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Innovation Center fosters tech growth with new cohort

Mark Parker

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A new congressional map that splits St. Petersburg voters, with downtown and the city's east side joining Tampa Rep. Kathy Castor's District 14, is now being challenged in court. Photo: Veronica Brezina.

St. Petersburg’s reputation as a city that nurtures innovation and entrepreneurs continues to grow – and the Tampa Bay Innovation Center continues adding to that community with the recently announced six startups comprising its spring accelerator cohort.

The Tampa Bay Innovation Center (TBIC), which offers a tech incubator, accelerator and coworking space, announced Monday the six innovative startups that will receive training and mentoring in customer discovery, product strategy, investor readiness and entrepreneurial leadership. The 12-week, specifically tailored course focuses on creating in-demand business-to-business products and market strategies.

Ken Evans, managing director for TBIC, said that every startup his organization helps bring a product to market provides more jobs for St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay region. Additionally, he said it shows the city can compete at a high level in the burgeoning innovation economy and could provide the market with fresh ideas and products.

“It’s balancing out our economy of being more knowledge-based workers or innovation-based – all the things you see in the marketing hype,” he said. “But unless there are product-shipping companies, it doesn’t really matter.”

Evans said the program offers startups “survival, plain and simple.” He explained that beyond the buzzwords, publicity and excitement, if a startup cannot deliver a product that solves real customer problems, it is destined to fail.

Ken Evans is the managing director of Tampa Bay Innovation Center’s business accelerator program. Photo provided.

Many entrepreneurs, said Evans, lack the resources, mentoring and peer connections with other founders necessary to survive. He added that launching a successful startup is a community effort, and without the kind of support that TBIC provides, the journey becomes lonely and arduous.

“It’s (building a startup) not all about networking events and expensive cocktails,” he said. “It’s about understanding what it takes to actually build things in a successful way.”

Evans said the accelerator teaches four basic pillars – product, revenue, operations and leadership. The product is the first and foremost priority, and Evans stressed that most early-stage tech startup failures directly result from an unneeded or unsuccessful product.

Many founders possess the “build it and they will come mentality,” which Evans said rarely works. He said building and offering something with actual market demand is imperative for success, and the accelerator accentuates that aspect. Far too often, people build something simply because the technology allows them to do so, and he called that a quick and expensive recipe for failure.

Evans added that without users willing to pay money for a product or service, the concept is a boondoggle. “It’s just a hobby,” he said. “But it’s not a business.”

Evans intends on keeping the six startups in the new cohort from experiencing those pitfalls. He said most of the companies are from the Tampa Bay area, and a couple are from St. Petersburg and based in the Innovation Center. One hails from Israel. Together, they encompass emerging industries like medical, health and financial technology; data analytics; environmental, social and corporate governance data reporting; and drone services.

Evans noted that excluding the first cohort, the accelerator always features a startup from outside the state. A company from California was among the last group of graduates.

Evans said the accelerator looks for founders that offer business-to-business solutions – entrepreneurs building products for small to medium or enterprise sized businesses rather than consumer products. He said Central Florida provides a wealth of good customers for business solutions, and his extensive background in the business-to-business and business-to-government space enables him to provide the founders with unique insights.

“It’s important to have that kind of industry experience to know all the ins and out of building a product for enterprise tech customers because it’s not the same as consumers,” he said. “There are some very specific operational elements that go into building products that satisfy those customers.”

Evans said another area the accelerator addresses is defining a specific customer segment. For example, he said many founders state their product is for “anyone that drives a car or anybody that does their taxes.” He called that a bad approach, and the program teaches entrepreneurs to focus on a very small sub-segment that needs and wants to buy their product.

Targeting too large of an audience leads to wasted money on marketing, sales and hiring the wrong people, and Evans believes that most failures are due to a poorly defined focus.

“We realize that we need to be a resource for those people that have great ideas,” said Evans.

The City of St. Petersburg initially funded the program to establish an accelerator for emerging tech startups. Pinellas County, Tampa Bay Ventures and various other community partners also support TBIC’s efforts. The accelerator runs virtually through the end of June, and the graduates participate in an in-person showcase for investors, community leaders and potential business partners and customers in July.

The six startups comprising the spring 2022 Tampa Bay Innovation Center tech accelerator cohort are Beacon Advocates, CBio, Cross Compute, Destination Better, SueApp and Zing Drone.

For more information, visit the TBIC website here.

 

 

 

 

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