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Exclusive: Inside Tampa Bay Innovation Center’s new digs

Margie Manning

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Tonya Elmore is president and CEO of Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

Tampa Bay Innovation Center is settling into its new space in downtown St. Petersburg, even as the organization makes longer-term plans to move to its own permanent home in the city’s Innovation District.

The Innovation Center, a non-profit incubator and co-working space for technology startups, moved to two floors at 501 1st Ave. N. over Labor Day weekend. With 20,000-square-feet, the new space is much larger than the former TEC Garage, a 7,000-square-foot facility that was at St. Petersburg College Downtown Center.

There currently are 36 clients at the Innovation Center —  20 startups with 79 employees, half of whom work on site, and 16 co-workers who are on site — said Tonya Elmore, president and CEO. They occupy the ninth floor of the building.

There’s room for at least 20 more startups on the eighth floor, Elmore said.

Filling the space is important as plans advance for a 45,000-square-foot facility, specifically built for the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, on about two acres of land currently owned by the city of St. Petersburg at 4th Street and 11th Avenue South. Pinellas County Economic Development applied earlier this month for a $9 million federal grant to construct the facility, and the Pinellas County Commission has pledged $3 million in matching funds if the grant is approved, said Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development.

Economic development role

If the grant wins approval, the new building could be ready for occupancy in about three years, Meidel said.

Elmore said the new facility ideally would include a green room for filming, classrooms, huddle rooms and other collaborative spaces, as well as community space with a coffee shop and other ways to create synergistic opportunities.

The new grant proposal is a second try at funding the Tampa Bay Innovation Center’s own building. Last year Gov. Scott vetoed $11 million in the Florida budget for the project.

The new grant funding, from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, would come from Hurricane Irma recovery funds, Meidel said.

“The idea is that this will help us be a more resilient and diverse economy that’s not so dependent on tourism,” he said.

Technology incubators play a key role in building a strong entrepreneurial sector, Elmore said.

“Entrepreneurs often are looking for every resource that it takes to succeed. An incubator provides a stable environment for entrepreneurs to come in and learn from each other,” Elmore said. “There’s a synergy involved in working with like-minded people.”

Incubators also are the “other arm” of economic development.

“You do business retention, you do business development, and you grow your own. You grow your own here because 80 percent of them stay in the region and they create high-paying jobs, and they continue to live here and create economic impact for the region,” Elmore said.

She does not consider other organizations including Tampa Bay Wave, the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator, Embarc Collective, USF Connect and the University of Tampa Spartan Accelerator and Incubator, along with numerous co-working spaces, as competition, but more as part of a continuum to provide entrepreneurs the resources they need.

She cited PikMyKid, a Tampa company that developed software to streamline the school dismissal process, as an example. PikMyKid started at the USF student incubator, moved to Tampa Bay Wave (where it is still active) and then came to the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

Accelerator planned

Tampa Bay Innovation Center’s new space, previously occupied by the Banker Lopez Gassler law firm, has lots of dedicated office space, several collaboration rooms and sweeping views of downtown St. Pete.

Tampa Bay Innovation Center

Picture 1 of 3

Tampa Bay Innovation Center occupies two floors at 501 1st Ave. N. in downtown St. Petersburg.

The Innovation Center serves companies from the idea stage to those with as much as $500,000 in revenue. Most of its startups are pre-revenue, and “we get them to revenue pretty quickly,” Elmore said.

The center provides four hours a month of dedicated coaching, augmented with experts, mentors and connections to investors. The Tampa Bay Innovation Center does not invest in the companies it houses.

There are two on-site coaches: Tom Binion, a partner at real estate development firm Forbin Partners, and Steven Parker, an entrepreneur, industry leader, author, teacher, mentor and licensed captain.

Clients who don’t have an office pay $300 a month to get 24/7 co-working space and coaching. Clients with an office pay a discounted rent and coaching fees. Companies that are not clients pay co-working fees, Elmore said.

Successful incubator graduates include Yes.fit, a virtual racing company in Lakeland, and Direct Pharms, a software company in St. Petersburg that launched an on-demand, over-the-counter pharmacy kit last month.

In January, Elmore expects to launch a tech accelerator. While an incubator serves as home to companies for an extended period of time, an accelerator is comparable to a boot camp, providing concentrated resources over a period of a few weeks.

Elmore is working with a team of advisors to figure out the exact model for the planned new accelerator.

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