The social and mobile web awards creators and developers who are agile and adaptable. That could put a place like Puerto Rico in a unique position to succeed in this sector. And the efforts in that direction are gaining ground, led by a group of local technological entrepreneurs who have decided not to wait around for the government to take the lead.
"It's all been by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs. That is how we have built up this community," said Ramphis Castro (no relation), a cofounder of TaínoApp Inc. who has been involved in various tech initiatives in the country.
"In mobile, in social media, in web apps and services - there are great opportunities in those areas which we are working on in our tech community," Castro said. "It does not depend on the government. It just depends on the creativity of the individual."
Along with Ricardo Alcocer, Castro created the TaínoApp software, a WordPress plug-in that functions as a native mobile app. Castro also helped found the group Startups of Puerto Rico, which was born out of events such as Startup Weekends that have been held on the island. He's also recently served as a mentor in a four-month start-up bootcamp organized by the San Juan chapter of the global Founder Institute, which takes participants through the rigorous process of launching their own tech start-ups.
"It's not like a university class," Castro explained. "There is a test to get into the program, [and] only 20 to 25% of those who take the exam pass. And of that number, about 40% finish. It is a bootcamp and not everyone is ready to do the job. In our case, 17 people started, there are nine left, and we expect five or six will finish." (UPDATE: The nine participants graduated in a ceremony held in San Juan on September 26, Castro said.)
Castro said that most of the ideas developed by the participants are in the mobile web category. Two of the nine participants were women, he added.
Castro has also served as an adviser to Norman Ortiz, cofounder of Xpous and developer of iGenApps. The software, which is available in the Apple App Store, seeks to allow users to create mobile apps without the need for programming knowledge. The app won first place in the B!G Idea Contest at the 2011 CTIA Wireless convention in Orlando, Fla.
Ortiz, whose academic background lies in industrial engineering, left a job at a pharmaceutical company last year to concentrate full-time on his entrepreneurial efforts. He said he has received help from entities outside private industry, but added that there is still a knowledge gap that affects efforts such as his. He pointed to what he believes is a lack of understanding of the accelerated pace of change required of businesses in the mobile and social web.
"I met last year with an advertising agency to create a mobile app for them, and they wanted me to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement) just to tell me what the project was about," he recalled.
"That's still happening with the older generation, but younger people are more receptive to these things."
Although he's encouraged by the efforts of individuals and groups in the local tech sphere, Ortiz appeared pessimistic about the current prospects for sustained success on the island for web entrepreneurs.
"I would say, emphatically, yes," Ortiz said when asked if he felt entrepreneurs had to leave the island to fulfill their ambitions.
"In November I'll be traveling to Silicon Valley to check out opportunities to relocate and continue my efforts there. [In Puerto Rico], things are three times more difficult because many people don't know about the technology. It is very difficult to swim against the current here."
Castro admitted that starting a successful company in Puerto Rico is an "extremely uphill" endeavor. In that respect, he said that it can often be beneficial to build ideas in another tech ecosystem, "and when you have some success, reconnect with the people [on the island]."
For his part, Ortiz acknowledged that the level of competition is much stronger in a tech hub like Silicon Valley, but emphasized the importance of networking. He brought up the example of Aldo Briano, a Puerto Rican computer engineer who cofounded Yiftee, through which users can purchase gift codes from local merchants and send to friends via Facebook, email, or text. A Stanford student, Briano spent a year working with investors in Silicon Valley to bring the service to market, Ortiz said. That is the dynamic ecosystem he wants to enter.
This so-called brain drain affects other aspects of the Puerto Rican economy, as professionals in many industries continue to leave the island. But Castro does not necessarily see this as a negative, as long as engineers and developers maintain their ties to the country.
"In software there are immense opportunities. It is global, so it doesn't matter where you are," he said. "And that's where the great opportunity lies for Puerto Rico, where we have highly-skilled technical talent. There is some talent that leaves, but they maintain their ties to the island."
An important public policy question remains for a country reeling from deep economic and social ills: Are entrepreneurs born or can they be forged?
"I think everyone has a bit of entrepreneur in them," Castro said. "Some drop out, but others stick it out. I think that schools are the key - people should be given the opportunity to try their hand at all kinds of entrepreneurship. Puerto Rico is a goldmine of opportunity. And the vision behind everything that we are doing is to unite Puerto Rico with the rest of the world."