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Synapse, Embarc, St. Pete EDC leaders talk about building a brand for Tampa Bay

Margie Manning



USF CONNECT BEAT panelist (from left): Brian Kornfeld, Synapse; Lakshmi Shenoy, Embarc Collective; J.P. DuBuque, St. Petersburg Area EDC; Rebecca White, University of Tampa

Tampa Bay has come a long way from being a place known just for its weather and vacation hotspots.

Now, the area has an opportunity to capitalize on the burgeoning technology industry here and create a brand around it, three community leaders said at a panel discussion on building an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Tampa Bay.

But there was no consensus on the approach to brand-building among the panelists at USF CONNECT’s Building Entrepreneurship Around TampaBay event Wednesday morning, one of about a dozen events locally and thousands around the world for Global Entrepreneurship Week.

“Back in the ’90s, Austin started calling itself the live music capital of the world and willed themselves into existence, of actually being the live music capital of the world,” said Brian Kornfeld, co-founder and chief operating officer of Synapse, an organization formed to help entrepreneurs and investors make connections.

Tampa has key industries that it could build a brand around, Kornfeld said, citing healthcare technology, financial technology, sports and entertainment, and culinary innovation.

“Right now, we are ripe for that opportunity, for us to will ourselves into being the ‘blank capital of the world’ or as I would like to think of us, as the world’s next greatest innovation ecosystem,” Kornfeld said.

Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of Embarc Collective, the Jeff Vinik-backed initiative to elevate the startup community, likes a less-structured approach that lets the Tampa Bay “story” be driven by local companies’ success.

“What I would love is (to) amplify the stories of the great companies that are here and let them define who we are as a community, let their business, their success, their customer makeup start to dictate where our strengths may lie,” Shenoy said.

Tampa Bay’s size is a factor in its favor, said J.P. DuBuque, president of the St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corp. He cited a comment from Chad Nuss, co-founder and chief revenue officer at InsideOut, a sales innovation lab in St. Pete that relocated from San Francisco.

“What he said was in San Francisco as a founder you are one in a million. But in Tampa-St. Pete you are one of a kind,” DuBuque said. “Getting out of the noise from the larger established innovation hubs is a good thing.”

Research shows that most highly functioning entrepreneurial ecosystems engage at least six groups: investors, startups, universities, corporations, government and support groups, said Rebecca White, the director of the John P. Lowth Entrepreneurship Center at University of Tampa and moderator of the panel.

“I think we’re doing much better in all those things, but we still need to increase density in all those things,” DuBuque said. “There’s a lot of duplication going on as well.”

Density is key, Shenoy agreed. She cited an Embarc survey that showed founders want help with capital and customers as well as finding good workers.

“People need good people to grow and right now, because we don’t have the density of opportunity, it’s a challenge to get a high-potential candidate to move here,” Shenoy said. “The reason is because startup life is uncertain, so if you are making this big change, how do you have some risk assurance if the business doesn’t work out. The more we can do to increase the density of our population of startups, the more options people have and the easier it is to say, ‘I’m moving to Tampa Bay and joining a great company, and if it doesn’t work out there are so many more companies that are up and coming that I can join instead.’”

Shenoy said entrepreneurial support organizations need to do a better job of helping entrepreneurs tap the resources they need.

Corporations also play a key role, Kornfeld said.

“There’s a lot of innovation going on with our corporations and that can help to attract talent,” Kornfeld said. “A lot of people drive by Publix and see a grocery store, and I see a big artificial intelligence chain. A lot of people drive by Raymond James Stadium where the Bucs play and see a football stadium, and I see a place potentially leading the NFL with virtual reality. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes that if we start spreading the news out and telling the talent locally, and making those connections take place, that there’s a lot of innovation that can happen very rapidly and it’s going to bring a huge economic boost to the area.”

Water Street Tampa, a $3 billion mixed-use project in downtown Tampa, and the pending redevelopment of the Tropicana Field site in St. Petersburg are big opportunities to create innovation hubs to showcase the area on the world stage, DuBuque said.

Shenoy’s vision is more focused.

“We have the chance to have happier founders. Being a founder at a startup really sucks. But we could have incrementally happier founders. How could you not be happy here? That’s a doable vision,” she said. “What I want for the long-term is more of everything — more founders, more team members, more corporations engaging startups, more investors, more fruitful conversations with support organizations to push these companies forward to be our story.”






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