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Here’s Pinellas County’s plan for financial sustainability for the Tampa Bay Innovation Center business incubator

Margie Manning

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A rendering of the planned Tampa Bay Innovation Center

The 45,000-square-foot business incubator that will be built in St. Petersburg’s Innovation District will be an economic engine, bringing new cash into the local economy, according to Pinellas County Economic Development Director Mike Meidel.

The incubator also will be financially sustainable by the mid 2020s, Meidel told the business leaders who sit on the Pinellas County Economic Development Council.

Pinellas County Economic Development director Mike Meidel (standing) addressed the Pinellas County Economic Development Council.

At a meeting in St. Petersburg Thursday, the council got an overview of the incubator, which will be owned by Pinellas County, located on city land and operated by the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, which has been running the county’s business incubation initiatives for 16 years. The council also was introduced to the entrepreneurs who make up the first cohort of the Entrepreneurship and Investment Challenge, a new accelerator program from the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.

The Innovation Center is running the accelerator program in its current space, an 18,000-square-foot office building owned by Pinellas County in downtown St. Petersburg. (NOTE: The St. Pete Catalyst is a tenant in the Tampa Bay Innovation Center.) The new space, a four-story structure with parking on the ground level and three floors of occupied space above that, will be much larger and be suited for a wide range of companies, Meidel said.

“We’ll have office space, meeting space and more. There will be specialized equipment to help companies in target industries, particularly manufacturers, to prepare their products and have a prototype to show people,” Meidel said. There also will be a studio for podcasts, and educational and collaborative space.

“There will be a coffee shop where the community can come in and interact with our tenants and tenants can interact with each other because that’s where the magic happens. And up to one-third of the space will be available for corporate partners, and what we want there are people that can synergistically interact with our tenants. It could be people who want to do joint ventures. It could be exit strategy opportunities. It could be financing. It could be any number of things.”

A $7.5 million federal award and a $4.5 million local match will fund construction of the business incubator. Pinellas County commissioners earlier this week agreed to submit a grant request to the Florida Job Growth Grant Fund for $4 million to cover part of the local match. The remaining $500,000 will come from county funds, and an additional $1.5 million to cover fixture, furniture and equipment costs would be raised from the private sector and other sources over the next three years.

“I’ve got a list of 20 local small businesses, large businesses and foundations that we’re going to be recruiting for matching funds from the private sector,” Meidel said.

Here’s the timetable for the project.

• End of October 2019: Finalize the land transfer with the city of St. Petersburg

• Late 2019/early 2020: Work on a request for proposals for design

• July 2021: Complete design and break ground

• July 29, 2023: Complete project

“The ultimate goal is creating new businesses and new jobs,” Meidel said. “Our feasibility study says within three years of operation of that July 29, 2023 date we should have sufficient funds from the tenants and operations and fees to be self-sustaining, and we will have 670 jobs created by that time and it will continue grow throughout the life of that center.”

Entrepreneurship and Investment Challenge

The Tampa Bay Innovation Center, led by president and CEO Tonya Elmore, isn’t waiting for the new facility to move forward with its own efforts to grow the local economy. Its new accelerator program, designed to help young companies scale their businesses, launched Thursday.

Chris Paradies

“We’ve taken a completely different look at what an accelerator should do,” said Chris Paradies, an intellectual property attorney who chairs the Tampa Bay Innovation Center board. “We’re looking at how to make the leadership of those companies that are looking to grow and employ more people in our community, how can we help them to get through the trials and tribulations of that fast-growth phase where there’s so much uncertainty. You don’t know if your customers are going to be loyal. You don’t know if you will be able to find the employees you need. You have to deal with that uncertainty all the time, so building leaders of character is what we’re trying to do in a very short time.”

The focus on leadership is key in the technology industry, Paradies said.

“Some of these companies you will hear about in the future and say I knew them when,” he told the Pinellas County Economic Development Council. “Maybe it won’t be the company they produced today. It may be another company by another name, but that’s why working on the leadership of those companies is so important. They grow one company, then another and another, and that generates jobs in the local area and really makes all the difference to a community as far as attracting other entrepreneurs and attracting other companies that want to be able to service those entrepreneurs. Even when they fail, we should appreciate them, because the next company they do is going to be a huge success because you learn so much in failure.”

Ken Evans

Technology is a “rinse-and-repeat” business, said Ken Evans, managing director of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center and leader of the accelerator program.

“Sometimes you fail and then you repeat, and sometimes you succeed and that generates wealth, it generates jobs and it also generates interest for the area and the people who are here. That’s what we want to be, a talent magnet for the people that are skilled at both management and technology, to really understand the depth and support we have for emerging companies,” Evans said.

“You don’t have just one good idea. You work on one good idea at a time, but you don’t just have one good idea. We want to encourage that rinse and repeat activity for people to invest their time, invest their talent and really help build this area’s technology expertise, both the skills of technology and at the management level. Because the two of them go hand in hand and that’s what dictates the success of a tech company.”

Six of the seven companies in the new accelerator program introduced themselves to the Pinellas County Economic Development Council. Matt Schuerman, founder and CEO of Rubix Solutions, a St. Petersburg company with blockchain technology for defense contractors, is also an accelerator participant but was unable to attend the Pinellas County Economic Development Council meeting due to a prior conflict.

Entrepreneurship and Investment Challenge

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Bulk Nano is a St. Petersburg company focused on advanced composites and nano-material manufacturing, founded by Andrew Moench. "Part of what we do is nano-materials. The simplest way to describe that is the next generation of carbon fiber, Kevlar. We also do advanced composites and we're currently manufacturing ballistic composites for [the Department of Defense}, explosive ordnance disposal applications."

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