Entrepreneur David Ponraj has first-hand knowledge of minority businesses struggling to get off the ground, and now works with municipalities and groups to connect with those startups.
Ponraj originally founded Startup Space, an entrepreneurship ecosystem software platform that provides the tools and resources needed to support small businesses. Ponraj, who is a first-generation American, immigrant and serial entrepreneur himself, understands the frustrations of the pitfalls within a local entrepreneurial ecosystem.
However, what started as a platform created from his own frustrations, has now shifted to focus on the other side of the table.
“It started in 2018 to help entrepreneurs start faster and easier, but today we serve entrepreneurial organizations, municipalities and economic development groups,” Ponraj said.
The Startup Space name for the platform rebranded last December to Economic Impact Catalyst, to reflect the change.
“The biggest part of our work is making opportunities accessible to minorities. There is a significant minority founder population so when we launch from city to city, we want to use this tech to break down those barriers,” he said.
Ponraj stated his previous experience at Neilson Media Research, serving as the VP of Global Innovation, has played a significant role as he brings an analytical data approach to the platform.
Today, Ponraj said the Economic Impact Catalyst is used in over 100 cities and is the nation’s leading provider for connecting groups to more inclusive small business communities.
Locally, Ponraj has created One Pinellas.
“Onepinellas.com is the front door to the ecosystem and from there, users can connect to the backend of systems. Think of it as the Salesforce of economic development,” he said.
The platform helps users navigate resources available through entrepreneurial organizations in Pinellas County.
For example, users can filter their searches, grant opportunities and other postings from organizations such as The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, Embarc Collective, Tampa Bay Wave, Deuces Live St. Pete, the University of South Florida and others.
There’s also a community event page listing all upcoming business and pitch events, as well as a tab where people can share stories.
“We introduce entrepreneurs to different ways they can find capital. Entrepreneurship is a learned sport, and we know when you combine capital with technical assistance, the money goes a lot further,” Ponraj said.
Kim Vogel, who was formerly with the St. Pete Greenhouse, was the first local entity Ponraj worked with. She connected with Ponraj after hearing him present at 1 Million Cups pitch event in 2019.
”Entrepreneurs can come through many doors, and we as a community have to be ready with the resources to help them,” Vogel said.
Ken Evans, managing director at the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, recalls first meeting Ponraj also during a different 1 Million Cups event.
“The platform has changed from the entrepreneurial focus to municipalities, which has been very useful. There’s a lack of data monitoring in local systems – we don’t have a real grassroots assessment and he has found a unique way of forming it that aligns with pain points from both sides,” Evans said, explaining he is not a licensee of the program but is a user.
Locally, Ponraj said the licensees include the City of St. Petersburg, the University of South Florida and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Our platform also generates real-time analytics. Small Business Administration, federal and philanthropy dollars require impact reporting from groups, and we simplify that process for the users,” he said.
Pasco Economic Development Council President and CEO Bill Cronin has also worked with Ponraj.
“Our SMARTstart program has been building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Pasco County for the better part of 10 years and we were looking for a tech platform that would help tie the various communities and resources in a simple app,” Cronin said about partnering with EIC.
Elsewhere, Ponraj has found success in working with groups in Detroit, Denver/Boulder and Minneapolis. He has also worked with the University of Nevada to support statewide initiatives.
Economic Impact Catalyst is completely bootstrapped and has an annual revenue north of $1 million.
Planting a flag in St. Pete
“Based on our revenue growth and users, we are looking to bring an IT hub in Tampa Bay to centralize resources,” Ponraj said.
Ponraj, who currently resides in Pinellas County with his family, said he is seeking a workspace around 3,000 square feet in St. Pete, Clearwater or Dunedin.
He has a fully remote workforce with 30 employees and contractors and would like a physical home base while continuing to embrace the remote workforce model.
A graduate of St. Petersburg College and USF, Ponraj recently joined the board of the Helen Gordon Davis Centre for Women nonprofit organization and said he wants to further strengthen his roots in the community.