Just when you thought there wasn't room for another incubator in the Internet world, along comes one more. But with a Latin twist.

E-Latin Business Group in Culver City, which is getting ready to launch several Web sites in the coming months, is one of the first Latin-American Internet incubators on the West Coast.

It has all the looks of an incubator: empty cardboard computer boxes stacked near the front door, a half-eaten cherry pie in the break room, and about 20 workers hunched over their computers.

However, Spanish is the predominant language here and incubating Web sites for Latin America is the goal.

E-Latin Business Group was co-founded by Steve Lopez-Blanco and Fabian Pustelnik, both natives of Argentina in search of gold in the Latin-American world of dot-coms.

"Over there (in Latin America) there is a lot of activity and interest in the Internet. You have more and more advertising on TV by Internet companies. But still, the infrastructure is not built. That is why we are here," said Lopez-Blanco, who noted that in Latin America, the price of doing e-business is expensive. A T1 line costs as much as $8,000 a month in some countries.

Seed money launches incubator

The company's founders started their incubator after investing $500,000 of their own money to develop a U.S.-based Web site in January 1999, called Soft4U.com, which sells software at a discount to students and educational institutions. Now called EduAdvantage.com, it has been extremely successful, company officials said.

With their half-million in seed money, the pair decided they needed to expand and create an incubator. They invested another $1.5 million raised from previous business ventures, as well as from friends and family.

Lopez-Blanco is also the co-founder of American Pacific College, a vocational school that has four campuses in the United States and offers online classes. Pustelnik was a freelance Web site designer.

To help with growth and development, Manny Gonzalez, a former marketing manager with the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion, was recently hired.

The crew already knows that Latin America is a wide-open frontier, with only a small portion of the potential Internet market having been tapped. According to Media Metrix, just 8 percent of the Latin American population owns a computer and only 1.5 percent has an Internet connection. That compares with 54 percent PC ownership and 14 percent online penetration in the United States.

Many experts compare Latin America now to the United States five years ago, when few people had e-mail and didn't know how to log on and surf the Web. Meaning that if the Internet takes off at anywhere near the speed it did in the United States, E-Latin Business Group will be ready to handle the explosion.

Already, the company is developing several sites that have launched or will launch soon. One is MercadoDelsol.com, or Sun Market, which is slated to premiere in July. It is a shopping mall for the Spanish-speaking communities of the world, linking 23 countries.

Another site is Cyberprensa.com, or Cyberpress, which functions like a news-clipping service. It will tell you when selected keywords appear in certain publications in countries around the world.

"You can enter your name or your company's name and whenever the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times or Clarin (the largest newspaper in Buenos Aires) publish their newspaper every morning, you will get notified if the keyword appears in these newspapers," Pustelnik said. The site is scheduled to launch in Argentina in three weeks, with subsequent launches in Brazil, Uruguay, Peru and Chile.

Online advice

A third Web site under development is AdviceMasters.com. Its Spanish-language version will be known as consejero.com. Individuals can post their personal questions in English or Spanish and a team of psychologists and experts will respond with answers and comments.

In addition, the incubator is developing a company called CreditCardsLatinAmerica. It is an online tool for U.S.- and Latin America-based companies that want to engage in e-commerce in Latin America.

E-Latin Business Group's proprietary technology will allow Latin American companies to incorporate a credit card payment system into its e-commerce sites with quick payment processing, fraud protection, accounting and billing systems. In addition, it will help businesses deal with the various tariffs used throughout Latin America.

More plans are on the way.

"I have 60 business plans I'm reviewing," said Lopez-Blanco, a former pre-med student who later changed his major at the University of Buenos Aires to computer sciences.

The endeavor is a little unusual because there are few geographically focused incubators. "There are incubators as far as the eye can see, but the vast ones I see are very broadly based," said Charles Rutstein, a senior analyst with Forrester Research. "But Latin America is an emerging Internet economy."

Forrester Research estimates that by 2003, there will be $82 billion worth of e-commerce transactions conducted in Latin America, primarily in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia and Chile.

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