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Synapse panelist: Florida’s tech ecosystem is ‘something unstoppable’

Mark Parker

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From left: Ryan Whittemore, CIO for Florida Funders; Sarah Lucas, COO for New World Angels; Eric Aaronson, investment analyst for Mark Cuban Companies. The panelists discussed the top trends driving Florida's growth at Thursday's Synapse Summit. Screengrab.

With Crunchbase reporting early-stage funding for Florida startups exceeded $1 billion in 2021, the Synapse Summit offered unique perspectives from local and state investment leaders on what’s driving that growth.

Held at Amalie Arena, Synapse Summit kicked off Thursday morning with some of the most recognizable names in the local investment world. Meredith Pelton, executive director of the Florida Opportunity Fund, moderated the discussion titled Investment: Top Trends Driving Florida’s Growth.

Joining Pelton onstage was Eric Aaronson, investment analyst and staff attorney for Mark Cuban Companies; Ken LaRoe, CEO and founder of Climate First Bank; Sarah Lucas, chief operating officer of New World Angels; and Ryan Whittemore, chief investment officer for Florida Funders.

Aaronson, a Ft. Lauderdale native, recently moved back to South Florida and now works remotely for Dallas-based Mark Cuban Companies. Pelton began the conversation by asking Aaronson how remote work has impacted the investment process.

“Now, with remote work, you can source talent from anywhere,” he replied. “On top of that, I really feel that Florida is such a great place for so many reasons.”

Aaronson mentioned the weather, relative affordability and entertaining activities as part of the area’s allure. He said working remotely has broken down the barriers that once restricted certain industries to (basing in) New York and Silicon Valley. Aaronson said more talent will now gravitate to Florida, boosting the business ecosystem in the process.

Lucas, whose Florida-based angel investment syndicate feature around 100 investors across the state, said the ability to operate remotely raises the bar by creating a larger talent pool. She said the proliferation of virtual meetings enables better connections between entrepreneurs and investors, creating more competition in a larger market.

“Now, you’re seeing the model has been proven that you can be a remote work office and execute, and I think people are happier,” added Whittemore. “Employees are more willing to stay, and we’ve seen less turnover than ever before, so that’s a really important thing.”

LaRoe, who lives in Eustis, just a few miles from his childhood home, noted that he opened his latest bank during the pandemic. Just seven months later, he said Climate First holds $145 million in assets, more than banks established a hundred years ago. He said most of his employees work remotely and mentioned a co-worker in Georgia he has yet to meet in person.

“It absolutely works,” LaRoe added.

Pelton pointed out that 72% of venture capitalists in America are white men. She thanked that demographic for their contributions to the ecosystem but said, “we need to do better.” She relayed that 4.5% of venture capital funds in Florida went to female and minority-owned companies, which is somehow double the national standard.

Pelton asked the panel how investors could improve upon those statistics without sacrificing quality.

Whittemore noted several opportunities to access capital pools that focus on those demographics. He said the key is for female and minority entrepreneurs to identify and pursue that specialized funding.

Lucas said it is critical to collect and measure data relating to the subject.

“I don’t know the number offhand, but one of the important pieces of data is that female entrepreneurs generate better returns,” she said. “And yet they’re receiving less investment dollars.”

Lucas said another aspect is expanding support networks that focus on underserved populations, and she stressed the importance of self-awareness and internally asking difficult questions. She also explained that Silicon Valley did not spontaneously become a mecca for technical innovation. She said it took years of reinvesting into the community and creating an ecosystem.

Lucas said Tampa Bay is in the process of creating an ecosystem, and investors need to nurture underserved entrepreneurs to become success stories. Once those demographics become successes, she said they can then reinvest in founders with similar backgrounds.

Pelton said Silicon Valley is an eminent place, but it is “not the place anymore.” She asked the panel how to build Florida’s identity and what that means for investment.

“I think we’re all aligned in the belief that Florida is a completely stable tech ecosystem,” replied Whittemore. “I think it’s become something unstoppable at this point.”

Whittemore said Florida is a unique but perfectly viable market. He added that Florida Funders believes as the more people move to the state, the more they create or bring new companies. When those companies are successful, they reinvest in the community. He said the new angel investors then attract more talent, and the perpetuating cycle continues.

The most difficult aspect for outside talent and investors, said Whittemore, is figuring out which region in Florida to call home.

“There’s a lot of different ecosystems that are inside Florida,” Whittemore said. “Tampa has become very well known for cyber, and there’s a lot of Web 3 opportunities happening here.”

When it comes to better connecting founders and investors throughout the state, LaRoe said one centralized resource, possibly at the state government level, could improve the entire industry. He encouraged everyone on the panel and at the summit to get more involved politically because 20 years from now, he does not want to see the area become like Silicon Valley – where everyone is now leaving.

LaRoe said taking four hours to drive 90 miles on I-4, a lack of mass transit, quality schools and other amenities the area needs to grow successfully could all contribute to people wondering “how Nashville beat us” in 20 years.

Pelton ended the presentation by stating the Florida Opportunity Fund and Enterprise Florida hope to spearhead the innovation ecosystem and make Florida an innovation destination. She encouraged entrepreneurs, founders and investors to reach out to her and her organizations to continue the region’s upward trajectory.

“The point of Synapse is to make those serendipitous connections and go from there,” she said.

 

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