Persistence paid off for Linda Olson, president and CEO of Tampa Bay Wave.
At least once a year since 2012, Olson has spoken to Steve Case, the tech entrepreneur who is the face of the Rise of the Rest Bus Tour, a national initiative to highlight promising startups in areas outside of the major technology hubs.
“Every time I saw him, I would tell him he needs to get his bus to Tampa Bay,” Olson said.
Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of Embarc Collective, was sending the same message, “pestering” Case and his team to make sure the Tampa Bay region was on their radar.
Their work, and that of others, provided the back story to the Feb. 1 announcement, when Case, co-founder of America Online and chairman of Revolution, a Washington, D.C.-based investment firm, said the tour would visit four cities in Florida and Puerto Rico from April 29 to May 3.
The day-long stop in Tampa Bay on Wednesday, May 1 will start in St. Petersburg with a breakfast and visits to two local tech firms, then cross Tampa Bay to visit more tech companies and wind up that evening with a pitch competition at ConnectWise. The pitch competition is the only event open to the public, although it is already sold out.
Olson and Shenoy are among the dozen members of a host committee for the event. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik is honorary chair of the host committee and an investor in the Rise of the Rest Fund.
The wheels started spinning in January, when Mark Rucci, the community manager for Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, came to Tampa on a trip that coincided with the Synapse Summit. He spent time with Allie Felix, director of platform at Embarc, who showed him venues around town, as well as Rich Heruska, accelerator director at Tampa Bay Wave, so Rucci could learn about local companies, Olson said.
The day after Synapse, a group that included Embarc, Synapse, Wave and the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator met at University of Tampa to talk through venues.
“Among the conversations at the meeting was that we insisted Rise of the Rest figure out how to include St. Pete in their bus tour on May 1,” Olson said.
Rucci reached out to Tonya Elmore, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center in St. Petersburg, who pulled together a private meeting at Presence, a software firm in St. Pete. Among those at the meeting were Rucci and Felix, as well as Reuben Pressman, founder and CEO of Presence; Chad Nuss, founder and chief revenue officer at InsideOut, a sales innovation lab in St. Pete; and Jared Fuller, vice president of sales at PandaDoc, a document automation platform with its East Coast headquarters in St. Pete.
“The fact that Rise of the Rest has included St. Pete and the greater Tampa-St. Pete region in their tour confirms the impact of our community-wide awareness building efforts,” said J.P. DuBuque, president of the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corp. and a host committee member. “The hard work of our innovative entrepreneurs to build success and to raise the visibility of their own companies combined with the diligence of local communities and entrepreneur support organizations to support these companies continues to spark interest from those outside of the market.”
Presence was one of the companies selected for the pitch competition. InsideOut’s office is one of the stops on May 1. Another stop will be at Embarc Collective, an innovation hub in downtown Tampa which has been building out its space for several months.
“Who better to beta test our hard hat tour than Steve Case and JD Vance [managing partner of Rise of the Rest Seed Fund]. We have started construction and we’re excited to show them the work that’s been done to date,” Shenoy said.
Eight companies will take part in the pitch competition. They were chosen from 135 applicants. Collectively for the five stops during the week, there was a record number of applicants, more than in any of the previous tours, Heruska said.
That’s significant because Florida is not often seen as a place for entrepreneurship, Elmore said.
While local organizations helped get the word out to potential participants, the Rise of the Rest team did all the vetting and selection on their own, Heruska said.
Rise of the Rest investment partners will provide a full day of pitch coaching at Wave on April 30, the day before the May 1 competition.
The original venue for the pitch competition had a 300-person capacity and sold out in 48 hours. Heruska helped find a larger venue, the corporate headquarters of ConnectWise, a managed IT services providers and software developer in Tampa. That site, with a 600-person capacity, also sold out in less than a week, and there’s a waiting list of more than 100, Heruska said.
One company will win a $100,000 prize in the pitch competition, but the other seven companies will get a national spotlight and could see investment down the line, as has happened in other cities, Heruska said. Shuchi Vyas, founder of GuestBox, one of the companies that will pitch for Rise of the Rest, already has been contacted from prospective investors nationwide.
“I am optimistic that the Rise of the Rest team will be pleasantly surprised to discover the best-kept-secret feel of St. Pete that is vastly different from other communities they’ve encountered in their travels,” DuBuque said. “I’d like to think that the support that we have provided to entrepreneurs in the St. Pete area has helped put our community on the map as a great place to start and grow a business.”
Elmore hopes it’s the first of many opportunities for the region’s entrepreneurs, and Shenoy echoes that.
“My goal is that the momentum is not just isolated to May 1,” Shenoy said. “My goal is we can use this as further fuel to show there’s a lot happening Tampa Bay, increase the visibility and elevate the profile of what’s happening in this region, not only for people in entrepreneurial communities across the country, but perhaps more importantly for members of the Tampa Bay community who may not know all the traction the startups have been making,”
Heruska is already thinking about May 2, and how the region can build on its momentum.
“Some of the ecosystem leaders have talked about making sure we meet up more, making sure we leverage corporate and investor engagement for more ongoing support. Our goal is to make Tampa Bay shine on May 1, and make that shine in the weeks and months and years ahead,” Heruska said.