Business mogul, philanthropist, innovation investor and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik sat down with St. Pete Catalyst publisher Joe Hamilton to discuss Tampa Bay’s status as an emerging leader in the financial technology and blockchain industries.
Just before receiving the Catalyst Innovation Award during the final day of the Florida Bitcoin & Blockchain Summit on Friday, Vinik talked about what he called a revolutionary trend in both finance and business in general. Vinik has a rich history with Wall Street and traditional banking, managing the Fidelity Magellan fund through the early and mid ’90s, then the world’s largest mutual fund with more than $56 billion in assets spread over 4.4 million accounts.
Although blockchain technology and cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin pose a direct threat to traditional banks, that has not stopped one of the most innovative leaders in Tampa Bay from embracing the transformation.
“I’ve been just wowed by the progress, the evolution by all the companies and all the people that are a part of the movement,” said Vinik. “I couldn’t be more pleased that we’re developing quite an ecosystem for blockchain here in the Tampa Bay area and bringing in a lot of strong companies and talent – very exciting.”
Our (slightly out of focus) conversation with Jeff Vinik at the F.B.B.S.
Vinik singlehandedly altered the landscape of much of downtown Tampa since purchasing the Lightning in 2010, followed by Amelie Arena and the surrounding Channel District. He believes becoming a leader in the blockchain space will only bolster the region’s identity as it seeks to attract more startups and fintech companies.
“We’d love it if Tampa could evolve into a real critical mass center of blockchain development,” Vinik explained. “This is a great place to live. I’ve said it for a number of years – why not us?”
Vinik said opportunity is abundant in the area, and Tampa Bay has the talent, ambition, and people necessary to capitalize. He believes the entire economy is now driven by innovation and emerging companies and said he is proud of how the area has steadily become a bigger factor in those areas over the last 10 years.
While a strong supporter of local startups, Vinik also invests in companies at all stages and described what he looks for when investing.
“There’s always some things you just got to have,” began Vinik. “One is very strong management. It doesn’t necessarily have to be somebody who’s formed a successful company before, but you want A+ management. You want an A+ idea, and probably an A+ listener also.”
Vinik noted how hard it is to get a company off the ground, requiring a cache of resources, a lot of time and a little luck. He said it “takes a village,” and he’s hoping to make Tampa Bay one such village.
“What we’re trying to do here in this whole area is create an ecosystem to support these companies, to give them a better probability of being successful,” Vinik said.
One of the ways Vinik is personally increasing those odds is through the Embarc Collective. He committed $10 million to establish the education nonprofit focused on technology, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Vinik credits Embarc CEO Lakshmi Shenoy and her entire staff for a terrific job of supporting 110 companies, and explained the ambitious goals he set for the collective from its inception. Vinik relayed how he told Shenoy the mission was to make 20 years of progress in 10 years and, how it is on the right track after making six years of progress in the first three years of Embarc’s existence.
“We’re still in the beginning of this thing, and we have a long way to go,” said Vinik. “It’s all about attracting knowledge-based jobs to Tampa and growing the quality of the economy in this area.”
Vinik added that this undertaking is a team effort, with community partners and leaders from across the region uniting to achieve a common goal.
“We like where we’re at, and we’re not alone,” stated Vinik. “The Wave is doing a great job, USF, Cathie (Wood) is getting involved with the new hub that’s going to be developed over in St. Pete.
“The more, the better. We’re not competitors here – we’re all growing this region.”
Following the interview, Hamilton, who is also the St. Petersburg Community Leader for the Florida Blockchain Business Association and Head of Network for Metacity, presented Vinik with the Innovation Catalyst Award. The award is a metal Fluent coin – the native token of the Catalyst Metacity – engraved with Vinik’s face and a corresponding NFT.
Vinik joked that he could not wait to tell his kids he received his first NFT and looks forward to the day the award is worth millions of dollars. Tampa Mayor Jane Castor was on hand for the presentation, and Vinik thanked her for her hands-on approach to fostering growth in the city.
Vinik said he was slightly disappointed that Wood chose to relocate to St. Petersburg over Tampa but reiterated that “we rise as a region, and we fall as a region.”
Vinik closed the two-day summit by stating his belief that the St. Pete, Tampa and Orlando corridor will become the fastest-growing region in the country, thanks in large part to a focus on innovation.
“We’re so honored to have this conference here,” said Vinik. “We’re so honored to develop this hub, this critical mass of blockchain companies. It means the world to us.”