It’s easy to tick off the accomplishments for Tampa Bay Wave, the Tampa nonprofit that services and houses young technology companies.
The organization has doubled the number of startups it actively supports, and quadrupled the number of post-revenue companies under its wing. Nearly a dozen companies have relocated to Tampa to join Wave’s accelerator. Wave is the first Florida-based accelerator to be a member of the Global Accelerator Network and it led the completion of Startup Genome’s ecosystem assessment.
But, much like the companies Wave supports, growing and maintaining financial resources are major challenges facing the organization, according to the new board chair, Alex Sink.
“We need our own capital and we need to figure out how to make our own organization financially sustainable,” Sink, a veteran banker and former Florida Chief Financial Officer, told the St. Pete Catalyst.
Sink officially became board chair earlier this month, after serving about three years on the board of Wave, a Tampa nonprofit that services and houses growing startup tech companies — a sector that’s viewed as key because of the high-skill, high-wage jobs it creates. Wave is one of the largest organizations of its kind in the Tampa Bay area, supporting more than 250 companies that collectively raised more than $150 million in capital since 2013.
Wave topped $1 million in revenue for the first time in 2017, and ended the year with a surplus of $87,549 in revenue over expenses, according to the organization’s amended IRS 990, a financial filing by tax-exempt organizations. Wave also had a surplus in 2016, but deficits in 2015 and 2014, earlier 990 filings show.
Wave has gotten federal grants and financial support from Hillsborough County, the City of Tampa, and has more than a dozen corporate sponsors, including Bank of America, Florida Blue, Foley & Lardner, Frontier Communications, Nielsen Foundation, Tampa Bay Rays, Sykes Enterprises, TECO Energy, Trenam Law and Valley.
Corporate support is growing, Sink said. It makes up 46 percent of the organization’s funding, according to Wave’s 2018-2019 sponsorship information package.
Sink said there are several ideas under consideration for growing revenue, none of which are decided at this point.
Next generation of leaders
Sink is the former state president for Bank of America and was Florida’s chief financial officer from 2007 to 2011. After leaving public office, she started Florida Next, a nonprofit focused on increasing innovation statewide.
“I never started a small business myself. I’ve never been an entrepreneur, but I have provided traditional bank financing for many entrepreneurs in Florida,” Sink said.
As a banker, she was trained to ask questions about customers’ business models — the same types of questions potential investors ask when considering putting money into a startup.
“And, since I came back from Tallahassee eight years ago, I’m really committed to do what I can to build the next generation of young leaders in our state. To me the way to do that is to find those young leaders who want to build businesses and grow good-paying jobs in Florida,” Sink said.
Wave, which launched in 2011, has a “working board,” Sink said, with directors pitching in to help with real estate and legal needs for the companies Wave services.
“What I saw were a lot of incredibly talented well-meaning people who didn’t necessarily have a lot of nonprofit board experience to the extent I did,” Sink said. “We do need a nominating committee, we need a governance committee, we need an audit committee and a personnel committee … That was the niche I found for myself.”
She also has leveraged her deep community connections with larger businesses. For instance, she arranged a meeting between Lou Plasencia, CEO of The Plasencia Group, a national hospitality sales, investment consulting and advisory firm in Tampa, and MyAreaNetwork, a Tampa-based digital media company that connects residents to local businesses nationwide.
The need for those connections was highlighted last week, when University of Tampa’s John P. Lowth Entrepreneurship Center released a report on the state of the area’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.
The UT report also discussed industry clusters, and how funding and talent can flow to similar businesses that are located near each other.
Wave is considering a similar approach in designing its accelerator programs, which traditionally have been held twice a year with cohorts made up of companies in a wide range of industries.
“We’ve talked about maybe clustering around an industry, maybe doing an ed-tech cohort for example, and potentially plugging in with a bigger company,” Sink said. “What we’re finding is our large businesses want access to the next new idea.”
Wave also has begun helping potential investors and founders get to know each other more on a social basis, duplicating Silicon Valley scenarios in which investors can trade notes on their investments.
Sink hosted a gathering at her home recently, with investors from Atlanta, southwest and eastern Florida, and Orlando.
“That’s what we need to build. We need more investors from outside this area to come in and compete for our companies. We like competition. It makes for better deals,” she said.
She expects those social gatherings will be part of an ongoing series that takes place three or four times a year.
Sink’s predecessor, Alfred Goldberg, president of Absolute Mobile Solutions, was Wave board chair for two-and-a-half years. She said she will serve one year, and possibly a second year, but no longer than that.
“I want to be able to bring the organization along and build the talent and skillset and experience of having someone much younger than me take over as board chair,” Sink said.