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Local incubator’s startups defy survivability odds

Mark Parker

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Embarc Collective's startups have a nearly 100% survivability rate after five years, and most remain program members. Photo by Veronica Brezina.

Embarc Collective launched in March 2019 with 25 Florida-based, early-stage companies; 24 remain in business, defying all national survivability rates.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 45% of new businesses fail within the first five years. However, 96% of Embarc Collective’s technology-based startups are still operational, and 60% remain members.

Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of the Tampa-based incubator and accelerator, was hesitant to call her organization’s efforts a success. She prefers focusing on continuously evolving operations to meet the local entrepreneurial ecosystem’s needs.

“I think we’ve demonstrated that this startup community has real substance to it, and real grit and drive behind it,” Shenoy told the Catalyst. “But there’s still more companies to build, still more impact to create and still more talent to attract and retain.”

Now celebrating its fifth anniversary, Embarc began providing entrepreneurial education 10 months before opening its innovation hub in downtown Tampa. Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, committed $10 million to establish the nonprofit.

Vinik lured Shenoy from 1871, a prominent tech entrepreneurship hub in Chicago, in 2018. Shenoy said she is sure colleagues doubted her quest to foster a startup ecosystem in Tampa Bay.

“As an entrepreneur, you’re always an optimist,” Shenoy added. “So, if they did, I didn’t really listen.”

Lakshmi Shenoy (left), CEO of Embarc Collective, and Cathie Wood, CEO of ARK Invest, talk at the 2021 Florida Bitcoin and Blockchain Summit. Photo by Mark Parker.

She called the first 25 companies Embarc’s beta customers. The goal was to provide customized long-term support that fostered their growth.

Shenoy believes their nearly 100% survivability rate – and most remaining members after five years – shows that Embarc is achieving its mission. She said it also demonstrates the organization’s ability to evolve.

“We’re hitting it out of the park on relevance,” Shenoy said. “And by doing that, we’re helping them (entrepreneurs) stay accountable to their goals … which is why they are defying the odds.”

Most of Embarc’s initial startups are now thriving. Some prominent success stories include:

  • Dataquest partnered with Microsoft to offer 500 scholarships to unrepresented groups hoping to start a career in the data industry.
  • COI Energy provided emerging technology to the U.S. General Services Administration and Department of Energy’s Green Proving Ground program.
  • Chattr grew 104% in 2023 by securing contracts with several national corporations.
  • SpotMyPhotos integrated with Canon to serve the world’s largest photography brands.

Shenoy takes the most pride in Embarc’s coaching efforts. She said it sets the organization apart, and other startup incubators worldwide often look to recreate the unique program.

Embarc features 15 paid coaches with startup experience. Shenoy also prefers to work directly with entrepreneurs and provides “whatever they need in that moment.”

“My job is to ask questions – it’s not to give answers,” she said. “We’re an education nonprofit helping individuals become amazing entrepreneurs and leaders. So, what I think is the win is when I get to see week-after-week growth …”

Shenoy used Celeste Grupman’s rise through the ranks at Dataquest, an education technology platform, as an example. Shenoy said the two started working together in March 2019 and met weekly when Grupman served as the company’s director of operations.

Grupman became Dataquest’s CEO in late February. Shenoy said she was “thrilled” to learn of Grupman’s promotion “because I believed in her.”

“She really had developed into the leader that the organization needs to take it through its next growth phase,” Shenoy added. “Is there anything better? I love that.”

The past five years have not been without challenges. Shenoy noted that Embarc also began as a startup with a 45% failure rate.

The organization opened its 32,000-square-foot building six weeks before a global pandemic. Shenoy said a member of its “tight-knit” team died last year.

“That hits a small team hard,” she solemnly said. “Just knowing that behind the scenes, this team has been so resilient with the ups and downs – so much so that most people would have no idea about them – is really, really meaningful to me.”

Shenoy credited the local entrepreneurial ecosystem’s energy and dedication. She said her team – and the people they serve – are willing to pivot and “move the earth” to accomplish their collective missions.

Shenoy grew accustomed to that environment in Chicago and wondered if she would find those same types of people in Tampa Bay. She said the answer was “yes, in spades.”

“What’s amazing is that even the smallest wins of the community here fuel every other startup around them,” Shenoy explained. “You’re unlocking that something that looks hard is possible, and it’s such a motivator for everyone else.

“When the world has a lot of ‘no’s, Embarc Collective has a lot of ‘yes’s. Or ‘I’ll figure out how to make it a yes,’ and that’s awesome.”

 

 

 

 

 

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