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Tampa-St. Pete business, civic leaders talk innovation at Synapse Summit

Margie Manning

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ConnectWise founder Arnie Bellini is interviewed by Candice Aviles, news anchor, 10 News WTSP, at Synapse Summit.

Arnie Bellini, the founder of ConnectWise, plans to create thousands of technology jobs and invest millions of dollars in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor envisions city government as a catalyst for innovation.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner and startup support Jeff Vinik wants to get the word out that the area is a great place to do business.

All three shared their visions during the Synapse Summit, a conference celebrating innovation and entrepreneurship held earlier this week in downtown Tampa.

The Tampa-St. Pete area has reached a point where it is similar to Silicon Valley’s early years, according to Bellini. He stepped down as CEO of ConnectWise after the Tampa managed IT services provider and software developer sold to Thoma Bravo, a technology-focused private equity firm last year, for a reported $1.5 billion. ConnectWise, an employee-owned company, said more than 70 of its employees became millionaires in the deal.

“One of the great things about having a successful high-tech company is it spawns other high-tech companies and it spawns other millionaires. You’ve got more people contributing to the economy, contributing to the innovation that truly is Florida and the Tampa Bay area,” Bellini said.

As chairman of the Bellini Better World Foundation, he’s taking concrete steps to elevate the area’s prominence in the tech sector. The foundation is dedicated to creating 70,000 high-paying, high-tech jobs in the Tampa area, he said.

“You’re going to see for the first time in the Tampa Bay area a high-tech entrepreneur who’s going to pour money right back into this local community — $70 million in various investments and we’re just getting started,” Bellini said.

Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik (left) and Brian Kornfeld, president and co-founder, Synapse

As a startup community, the Tampa-St. Pete area is behind other places, but is catching up quickly and has momentum, Vinik said during an interview with Brian Kornfeld, Synapse co-founder and president. Kornfeld asked Vinik what the area could do to have more of a critical mass of startups.

“Tell our story. Relentlessly tell it nonstop,” Vinik said. He recalled that after he bought the Lightning, it took up to five years for people to catch on to the team’s success. “It’s the same thing. You have to be relentless with that message until the broad public understands that Tampa Bay is a place you want to be, you want to live and you want to visit. That is a message that we all must be evangelists for. Relentlessly.”

He said Florida has to market itself not just as a place for vacations and orange juice, but also as a place for business.

“I think Tampa Bay, but especially Tampa, has the opportunity to be the real business city in Florida. We’re a serious business community. There’s a lot going on here. We’re not on the ocean. It’s not just about going to the beach,” Vinik said.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and Brian Kornfeld, president and co-founder, Synapse

Castor, interviewed earlier by Kornfeld, agreed the area needs to market itself better. She took a regional approach.

“We really need to do a better job of marketing ourselves, and I don’t mean just the city of Tampa. We need to market as a region because St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa all have unique characteristics that are attractive across the world,” Castor said. “We should be able to say, if you’re bringing your business to St. Petersburg, you get the cities of Tampa and Clearwater as a bonus.”

Castor unveiled a new initiative, Intersections to Innovation, at the Synapse Summit.

“What we’re asking is for innovators, startups or anyone with knowledge and ability to come forward and solve problems this city is facing,” Castor said. “We have so many areas within the city that we’re looking for innovative solutions for. We want to bring together the individuals that have the ideas, that will solve our problems and make our processes more efficient.”

She cited several examples of civic innovation projects currently underway, including a wayfinding app for persons with visual disabilities; a mobility as a service app that connects various forms of transportation into a single app; and a curbside management pilot that allows rideshare drivers, commercial delivery trucks and other vehicles to reserve curb space.

As part of the initiative, companies and individuals will have an opportunity to pitch project ideas to city decision-makers, to identify projects that will meet resident needs, a news release said. Successful projects could be selected for future pilot programs, which the city would test via the “City as a Lab” approach.

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