BROWNSVILLE, Texas – The international component of the highly anticipated eBridge Center for Business and Commercialization was at the forefront of discussions during a recent tour of the facility.

Those on the tour learned that well-established Mexican small businesses that want to grow their operations in the United States can secure “international soft landing” assistance at the center.

Josh Mejia, the outgoing president and CEO of Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, explained how and why the assistance will be provided. 

“Small companies are defined by having 500 employees or less. They have specific needs that perhaps the larger corporations do not think about,” Mejia said. 

“Traditional economic development was all about bringing larger employers to an area. They have the resources and means to be able to invest in a certain way, site location, legal work, tax work. They have everything pretty much set.”

Not so small businesses, Mejia explained.

“When it comes to the smaller and medium sized companies, that is where this (eBridge Center) becomes integral because now they have a soft landing site with all those resources that a large corporation would typically use here, available in Brownsville for the entire region. That has been a huge selling point for these (Mexican) companies that are looking at California, that are looking at Austin, San Antonio, New York, Miami and Florida, and saying, hey, not only are we getting all these resources here in Brownsville, but the culture is very similar, You have all means of trade here, you get the best of both Mexico and the U.S., it is the perfect place. These companies, they do not hesitate to say we want to be able to come here.”

Mejia added: “As you know, there is a lot of talk in state government in Mexico about helping PMES, pequeñas y medianas empresas (small and medium sized businesses), and they see this as the perfect landing spot for some of those companies in Mexico that are looking at the U.S. market to expand. That is the formula we have been able to crack.”

Mejia said there is excitement at the local, state and national level for the eBridge Center and the potential it has.

“What is most exciting is being able to prove the formula, the concept that we have been able to develop alongside our partners. The product itself has been so successful in attracting international companies, which is what we are going to be housing here. You will get a glimpse of that on the second floor, all those private offices.”

In fact, there are not many private offices left, Mejia explained. “We are pretty much packed. We are now thinking ahead about new space that we can go ahead and utilize.”

Possible soft launch in July


The eBridge Center is being developed by the Brownsville Community Improvement Corporation, working in conjunction with UT-Rio Grande Valley. 

The center is currently under constriction at the old La Casa del Nylon building at 1304 East Adams Street in Brownsville. It could be ready for a soft launch as early as July.

Officials with UTRGV’s Texas Manufacturing Assistance Center were given a tour of the facility late last week, along with the Rio Grande Guardian International News Service. TMAC, which is currently based at UTRGV’s Edinburg campus, will have an office there. 

Linda Ufland, director of entrepreneurship, innovation and commercialization at UTRGV, was on hand to welcome the TMAC officials. Her department will be housed at the eBridge Center. 

Ufland said the criteria to be used when selecting small businesses from abroad will include a provision that the companies are well established businesses in their own country. 

“They are still like a start-up here because they are landing in a new country but they already have operational activity in their home country,” Ufland said.

“Now, through our global soft landing designation, we have been able to be promoted worldwide. Our doors are being opened not just to Mexico and Latin America but also to Europe and Asia, eventually.”

Ufland said the global designation comes from the International Business Innovation Association (IBIA). 

Ufland said soft landing support can be crucial in helping a small business develop its operations overseas.

“We have heard that most of those that have landed on their own, (they ask) where do I go? What do I do? Who do I talk to? Where is that landing site? Now, you do not have to think about where to go or who do I talk to. Now you have us. We can be that liaison, that connector with every resource that you need to successfully land your venture and then create sales, create impact, whatever the milestone is.”

Asked if other economic development corporations in metro areas provide similar soft landing support for foreign companies, Ufland said: “There are other places that have soft landing sites but the competitive advantage that we have is that we are on the border, that our culture is very similar to Mexico.”

Ufland argued that the eBridge Center is also different in its approach.

“There are a lot of soft landing sites that provide all the resources but there is not that personal interaction with the company, with the client. We have heard that that is the differentiator for us. The way that we welcome these companies, these entrepreneurs into the region. And not only provide all that support on the business side but also support the quality of life. And that it such a big difference because some of these entrepreneurs are bringing their families in, not just themselves. We provide all those other resources, which is the immigration side, the quality of life, the schools, residential, everything that comes with it.”

BCIC’s Mejia was asked if the international component was part of the original concept for the eBridge Center. He responded:

“What we are seeing now is part of the original vision. But, part of that vision was knowing that the concept is modular enough for us to be able to specialize. If there is a growth in tech, then this center can shift to tech. If there is a growth in health sciences, they can shift to that. But, right now our main priority and the Economic Development Administration knows this as well, is in the historically successful industries that we have always had, trade, advanced manufacturing, aeronautics, (those are the sectors) we are looking at right now. So, these are the things we are focusing on but this center is dynamic enough to shift and pivot when it needs to. I think that is the part that just makes this whole thing exciting to a lot of people. Once you have the right partners you can address a lot of different things.”

Ufland agreed that a focus on attracting international companies to the Rio Grande Valley was always part of the original plan for the eBridge Center.

“There are pillars. One of our pillars was the international soft landing. One of our main pillars is still the small business community in our region. We are an incubator that focuses on fostering entrepreneurship in the Rio Grande Valley and helping our local entrepreneurs to create and scale their businesses. They do not have to be startups, they can be existing. But, also we have another sector that we will be shifting to which is these emerging industries that you are seeing popping up. Manufacturing, health, space, etc. So, we are fostering those type of entrepreneurs in the tech world, because those are very high in economic impact. The second floor (of the eBridge Center) proves that. That is what we are fostering upstairs. It is a combination of all three. We are a hub. And with BCIC as the lead organization and UTRGV as a powerhouse for entrepreneurship and commercialization, we are able to provide all those resources, to be able to successfully call this a hub.”

Mejia noted that collaborating with multiple partners has caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Commerce. The department’s assistant secretary, Alejandra Castillo, paid the eBridge Center a recent visit, Mejia said, and was most impressed.

“This is one project that can be replicated throughout the entire country to promote entrepreneurship-led economic development. Every single partner, the UTRGV specifically, they are gearing themselves up to play a much larger role through this project. It is a huge, huge, benefit for the region, being able to pursue economic development where the locals are thought of first and if it works for them it will work for anybody else.”

Monterrey


Ufland said interest in the eBridge Center in Mexico really took off when BCIC and UTRGV leaders visited Monterey in April.

“That is why they are all coming,” Ufland said. “For them, that was the big difference between maybe us and other cities that are hosting soft landing sites. I think it made a difference that we know the area too. We are very familiar with Mexico, Nuevo León and Tamaulipas, the fact that a lot of the staff that are in the center are from Mexico or Latin America. We have that knowledge on how they behave and think and that we can attract them over here.”

Asked if the Monterrey visit was successful, Mejia said: “All I am going to say is we have several MOUs that are pending signatures. That confirms the excitement from a lot of different organizations including the top universities in Mexico such as (Monterrey) Tech, UDEM, La Universidad Nuevo León as well.”

Ufland concluded her part of the interview by reaffirming UTRGV’s excitement with the project. 

“UTRGV is very excited to be part of this project. We are eager to be in the building, to start working and launch all the new programing we have. Some we have not launched because we are waiting for this facility to open. Whatever we have we are adding a lot more to it.”

And she added that the eBridge Center is now garnering national attention. “We have actually been invited to participate on an international panel in June for IBIA and present the E-Bridge model; present the concept and how all this came about and what we are able to offer.” The conference she and Mejia will attend and speak at takes place in Atlanta, Georgia, towards the end of June.

Touring the facility


Nathan Burkhart, director of small business development at BCIC, conducted the tour of the eBridge Center. Burkhart said that as Brownsville is the second most historic city in Texas and because the eBridge Center is located downtown, the outside appearance would stay the same. 

Burkhart said there will be a large maker space area, two large conference rooms, three training rooms, a large training classroom with a huge video screen that will cover an entire wall, and a courtyard that will be shared with the City of Brownsville’s communications department. UTRGV will take up one wing of the center, and there will be offices for TMAC and a small business development center.

The center will also contain a Tier One Data Center. This, Burkhart said, would allow companies that operate maquiladoras along the South Texas-Mexico border to have an offshore backup of all their data. He said the speed of the broadband on offer at the center will be one gigabyte.

Another important feature of the center, Burkhart said, is that it will house the only U.S. Patent Trading Office south of San Antonio. 

There will also be an entrepreneur-in-residence, Burkhart announced. He is Eduardo Cerda from Monterrey. Asked what an entrepreneur-in-residence does, UTRGV’s Ufland said: “He provides incubator clients guidance on the technical or entrepreneurial side. He will help with our international soft landings but he has a lot of experience globally, which is important because we will have quite a few international clients. And he will help our local clients that are looking to export as well.”


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