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Step up: Vinik, Kriseman pose challenges at Synapse Innovation Summit

Megan Holmes

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The Synapse Innovation Summit featured dozens of local and national thought leaders, curated panels, established businesses and scrappy entrepreneurs. The presenters showcased the best of what’s happening in Tampa Bay, sharing innovations in robotics, fintech, AI, machine learning, biotech, cybersecurity and much more. Perhaps the most notable highlights were the challenges posed by two key Tampa Bay leaders.

Kicking off the day’s keynotes was Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who offered words of encouragement, as well as a challenge to the crowd of innovators. Despite Tampa Bay’s bustling entrepreneurial scene being equipped with investors and entrepreneurial support organizations, not enough people know what’s going on here, he said. As one of Tampa’s largest private investors, philanthropists, and developers, he knows that the funds are here, he’s worked hard to bring them together. But private investors can’t do it alone.

Vinik challenged Tampa Bay to do more to become the entrepreneurial hub of Florida and the Southeast. Which, he argued, will come from retaining the talent that’s already here, and incentivizing Tampa Bay’s young people to stay in the area, instead of moving to tech hubs like Chicago, Washington DC, or Atlanta.

“They have to know if they want to start a company, they will be supported here,” Vinik said, “if they are working at a start-up company that doesn’t work out, there’s another company they can go work for. They have to know that a lot of their peers are also staying here and there are places for them to congregate, like Water Street Tampa, downtown St. Pete, the new Tampa Heights area, or Ybor as it redevelops.”

That means more public-private partnerships like the one he’s undertaking with the City of Tampa and Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ private capital fund, Cascade Investment. Along with redevelopment and revitalization of downtown, these efforts should include improving shared transportation options, doing a better job of showcasing the entrepreneurial ecosystem, and proving that Tampa Bay is a place for young people to congregate and grow.

Mayor Rick Kriseman of St. Pete, who spoke over a lunch session, focused on mentorship. Kriseman agreed with Vinik on the importance of retaining young talent. But he said that the answer to keeping young people here in Tampa Bay is for tech professionals to give back to the community by guiding students through the challenges of entrepreneurship. The growth and success thus far is not accidental or magical, Kriseman said, but rather due to the collaborative, competitive spirit. “I want to encourage everyone in this room to seek out an opportunity to mentor a young student who wants to be successful in the technology industry,” Kriseman said, “Let’s keep the innovative spirit that drives the Tampa Bay technology boom going by inspiring the next generation.

“Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest and fastest growing technology hub,” the mayor added. “And I think we’re on our way to becoming one of the largest and fastest growing technology hubs in America and maybe even the world. And that’s not hyperbole.”

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