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Startup City: Six steps to a healthier startup ecosystem in St. Petersburg

Irv Cohen

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Photo: City of St. Petersburg

This is a series of perspectives from local leaders who support startup businesses and social ventures, or who have started one themselves. Each is invited to envision what a world-class startup ecosystem would look like in St. Petersburg and to share their ideas for how we get there.

Successful communities have certain attributes that put them in the running to attract the talent that a vibrant economy requires. Fortunately, St. Petersburg is rich in the cultural and infrastructure assets that resonate with tech entrepreneurs and startup founders. These include a great quality of life, walkable urban spaces, a thriving arts scene, a research university that ranks in the top ten for U.S. patents, and a nearby airport that travelers named #2 in a national J.D. Power’s 2020 customer satisfaction study. And of course, weather and natural beauty that can’t be beat. 

Another fundamental requirement is a well-functioning startup ecosystem. That means a concentration of talent and a network with a sense of place, where ideas can be exchanged, mentors and support services obtained, and investment capital attracted. In this department, we have a mix of strengths and opportunities for improvement. 

To be competitive in the 21st century economy, we need to be pulling together toward a coordinated investment in the startup ecosystem – and a clear strategy to guide it.

As an investor in both businesses and social ventures and a co-founder of two local funders groups, I see firsthand how closing some of the gaps in the entrepreneurial support system would contribute to more successful and sustainable businesses that would remain in the area. That means more good jobs for St. Petersburg residents. As a Wall Street veteran, I see potential for national sponsors to support an ecosystem that they feel models a state-of-the-art approach. Finally, as a parent, I care about this issue because cities where innovation thrives are the places where our children and grandchildren will want to be. 

The impending groundbreaking of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center in St. Petersburg represents an important opportunity to complement the strengths of the current ecosystem with an important new resource.  With the right combination of vision, leadership, partnerships, services and physical space, it has the potential to catalyze St. Petersburg’s progress toward a world class entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Project leaders are attempting to close a roughly $5 million funding gap with private dollars, after having launched the planning process with grants from the federal government and Pinellas County. As they work to raise the dollars that will build the 45,000 square foot physical facility, those of us currently working to support startups can help in several ways, in my opinion.

First, this is a good moment to take an inventory of the strengths and assets of the current ecosystem and coordinate more deeply as individuals and organizations who are committed to this issue. Where are the gaps in the current system, and who is best positioned to fill them? What resources are most needed? What lessons can we learn from other cities and what additional best practices might be adopted?

Next, let’s boldly envision what a world class innovation hub could look like. Can raise the bar of our ambitions and ensure that the Tampa Bay Innovation Center becomes its best version of itself. This, in turn, will help attract the private and corporate funding the project needs and the region deserves.

Finally, let’s keep the conversation and the visioning process going. In the coming weeks, the Catalyst will feature the voices of leaders in the tech and business startup world. We’re inviting their reports from the field and recommendations for ways that the St. Petersburg startup ecosystem can become the best in class.

I’ll kick off the series with six important areas where we can make improvements right away.

  1. Greater collaboration among people and organizations that serve entrepreneurs. A better coordinated ecosystem will attract more startups, investors and corporate sponsors, eliminate redundancy and make better use of resources. The current landscape is somewhat fragmented, making it challenging for startup founders to access the services and capital they need.
  2. Attention to every stage of startup development from ideation to capitalization. A lack of coordination among service providers also results in gaps in the life cycle of support that young businesses need. While there is a plethora of education and programs for the early startup phase, for example, there is a shortage of support for businesses in the critical first three years of life.
  3. More early-stage capital. Relative to its population of 4.7 million people and the strength of its economy, Tampa Bay lacks adequate seed capital. We need new investors to join existing programs such as Seedfunders, Florida Funders, and the TampaBay.Ventures, and start new ones that will invest in regional startups and keep them here.
  4. Multi-sector partnerships all pulling in the same direction. Universities, government, private sector investors, nonprofits: none of them can create a vibrant tech and startup hub on their own. The country’s most powerful tech magnets – Boston, New York, Seattle and Silicon Valley – have long-established synergies between sectors, and emerging tech cities like Tampa Bay need to follow this example.
  5. Include social ventures and double bottom line businesses in the system. For the St. Petersburg startup ecosystem to include social ventures would be a strategic win. Some of our best minds are focused on intractable social and structural problems that might best be addressed by nonprofits, or businesses that deliver a social benefit. The same programs, coaches, mentors and funders that support for-profits can help social ventures as well. Additionally, there are numerous innovative financing and lending approaches coming out of the worlds of philanthropic investment that could complement traditional for-profit startup financing.
  6. Intentional strategies for diversity and inclusion in tech and entrepreneurship. A “build it and they will come” approach won’t result in technology and business founders that reflect the diverse world we live in. There are groups proactively addressing the obstacles and gaps in the ecosystem and culture that deter underrepresented groups from entrepreneurship – and we need more such efforts. Resources like Change Catalyst, which consults on tech inclusion, can help. And we need more financing options like the Opportunity Fund at Seedfunders Tampa Bay, which makes pre-seed investments in Black-owned startups to fill the “friends and family” round of funding that many lack.

Strengthening these aspects of the St. Petersburg startup support system will generate immediate benefits for today’s business and social venture founders, and create a cycle of success that will be self-perpetuating. We hope that the suggestions and ideas generated by this series will help make the Tampa Bay area a world class destination for entrepreneurs, social innovators and funders.

Irv Cohen spent more than 30 years as an executive for Wall Street banks and large private conglomerates, including a position as a senior executive with JP Morgan where he relocated 2,500 high-paying jobs to the Tampa Bay area. Irv now lends his knowledge and expertise to multiple high-impact organizations including SeedFunders, Social Venture Partners Tampa Bay and the St. Petersburg Group.

 

 

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