The Tampa Bay area is gearing up to be a competitive force in innovation, according to economic development and business leaders.
The eight-county area ranked low on many innovation indicators in a regional competitiveness report released earlier this month by the Tampa Bay Partnership, but the trend lines are moving in the right direction, said Dave Sobush, project manager and director of policy and research for the partnership.
“It doesn’t surprise me that we’re not in the top 10 in some of those innovation areas. It doesn’t mean we won’t be successful,” said Tim Schar, a Silicon Valley transplant who came to the area almost a year ago, when he was named Tampa Bay market president for SunTrust Bank. “We’re walking before we can run.”
The regional competitiveness report compares the Tampa Bay area with 19 similar markets on dozens of indicators measuring innovation as well as economic vitality, infrastructure, talent and civic quality. It’s designed to determine greatest needs and prioritize limited resources to address those needs in order to create a more competitive and prosperous region.
The 2019 report, issued on Dec. 12, was a follow-up to the initial publication in November 2017
“The data hits a lot of high notes regarding our economic growth and the attractiveness of our community to both residents and businesses. But a closer look will show us that there are some cracks in the foundation that could jeopardize our long-term prosperity,” said Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership.
In the innovation category, Tampa Bay scored No. 14 among the 20 markets examined in one indicator — university research and development expenditures. Sobush credited University of South Florida for a steady gain in that indicator.
“That’s the start of the innovation pipeline. When R&D goes up, it leads to new ideas, patents and startups,” he said.
The area was No. 10 out of 20 for university technology licensing, and near the bottom of the lists for patents and for Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants.
There are signs of positive momentum, Schar said, including Tampa Bay and more broadly, Florida companies, getting venture or equity investments.
“That’s important for awareness but also the fact that we have companies here at home getting equity capital from prominent venture capitalists and they are staying here in Tampa Bay,” he said.
Local capital investments also are key, along with incubators and accelerators and other spaces for startups to collaborate, such as Tampa Bay Wave, the Tampa Bay Innovation Center and the soon-to-open Embarc Collective.
“All of these organizations are working together in a unified mission …We’re all doing the same work and not trying to grab the glory away from someone else,” said Schar, who chairs the board of Synapse, a Tampa nonprofit that that connects entrepreneurs, talent, investors, corporations, schools, and other stakeholders. “We’re seeing this cross-pollination and cooperation from organizations with a single-minded goal of supporting and developing innovation, both talent and companies.”
Tampa Bay is a lot better off than it used to be in terms of innovation, said Steve Tingiris, founder and managing director of Dabble Lab, a four-year-old Tampa software company and a veteran of the Tampa technology sector.
“You don’t have to go far to get evidence of that. Ten years ago, how many co-working spaces were there in downtown St. Pete? None. There was no Florida Funders. These things didn’t exist,” Tingiris said. “So I don’t pay attention to those studies. We’re further along than we were then. If we just continue moving forward, that’s what we need to do. We don’t need to be Silicon Valley or to try to beat someone else’s stats. We just need to be a better version of us tomorrow.
Tampa Bay also scored low on several talent indicators in the regional competitiveness report, which says that a skilled workforce helps retain the employers who are here and attract new jobs, companies and investment.
The area was No. 19 out of 20 for the percentage of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher and for those with a graduate or professional degree — degrees generally needed for the most technical and highly-compensated jobs in high-wage and high-skilled industry sectors.
What Tampa does have is a growing bench of available talent that’s “done it before” — people who have built successful companies and led successful teams and are willing to mentor young founders and their companies, Schar said. He cited Tony DiBenedetto, co-founder of Tribridge and now an entrepreneur-in-residence at Tampa Bay Wave, and Tom Wallace and Marc Blumenthal, serial entrepreneurs who now lead Florida Funders, a hybrid venture capital and crowd-funding platform.
“That’s something that’s big in Silicon Valley,” Schar said. “When you are listening to a Sand Hill Road venture capitalist, they know that if they are going to put $5 million or $10 million into a company to scale up and drive sales and build a second-generation technology with more product features, they want to eliminate the risk that it’s not successful by bringing in people who have done it before.”
One practice Schar would like to see more of locally is a “rinse and repeat” cycle, or founders who sell one business and then start another one. That’s also big in Silicon Valley, he said.
In California, there are purposeful initiatives to integrate university faculty into a culture of innovation, Schar said.
He is encouraged by partnerships between private industry and public universities, such as the $1 million gift that ReliaQuest, a Tampa cybersecurity firm, has committed to USF to fund the ReliaQuest Cybersecurity Labs at the USF Muma College of Business.
View the complete 2019 Regional Competitiveness Report here.