time there is that Piura, with slightly-less-than 500,000 people, is more representative of the “average” city in Perú instead of the capital, where one-third of the country’s 32 million people lives. As Piura, and UDEP, in particular, continues to build out a network with other cities such as Trujillo, Arequipa, and Chiclayo, the exchange and sharing of ideas, talent, and other resources will be essential to the output of more startups— not only from the north, but from the entire country—into Latin America and even the world. So the next time you think of Peru, perhaps you’ll think of startups in addition to Machu Picchu, ceviche, or pisco. 

The author (left) and the HUB UDEP team. Photo: L’Ancora Grill & Lounge