My first foray into the tech startup world was as an angel investor and Chief Marketing Officer for a company called ShiftRunner, starting in 2012. Our big, hairy audacious goal was to create the next great massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) that every kid between the ages of 7 and 12 would subscribe to and be inspired to be more active in helping make the world and their local communities better.
This was around the time when Minecraft was becoming a popular distraction for kids who loved building their own Lego-like worlds online while also competing or cooperating with other players. Not only that, but parents and teachers loved it when it became integrated into the classrooms to help teach chemistry, computer-aided design and computer science. It eventually became the best selling video game of all time.
At ShiftRunner, we were motivated to create something good for the world that was also a great business.
Our game was called PANDOO NATION. It enabled kids to create their own avatar, explore the world through various mini-games and interact and cooperate with other players in the virtual world. More than that, when the kids leveled-up in the game, they were unlocking videos and other interactive materials about education programs at PANDOO FOUNDATION, a sister organization which 20% of the game subscription supported.
Although we never became the next Minecraft and the company fell into the familiar startup trap of “not having enough runway,” I am proud that we had at least a small impact during our five-year run educating kids both through the game and within the foundation’s programs.
I believe that education with a focus on innovative thinking and targeted initiatives in emotional intelligence, leadership, critical thinking and STEM is key to our region’s influence and contribution to our technology-driven futures and a better world.
What are we doing now to educate for the needs of the future?
Our region has made significant strides in educational programs geared toward a tech-forward future. There are a multitude of examples of local public, private and nonprofit organizations developing specialized education curricula that are empowering and helping to level the playing field for the next generation of innovative thinkers, creators and workers.
One exciting new initiative launching as a pilot program this coming Fall in a handful of 6th grade science classes is a collaboration between the Pinellas County School District and the Innovation Foundation (IF). Together, they are bringing design thinking concepts and a hands-on approach to solving problems. Both are critical elements for developing the mindset and thought processes needed to develop innovative solutions to our world’s most pressing issues.
Founded by Cathie Wood, ARK Invest Founder and recent transplant to St. Petersburg, the Innovation Foundation’s mission is to educate through the lens of technologically enabled innovation. Their goal is to prepare and inspire students, teachers and families to be well prepared for a future that will continue to evolve around artificial intelligence, robotics, genomics, efficient energy storage and blockchain technology.
Pinellas County Schools has long understood the importance of educating our students for a future in technology. In 1990, they launched the Center for Advanced Technologies (CAT), a public school magnet program housed at Lakewood Senior High School in South St. Petersburg. Course curriculum revolves around mathematics, science, computer education, multimedia applications and research.
Just as important as problem solving and STEM skills is the development of emotional and social intelligence. Frameworks, a locally-based nonprofit, is helping our next generation to learn and apply important skills for success in our future world. Frameworks believes that all children need a solid foundation of social and emotional skills, and by fostering a sense of empathy, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and feelings of safety and inclusivity in the classroom, SEL will truly have a positive impact that lasts a lifetime.
Post secondary education is also seeing an innovation-focused boost in our region.
CodeBoxx, a private education company that recently opened its new HQ in St. Petersburg says it is in the business of creating business-minded tech developers of the 21st century. The company’s goal is to transform lives by providing access to technology education to individuals from all walks of life based on potential, not privilege.
The Muma College of Business at the University of South Florida indicates it too is upping its game in providing more focused education around the technologies of the future. Muma recently announced that it’s opening a new center specializing in the rapidly evolving financial technology industry — one that will serve as a “hub of excellence” for all things fintech-related.
Many of these initiatives are in early days, but are laying the groundwork for a STEM-educated, emotionally intelligent workforce to meet the needs of our ever-growing list of tech startups and companies launching and/or relocating to the Tampa Bay area.
A Local Startup Founder’s Story
When Terence Mills decided to relocate from New York City to the Tampa Bay region in recent years, he recognized the positive impact that the business and employee-friendly environment would bring for the stealth-at-the-time startup that he was bringing to life.
From a very young age, Mills has successfully founded, led and nurtured multiple successful companies using disruptive technologies. In more recent years, artificial intelligence and fintech solutions have become his sweet spot. His latest venture called Veuu is using artificial intelligence to streamline and improve insurance claims coding, and providing healthcare providers adjudication of payment immediately upon patient discharge.
Mills first entered the business world at the age of 16, starting his own company in the wireless industry as a reseller for Metro Mobile. After attending Babson College for two years, he decided that he would rather run his business than finish his formal education. Pursuing this entrepreneurial and hands-on education path allowed him to open over 20 stores which were then sold to Bell South, when he was only 21 years old.
From there, alongside a partner he met through his work in the wireless industry, he built a one-way paging network company called SkyTel Communications. It is here where he learned how to build a brand and take a company public. “We did a lot of things wrong along the way, which was a good way to learn,” recalls Mills. “That was difficult, but we got through it, and we sold the company to MCI for $1.9 billion.”
The SkyTel days were what Mills describes as his first foray into data. “We would send things (wirelessly) that, today, you would take for granted. Send things at that time that were simple, but important like stock quotes and weather forecasts,” explains Mills. “It was really our first chance to deliver that and integrate email and voicemail into one tertiary device, which was essentially an alphanumeric pager.”
Later, when the overall computing power in the industry improved, and Apple evolved the category even further, handheld devices soon became the primary tool as we know them today. Importantly, because of this shift, data usage and delivery skyrocketed.
“Data drives AI,” explains Mills on how he made the shift into artificial intelligence. “The AI solution, no matter how well you engineer it, is only as good as the data that trains it.” This is what eventually led him to his venture called AI.io, a startup that sold AI enterprise solutions to large companies, including Priceline which integrated its technology for on-demand booking of travel using voice.
Drawing on his experience and the technology from AI.io, his latest venture Veuu solves problems in claims coding and long accounts receivable days. It uses advanced AI technology in language and voice that has been developed specifically for the healthcare domain. ”What and how people get paid is a very interesting question to ask when you get to healthcare,” says Mills.
No matter the industry or product, one thing that is consistent across all of Mills’ ventures is the single, most important desire and focus on solving real business problems. Problem-solving thinking, an understanding of the technology, how all the different parts connect and the ability to work together as a team, is critical to scaling products that truly meet those needs.
One of his biggest challenges locally has been to fill the highly specialized AI technical roles that his deep tech solution requires. “We have to do a lot better with academia and industry connecting the dots,” explains Mills. “Industry has a responsibility to tell academia the type of talent that it needs … the type of education that’s required to do the work today, rather than the work that we used to do.” He has had early discussions with USF and others on creative solutions to meet those needs. More to come on that later.
It is clear that with all of the amazing education programs mentioned above, our region is on the right track. As a community, supporting these initiatives will put us in a better position to keep our best and brightest right here in Tampa Bay, creating and working for companies leveraging the best technologies to solve important problems in business and the world.
Startup City will continue to explore topics on what it takes to have a thriving startup ecosystem on a bi-weekly basis through stories and thoughts of local residents.
Michelle Waite is the VP of Marketing at Florida Funders, a locally-based venture capital firm and angel investor network who enables tech startups to thrive through monetary and business-intellectual capital. She has invested in, co-founded and worked for tech startups for the last 10 years. She counts herself lucky everyday to work for and alongside some pretty amazing entrepreneurs. You can follow her on Twitter or LinkedIn.