TCI Tech

Is a “Silicon Island” in the making?

By Ben Stubenberg

A tech sector is gaining traction in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

Can a small island nation renowned as a premier vacation destination for its spectacular beaches and turquoise water also become a world class hub for tech innovation—a “Silicon Island?” At first glance that seems improbable. After all, high end tourism drives TCI’s vibrant economy, not high tech. And plenty of other places around the world aim to claim a stake in this fiercely competitive industry. But a brash and brainy band of TCI tech entrepreneurs thinks otherwise and are telling anyone who will listen, “We have what it takes, why not us?”  

Transformative hubs

Just what makes a place that fundamentally changes the way humans think, grow, and connect? Why do some cities become the vanguards of global transformation in philosophy, the arts, finance, science, and tech, while similar locales with seemingly more to offer remain in the shadows? In his book The Geography of Genius, author Eric Weiner attempts to shed light on these conundrums by taking the reader on a historical odyssey starting with ancient Athens. That squalid town with its maze of crooked alleys and shoddy homes crammed together was not an obvious choice. Indeed, other Greek city-states were more populous (Syracuse), richer (Corinth), and stronger (Sparta). Nevertheless, Athens built the Parthenon, not the others, and brought us Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, thinkers who laid the foundation for Western philosophy.

Weiner also visits Hangzhou (China), Florence, Kolkata (Calcutta), Edinburgh, and Vienna, among other cities, that also once shined as global centers of creativity to discern what produced their brand of brilliance that reshaped our world. He ends the journey in a dry, hazy expanse of urban sprawl bounded by brown hills south of San Francisco that we know as Silicon Valley. For the last 50 years, that unlikely location with no natural splendor and an endless jumble of shiny, if undistinguished office parks has, of course, become the magnet of the universe for tech. The innovations realized there impact and disrupt the lives of nearly everyone on the planet.

As it turns out, these transformative hubs don’t just happen because someone wills it. Nor do they arise through grandiose political planning. But some mysterious alchemy brings together smart, cocky people with the confidence and hunger to change the way we think and live. Whether happenstance of fate or a happy accident, the chemistry of creation is not easily replicated, but a few common features emerge.

Invariably, the sites of genius are messy, fluid, engaging, and exposed to a constant stream of new ideas. They offer a “safe space” for intellectuals and eccentrics to roam free without constraint. Notably, they accept and value immigrants. As outsiders, it’s the immigrants who often see things with new eyes from a slight distance. At the same time, the outsider needs to be a bit of an “insider” too and have a degree of influence with the powers-that-be.

Lemon 2 Go, in the heart of Grace Bay at Venture House, is a popular coffee shop where locals, residents, and visitors ricochet projects and possibilities off each other.

Patrons also play a key role by identifying and funding exceptional talent in hopes of elevating their town to greatness. The House of Medici, a politically powerful and prosperous banking family in Florence in the 1400s, is a case in point. The Medici family sponsored both Leonardo de Vinci and Michelangelo, among others, when they were struggling artists and nurtured them to become the rock stars of their day—a status that remains undiminished after 500 years. That support sealed Florence as the artistic capital of the Renaissance for decades. Today, venture capitalists might be considered the successors of the ancient patrons, but with a bent toward seeking out promising tech start-ups that can exponentially increase wealth for both founder and investor.

These cutting edge metropolises have one more thing in common: Venues where people with big ideas can gather. Boisterous arenas where those with fast-firing brain synapses can share and hash out wild, over-the-top ideas that challenge the status quo and each other. The settings might be town squares, coffee houses, pubs, cafes. Today, that could include on-line discussions and chat groups. However and wherever the innovators meet, sparks must fly and foster a culture of audacious thinking that envisions a “Brave New World.” The spread of those infectious ideas in turn draws in more dynamic talent, along with capital to finance endeavors that lead to big leaps forward.

Local innovators

The tech entrepreneurs of TCI get all of this and have commenced a national conversation about what a tech eco-system would look like. Places like The Shore Club, Tribe Café, and On Island, a state-of-the-art co-working space in Grace Bay, have all hosted tech oriented sessions. Coffee houses like Lemon 2 Go and even wine tastings at the Wine Establishment have also sprung up as informal spots to congregate and connect. Not surprisingly, the spontaneous assembly of the exceptionally bright and highly motivated mimics earlier hubs of world-altering innovation. And like creative centers of yore, the views flow freely and frankly without much filter among a good mix of locals and newcomers.

On Island founder Manisha Tolani, who is from Provo, has become a leading proponent for TCI-based innovation. Using her tech, design, and marketing background, Tolani has developed TCI’s only co-working space. The flexible office environment with high-speed Internet connectivity offers quiet corners for work contemplation, as well as a meeting space for synergistic encounters. In so doing, On Island has become TCI’s incubator for nascent business concepts.

“There is a lot of talent here and a diversity of people with great ideas,” Tolani says. “I’m excited that On Island can be that place where they gather and talk.” She adds, “For TCI to realize its full potential as a tech hub, however, we need to to upgrade Internet speed, as well as our financial services arm. We already have the tech executives, creative producers, and investors either residing here or frequently visiting. That’s our strength and the foundation for our tech future.”

Another entrepreneurial leader who sees TCI’s potential as a high tech hub is Kenrick Quashie, founder of La Fleur Ventures. Originally from St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Quashie is the co-founder of Squeeze Cash, a mobile app global money transfer system. Drawing on his experience, he is working up plans for a “Tech City” on Provo using vacant land near the airport. Working with local architects, TCI’s tech community, and local government, Quashie has caught the attention of investors who see the possibilities.

Quashie knows full well the challenge ahead, but is also quite mindful of TCI’s often overlooked by-product of premium tourism—the tech and investment titans from the US and Canada who visit the Islands. “They buy houses here and see first-hand the benefits of living and working in TCI, including the prospects for start-ups. In this sense, TCI stands out from the rest of the Caribbean Region.”

Sean Bassett, who grew up in Provo, is the founder and driving force behind Connect Digital Marketing, one of TCI’s top marketing, advertising, and software development businesses. Under the brand Paradise Ports Advertising, the company owns and manages all the digital advertising at the Providenciales and Grand Turk airports. What were once just wall ads have been converted into electronic screens that collect data through photos taken by visitors of QR codes. The QR codes allow clients to track the effectiveness of the ads linked to their websites or sales offerings. In addition, he started an Instagram account, @turksandcaicos, that boasts an astounding 300,000 followers. Bassett firmly believes that “Tech Tourism” can kickstart and accelerate TCI’s tech entrepreneurs. He says, “We already attract persons with technical expertise to work remotely in TCI. Why not entice more who can also work with us and share their know-how?”

Speeding up

TCI has always had digital nomads, but COVID accelerated the numbers. Many who had visited TCI as tourists returned to work remotely while the pandemic raged. As remote working became more a norm than an exception, some decided to stay longer and become part of the community. TCI, as with other vacation destinations, benefited from this influx by offering a more attractive alternative to big cities that had become Ground Zero for the disease. But as remote working expanded along with local tech initiatives, so did the need for faster Internet connectivity.

TCI telecom providers and the government are committed to meeting ever-growing bandwidth requirements for businesses and homes. Currently, TCI is served by just one underwater fiber optic cable that lands on Providenciales. That link provides almost all of Provo with high speed uploading and downloading capabilities, as well as transfers of data. However, the other islands rely on microwave transmission that can’t handle the same speeds or data transfers. That is about to change.

Deputy Premier and Minister of Finance, Investment, and Trade, Hon. E.J. Saunders, points out that the government is implementing a two phase plan to increase Internet connectivity for the entire country. Phase 1 will expand fiber optic cable to all the islands so that they would be on par with Provo. In Phase 2, a second undersea fiber optic cable would run from Grand Turk to the Dominican Republic, linking with a carrier cable there.

Hon. Saunders, who is a successful tech entrepreneur in his own right, conservatively estimates that each phase would take two years. “A second fiber optic cable will allow TCI households and businesses to accommodate more devices at faster speeds,” he says. “Moreover, the second cable will give TCI connective redundancy and resiliency, as well as bring more competition to the market that can lower prices.”

Saving reefs with crypto

The Turks & Caicos Reef Fund has begun a unique partnership with international investment group Coral Tribe to use crypto currency to help finance reef restoration.

Surrounded by spectacular seas and protected by one of the longest barrier reefs in the world, TCI is a natural locus for advanced marine research at the School for Field Studies in South Caicos and the Turks & Caicos Reef Fund (TCRF). Thanks to the initiative of Executive Director Alizee Zimmermann, TCRF has begun a unique partnership with international investment group Coral Tribe to use crypto currency to help finance reef restoration. TCRF is one of just four reef restoration beneficiaries in the world that Coral Tribe has approved for funding.

It works like this: A donor purchases an NFT (Non Fungible Token) image created by Coral Tribe using the crypto currency Solana. The proceeds are then allocated to its charity arm, Impact Fund, which distributes a portion of the donation to the crypto currency accounts of approved non-profits like the TCRF. The crypto currency can in turn be converted to US dollars. Coral Tribe chose to operate using Solana because, unlike bigger players such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, this crypto currency has minimal environmental impact when “mined” on computers to produce units or “coins” through complex algorithms.

Using this imaginative form of funding, TCRF has been able to increase its in-water staghorn coral program by installing a rope style nursery to grow over 600 “fragments.” Zimmermann says, “We immediately saw the potential for this method of funding to be a model for expanding research that could well be a standard in the near future. Moreover, Coral Tribe has created an online community that goes well beyond NFT trades to bring ocean conservation to the world of crypto. I’m an artist at heart and the intersection of art, conservation, and technology caught my attention immediately! We’re excited about the wider potential cryptocurrency may have here.”

Solar power

One clear niche for innovation in TCI is the efficient utilization of solar power. With bright sunshine almost every day of the year, TCI is well positioned to take full advantage with imaginative applications. Indeed, there are several local solar entrepreneurs working to harness this endless source of power. The prospect that every house and business could be powered by solar panels on the roof, windows, or in a large land clearing portends an elixir that could one day take us off fossil fuel. But as promising as solar power is, challenges remain, philosophical, as well as practical.

Enter Matt Gorvin, founder and CEO of renu energy TCI and one of TCI’s solar power pioneers. He poses a series of provocative questions, beginning with, “What could TCI be known for?” For Gorvin, TCI could become the region’s clean energy leader, transforming the economy in the next decade. “We need to think more holistically,” he says. “Homes and commercial establishments should be designed with energy conservation and self generation in mind. Rather than perceiving solar power and energy storage as supplements or add-ons to the grid, why not make the starting premise independence from fossil fuel?”

In pursuit of that aspiration, renu has worked with local building contractors to feed solar energy directly into some of the homes in the South Bank and Beach Enclave, among other developments. At the same time, renu provides Tesla Powerwall batteries for storage of excess energy to keep appliances running at night. As a bonus, the excess energy produced can be used to charge electrical vehicles using an electrical charger built right into the garage.

Green Revolution installed solar panels maximizing unused spaces at this house in Long Bay.

While these houses are not entirely off the fossil fuel energy grid, the power supply balance can be precisely measured and monitored through an app that shows how and when each power source is being used. The switch between solar and fossil fuel works seamlessly, while allowing the homeowner to check and adjust as needed by, for example, shutting down an AC unit in a bedroom. The app engenders a heightened awareness of energy use that also gives the homeowner/resident more control over energy allocation that can lessen dependence on fossil fuel.

Even as the concept has proven to work on high-end houses, Gorvin is committed to making this technology available to the larger TCI community. He has begun working with Provo Primary and Middle School educators and parents to incorporate solar panels that renu supplies at cost. As part of the school’s science class, students will be given access to the app that allows them to see and understand exactly how much their school relies on fossil fuel versus solar. From there, students will be able to design experiments to alter the balance for greater energy effciency. In this way, students can get a practical education in energy use to prepare them to take on bigger projects later on.

Another pioneering TCI solar power company, Green Revolution, takes a similar holistic approach by integrating renewable energy into building design right from the start. Working with major TCI building contractors such as Norstar Group, Green Revolution has completed more than 300 solar projects, removing 2,400 tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. Drawing on its years of experience, Green Revolution is taking the concept a step farther: Instead of applying solar power to just individual houses and buildings, they ask, why not extend the concept by developing micro grids that link small communities to a solar power energy source? Essentially, the idea is to build a distributed network of solar power generation instead of having it all produced in one place. These micro grids — already proven to work — would not only reduce the demand on diesel powered generators, but lessen the impact of power outages due to weather or other conditions.

Green Revolution Director Robin Spruce states, “TCI and Green Revolution are well-positioned to advance an array of solar power solutions, especially given our geography that provides 350 days of sunshine.” Paul Chaplin, Norstar Group partner and Green Revolution founder adds, “We have demonstrated the viability of solar power design integration through hundreds of projects. But we can’t rest there. We have to keep pushing to make it more broadly accessible to the TCI community in a manner that lowers energy costs and ensures a cleaner environment.”

TCI’s main energy supplier is committed to exploring and testing solar energy solutions to benefit more TCI residents. Currently, Provo’s fast growing energy requirements outstrip a solar solution to wean itself off fossil fuels for now. However, FortisTCI has initiated programs for customers to operate rooftop solar panels, either bought or leased, to sell back energy produced, thus helping to reduce dependence on fossil fuel. It has also built an electrical charging station at H2O Resort using solar power and is planning to install one at the Ritz-Carlton.

At the same time, FortisTCI is conducting a study to determine the feasibility of wind as an alternative energy source on North Caicos. The company has installed a laser scanning device on its property in Kew called LiDAR ZX 300 to capture on-shore wind measurements over the next 12 to 18 months. If the data shows wind to be a potential energy source, a wind technology station would be built at the same location.

The design innovations by renu energy TCI, Green Revolution, FortisTCI, and others have in effect made TCI a proving ground for alternative energy solutions. As such, the initiatives hold out the prospect for breakthroughs that could lead to cheaper and cleaner energy production for TCI, and the larger Caribbean Region.

Food security

Beyond more energy efficient houses, solar power also has the potential to play a critical role in the country’s food security. Despite a long agricultural tradition that has helped to sustain these Islands for centuries, the recent population explosion on Providenciales in the past 25 years has led to a heavy dependence on food imports from the US. As a country with limited rainfall and less than ideal soil to supply the local food demand, TCI needs a new approach.

Finding a way for TCI to be food secure has become the mission of TCI-born Marius Giese, manager of Sunshine Nursery. “Crisis fuels innovation,” he states right up front. “Traditional agriculture cannot be scaled to meet TCI needs. So we have to test new systems of production more suited to our environment.” For Giese, one alternative is to invest in climate controlled hydroponics using LED lights with a “closed loop” irrigation system that recycles the water. This method could eventually supply a large percentage of TCI’s leafy greens, herbs, tomatoes, and peppers that are most vulnerable to spoilage during long transport.

Sunshine Nursery Manager Marius Giese stands next to the solar panels used to power distribution pumps for irrigating trees on the property.

Giese notes that Sunshine Nursery has completely transitioned to use direct solar power to supply their drip irrigation needs. He has introduced this technology to several farmers in North Caicos who rely on pumping the water from the fresh water lenses—a layer of fresh water that accumulates directly above sea water anywhere between 7–20 ft (2.5–6.5 m) below the surface. Local farmers have drawn from this freshwater source for decades on all the Islands. In fact, Islanders back in the day built the settlements of Five Cays, Blue Hills, and The Bight on Provo because of the proximity to these lenses that supplied them with drinking water during times of drought.

However, the high cost of fossil fuel energy to pump the water severely limited the potential to use this source of water to grow crops on larger tracts of land. To make available more water for irrigation, Giese is experimenting with using solar power to pump and desalinate seawater from below the surface, including building affordable Lithium battery banks locally. “Despite harsh growing conditions,” Giese points out, “TCI is in a unique position to leverage new technologies that have become available in the last decade to enhance food security. By applying these technologies, we could leapfrog our way into becoming a model for sustainable agriculture.”

Pivotal confluence

While TCI’s high-end tourism economy remains dominant, a tech sector is gaining traction as a scrappy core of locals and newcomers ricochet projects and possibilities off each other. At the same time, TCI’s enticing environment in an age of remote work augurs well for drawing more tech talent and capital investment. That should also spur TCI to educate more home-grown coders and software engineers to effectively meet the growing demand.

The magic formula that produces hubs of innovation remains as elusive and fluid as ever. Even more so, as today’s super-connected world vastly broadens the range of prospective tech centers. But global connectivity also gives small islands like TCI an advantage to emerge as a new contender for any number of tech niches. That sense of possibilities presents TCI’s big dreamers with inventive minds and plenty of pluck a clean slate on which to write the future.

Ben Stubenberg (bluewaterben@gmail.com) is a regular contributing writer to Times of the Islands and a story teller about TCI’s compelling history. He is the co-founder of Caicu Naniki Vacation Adventures, a TCI company specializing in private outer-island excursions, swim instruction, and relocation consulting. He is also the co-founder of the annual “Race for the Conch” Eco-SeaSwim in Grace Bay.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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