The public, private and academic alliance that drives innovation in Medellín



The Triple Helix concept — the alliance formed among universities and between industry and government to spur economic and social development — is common in “knowledge societies.” While many of these alliances are formed to solve industry specific challenges in research and development, the Triple Helix that was formed in Medellín, Colombia in the early 2000s was borne of desperation. 

As the 20th century came to a close, Medellín was one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Its businesses, isolated from the outside world. 

A small cadre of industrialists and academics who remained in the city during the tumultuous 1990s and early 2000s began what would become arguably the driving force behind Medellín’s transformation into an innovation city: The University, Industry, State Committee, known by its Spanish acronym, CUEE.

According to Juan Felipe Valencia, spokesman for the CUEE, hard times forced business leaders to come together like they never had before. “The armed conflict that we lived in the 1980s and 1990s … In all that we went through … It helped us to resurface and not to compete with people but to collaborate with the members of the community,” Mr. Valencia told Latin America Reports

A Gentleman’s Agreement that Drives Innovation

The University, Industry, State Committee (CUEE) is a voluntary, non-legal, entity that facilitates synergy between universities, private companies, and state institutions with the ultimate goal of spurring socio-economic growth in Antioquia (the state in which Medellín is the capital) based on science, technology and innovation. 

“In short, it’s a gentleman’s agreement, where the word is honored, and where we work together for the good of the region based on generation and application of knowledge,” said CUEE founding member Alberto Uribe Correa, who is a former Rector of the University of Antioquia and currently serves as Medellín’s Secretary of Education. 

In 2003, Mr. Uribe Correa, along with industry leaders Manuel Santiago Mejía, Luis Carlos Uribe, and Juan Guillermo Jaramillo, formed the committee to spur university research projects that apply to the needs of the private sector.

Presently, the CUEE is focused on preparing Medellín to be a Center for the World Economic Forum’s Fourth Industrial Revolution. The committee’s advisory board includes Medellín Mayor Daniel Quintero, Governor of Antioquia Aníbal Gaviria, current University of Antioquia Rector John Jairo Arboleda Céspedesis, Ana Lucía Pérez Patiño, the Director of University of Antioquia’s Innovation Unit, as well as a group of private sector leaders, led by three working groups:

  1. Financing: Chaired by Juan Carlos Mora, President, Bancolombia. Tasked with improving financing of science, technology and innovation projects in Antioquia.

  2. Human Talent: Chaired by Alberto Hoyos, President, Galletas Noel. Tasked with improving job placement for students in technical fields.

  3. Platforms: Chaired by Juan Carlos Moreno, President, Pintuco. Tasked with improving coordination and cooperation between different parts of the science, technology and innovation ecosystem.

Exclusive Interview: Alberto Hoyos, President, Galletas Noel; Chairman, Human Talent Working Group, CUEE

Meetings, open to the public, are held on the first Friday of each month and include plenary sessions on topics related to science, technology and innovation, a space for networking and deal-making, as well as a small window for startup companies and researchers to present their work.

The CUEE’s Achievements 

According to CUEE leaders and affiliates, the CUEE’s greatest accomplishment is creating a culture of collaboration and confidence between leaders of the private sector — a culture that did not exist at the turn of the 21st Century. 

“The history that we have. The violence we experienced here. A time that we all want to forget but that we all learned from … When we learned to collaborate with each other, and not to see each other as enemies, that permitted us to better the social conditions of Antioquia,” said Mr. Valencia, the CUEE spokesman. “It hasn’t happened overnight. It was a long process where confidence was built bit by bit.” 

This culture of collaboration has led to the committee’s most pivotal achievements, including the creation of Ruta N, a government funded technology and innovation center; establishing Tecnnova, an organization that helps commercialize Colombian research projects at home and abroad; developing SAPIENCIA, an agency in the Medellín Mayor’s Office that facilitates and funds higher education for vulnerable youth; launching Parque E, a technology startup incubator backed by the University of Antioquia and the Mayor’s Office; and facilitating collaboration between public and private higher education via the formation of the G8, an organization of top universities in the region.

CUEE has also expanded its influence outside of Medellín, having replicated meetings in nine other regions in Colombia — although not to the same success.

Exclusive Interview: Juan Carlos Moreno, President, Pintuco; Chairman, Platforms Working Group, CUEE

The CUEE’s Influence on Medellín’s Future 

Many of the longer-term projects borne out of the CUEE owe part of their continuity to the influence the committee holds over local politics. For example, in the early 2000s, when state, public and academic leaders met to strategize how to transform Medellín from an industrial economy into a knowledge economy, they decided to make Ruta N the engine to drive this change. 

Since its inception in 2009, Ruta N has received support and funding from three city administrations. 

Parque E is another example of the CUEE’s influence. The startup incubator was included in the city’s 2004-2007 economic development plan under then-mayor Sergio Fajardo and has continued to receive support from succeeding administrations. 

“Because there is such a high level of participation from the private and academic sectors, there is continuity that exists independent of the administration that is in power,” Catalina Restrepo, Director of ACI Medellín, the city’s largest economic development agency, told Latin America Reports. 

“Where there is a strategic route in place, if I were a public administrator with a term limit in office, I wouldn’t want to stray from that route because it is already constructed,” added Mr. Valencia, the CUEE spokesman. “What I would do is maximize that strategy. Because of this, the strategy doesn’t change every four years that the administration changes, rather it remains for the long-term.”