There’s a new crop of talented Latin American innovators. So why isn’t the region an innovation hub? | Opinion

·3 min read

What a paradox! A recent innovation ranking by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) does not include a single Latin American country in the top 50 nations on its list. Yet, Latin America is producing an amazing new crop of successful innovators.

The WIPO index of the world’s most innovative economies — based on 81 different indicators, including patent registrations and education standards — is led by Switzerland, followed by Sweden, the United States, the United Kingdom and South Korea.

The first Latin American or Caribbean country that appears on the list is Chile, in 53rd place, followed by Mexico (55), Costa Rica (56), Brazil (57), Uruguay (65), Colombia (67), Peru (70) and Argentina (73). Venezuela does not even appear on the list of 132 countries.

What’s worse, the WIPO report says that while Southeast Asian and East Asian countries are increasingly closing the innovation gap with the United States and Europe, most Latin American and Caribbean countries “remain stubbornly a long distance behind.”

But I recently came across many stunning cases of young Latin American innovators who are succeeding internationally, some of whom I have interviewed since I started the “Innovator of the Week” segment on my “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on CNN en Español.

Matías Muchnick, a 32-year-old Chilean, is the founder of Notco, a company that makes plant-based meat, milk and mayonnaise. His company is selling its products in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Canada and the United States and has a market value of $1.5 billion.

Food production is the main factor behind climate change, mainly because we’re wasting too much water to produce meat, Muchnik told me. His company is using artificial intelligence to find the right vegetables to produce plant-based meat, milk and other products, which are much more environmentally safe, he said.

Fabian Gomez, a 43-year-old Colombian, is the founder Frubana, an application that allows farmers to sell their fruits and vegetables at higher prices — and restaurants to buy these products at lower prices — by eliminating intermediaries. Frubana started three years ago, is working with 50,000 restaurants in Colombia, Brazil and Mexico. It recently got a new $65 million round of investment.

Gomez told me that he created his app after discovering that his father, a farmer, was selling one kilo of lemons for 1,000 pesos, and that restaurants were buying lemons for 3,000 pesos. The difference was going to up to four intermediaries, he said.

“What we did was use technology to allow restaurants to buy directly from the farmers,” Gomez said.

Mateo Salvatto, a 22-year-old Argentine, created Háblalo, a internet-free app to help deaf people communicate with others. Háblalo is an easy-to-use transcription service that allows people with hearing problems to put their phones in front of another person, then read on their screen what they said. It has almost 200,000 registered users in dozens of countries.

Salvatto told me that he created the app because his mother teaches sign language, and he grew up surrounded by people who could not do such simple things as buying a sandwich because of their hearing impairments.

“So I decided to use technology to program an app that was specifically designed to help my mother’s students,” he told me.

You may be asking why Latin American countries rank so low in the WIPO innovation index, when there are so many successful innovators in the region.

The answer is that the WIPO index and similar rankings take into account several indicators in which the region ranks miserably, such as each country’s business climate.

But I think that the biggest obstacle keeping the region from becoming a global innovation hub is the lack of a culture of admiration for innovators.

Too many youths want to become soccer players or singers, and too few want to become big innovators or entrepreneurs.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to become the next Lionel Messi or Shakira, but unless more youngsters want to succeed in the business world, people such as Muchnik, Gomez and Salvatto will continue being an exception, rather than the rule.

Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show on Sundays at 8 pm E.T. on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera

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