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Clearwater, EIC partner to create area’s first tourism incubator

Veronica Brezina



Clearwater's Beach Walk. Photo: Pinellas County.

The Tampa Bay region has become a hotbed of fintech, medtech and cybersecurity accelerators helping grow startups and infuse intellectual capital in the community, but now there will be a new incubator geared towards a different sector – tourism. 

Business advocacy group AMPLIFY Clearwater and Economic Impact Catalyst (EIC) will launch the first tourism business incubator in the state. 

“If you started a tech incubator, you are competing against 500 other ones,” said EIC CEO and founder David Ponraj. “These specific companies can address things like traffic jams during the winter months, needed beach nourishment, light pollution that affects turtle nesting and coral bleaching. The program can be a leading incubator to solve our unique tourism-related problems.” 

Economic Impact Catalyst has created an entrepreneurship ecosystem software platform that provides the tools and resources needed to support small businesses. The group collaborates with municipalities by providing consultation services, market research and impact reporting. 

Ponraj and AMPLIFY CEO and President Amanda Payne drafted the plans for the incubator after Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. attended a ribbon-cutting event for EIC’s Clearwater office in May. 

“They [AMPLIFY] came to us with an idea they already had to help some businesses, and we knew we could bring this to life,” Ponraj said. 

Clearwater Mayor Brian Aungst Sr. (center) and Economic Impact Catalyst CEO David Ponraj (right of the mayor) alongside executive team members. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

Last week, the Clearwater City Council members unanimously approved allocating $250,000 of ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to launch the incubator.

“The incubator will be focused on cultivating and strengthening the area’s tourism ecosystem. It specifically focuses on innovation and sustainability within the industry sector,” Denise Sanderson, Clearwater’s director of economic development and housing and project liaison, said in a prepared statement. 

Tourism has long been the lifeblood of Florida’s economy. In Pinellas County, tourism spurred the creation of 109,000 last year as visitors spend $353 every second, according to destination marketing organization Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.

“When the ARPA funding conversation first surfaced, the city council members and former mayor Frank Hibbard strongly felt a portion of those dollars should be reinvested into economic development,” Payne said.

The incubator is set to launch its first 10-week cohort in October, followed by a second cohort in April. In between cohorts, bootcamp classes will be held for small businesses. 

Ponraj said they anticipate reviewing roughly 15 applications for the first round before selecting the 10 companies. The participating startups will likely be one to two years old and have at least one customer. AMPLIFY will host the cohorts at its new Clearwater office. 

“The companies are looking for a better road map, customer discovery and a fit in the market. We will help them finetune their business and surround them with legal, financial support or raising capital,” Ponraj said. “We can attract more funding resources by showing what we can achieve. I’ve seen this play out in communities across the U.S. Over time, we will track the capital raised and new jobs created by these companies.” 

EIC has a dozen existing bootcamps throughout the year to educate companies. Two bootcamps are tailored for idea-stage companies that could grow and qualify for the cohorts. 

“Small businesses are the backbone of America, they are 60 times more innovative than large firms and account for 64% of new jobs,” Councilmember Lina Teixeira said. “I am glad this will be available to them. It is truly an invitation for great talent and innovation to come to Clearwater and to stay in Clearwater.”

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