In many ways, the Miami Science Barge embodies the hope for a cleaner, greener future for the seaside city upon which it’s anchored. On board the 120-foot-long floating STEM education startup grow the seeds of a sustainable Miami—including an off-grid solar power system, a water-recirculating fish hatchery, and a soil-free vegetable garden, and that’s just for starters.
Dr. Ted Caplow is the downtown-docked innovation lab’s co-founder and CEO. He is among a growing circle of local social impact entrepreneurs working for the greater good of the Magic City and beyond.
One of the veteran environmental engineer’s guiding goals, like many other social entrepreneurs in the nation’s fourth most populated metropolis, is to demonstrate what’s possible when forward-thinking civic innovators act locally while thinking globally.
“As a city representing the epicenter of sea level rise in the United States, due to its low-lying landscape, I believe Miami has an opportunity to lead the way toward solutions to the sustainability challenges of the 21st century,” Caplow tells Free Enterprise.
Several of the city’s leading changemakers and the startups they spearhead, including Caplow’s, are backed by the Miami-based John S. and James L. Knight Foundation as part of its recent Knight Cities Challenge. The initiative celebrates civic entrepreneurs who unleash innovations and herald ideas that tackle community problems, drive economic growth and, most importantly, make their communities—and the world—a more vibrant place to work and live.
Rebecca Fishman Lipsey is the founder and CEO of a Knight Foundation-backed Miami startup, a social impact accelerator called Radical Partners. Echoing Caplow, she too believes Miami is leading the way for a brighter future, though well beyond environmental sustainability alone.
“Miami is having a startup renaissance right now,” she tells Free Enterprise. “It’s an exceptionally diverse community, which fuels creative thinking and innovation, as well as increased empathy and collaboration across lines of difference. As a result, we’re primed to generate solutions for a variety of issues that matter not just in our community, but in communities around the world.”
The longtime community activist and former Florida Board of Education member’s work at Radical Partners focuses on launching and scaling startups and other nascent ventures anchored explicitly around social missions. Among them are: Black Tech Week, a large national conference hosted in Miami that aims to diversify tech and entrepreneurial ecosystems locally and nationally; CodeArt, a startup created to inspire girls and young women to learn to code, and later showcase their creations; and 01, an education and research venture that teaches students coding and tech design through robotics play, gaming, and virtual reality.
In additional to local entrepreneurial ventures dedicated to championing diversity in tech—and to furthering digital innovation in early and higher education—Lipsey says there’s also a new wave of social startups in Miami working to better equip community members for employment in the area’s increasingly high-tech jobs market. As examples of the latter, she points to Wyncode Academy LaunchCode, a 10-week bootcamp that enables participants to code directly within South Florida’s rising startup ecosystem, and Ironhack, a similar programming and interactive design course and bootcamp.
“And these are the tip of the iceberg,” adds Lipsey. “Our social impact ecosystem is starting to really heat up, and I suspect that it will continue to grow rapidly…” With Ashoka recently identifying 721 active social entrepreneurs in Miami, the Kauffman Foundation recognizing the city as the nation’s second most entrepreneurial city—combined with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation ranking Miami amongst the nation’s top 25 “Silicon Cities” this year—it very well may heat up, and likely sooner rather than later.
Still, Cristian Robiou isn’t yet entirely convinced. The Startupbootcamp Miami chief operating officer, also an early entrepreneur himself, says more must be done before the city can truly evolve into the thriving social entrepreneurship epicenter it’s ever more frequently positioned as. He says in order to edge the social startup niche further into the mainstream—and to amplify the social good it collectively brings about—additional infrastructure, incentive, and especially leadership are required.
“I don’t think we’ve had a clear leader or a clear standard for social entrepreneurship here in Miami as yet,” says Robiou, who co-founded a local environmentally sustainable juice startup called Caribe Exotic. “We’re still at a point where there’s a lot of growth opportunity here, but it’s still very raw and fractured, even with the flickers of social startup activity unfolding on the sidelines.”
Lipsey, however, takes a more bullish view of Miami’s social startup sphere underpinnings and growth trajectory, citing ongoing momentum that she chalks up to the “contagious” and collaborative nature of working together for the common good.
“Once a city hits a critical mass where enough people are generating ideas, building creatively, and creating impact, the environment becomes ripe for that type of thinking,” she says. “Instead of just having scattered individual changemakers, we’re starting to see collaborative clusters of innovators who work with each other, build with each other, and support one another.”
Notably, one of the places where some of the social entrepreneurs both Lipsey and Robiou move in the same circles with gather to support one another is Ted Caplow’s floating hotbed of environmental innovation—the Miami Science Barge. Startupbootcamp, for example, has hosted several networking and mentorship happy hours aboard the barge, as have others in Miami’s burgeoning startup scene.
“We’re proud to host these young companies because they represent a bright future for our city,” says Caplow. “For our part, we aim to inspire the thousands of science students who come to the barge on field trips to unlock their personal potential for innovation and creative problem solving.”