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Tampa-St. Pete’s focus on innovation shines as Commerce secretary kick offs competition to address Covid challenges

Margie Manning



U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross at The Palladium

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross took center stage at The Palladium at St. Petersburg College to announce a $25 million national competition for projects to prevent, prepare for and respond to the Covid-19 pandemic and future pandemics.

But the star of the show — at least for some — was Tampa-St. Petersburg’s growing entrepreneurial ecosystem.

The Wednesday afternoon event was a chance for local leaders to boast about how the technology industry has evolved over the past several years in the region. That made St. Petersburg the perfect place, those local leaders said, for Ross to launch the Scaling Pandemic Resilience through Innovation and Technology, or SPRINT, challenge.

“Throughout our history, intrepid American innovators have solved problems and ensured our economic competitiveness. The Trump administration is counting on them to help the country through this and future pandemics,” Ross said. See his full comments here.

Funded by the federal CARES Act, it will award individual grants for projects in four key areas:

• Scaling innovative biotechnology, health security and supply chain technologies and solutions to market

• Increasing regional, national and government connectivity across innovation clusters to support commercialization and entrepreneurship

• Developing new and unique investment capital models to address the financial needs of entrepreneurs

• Developing and scaling innovative entrepreneurship support models to address the virtual and remote work environment of the pandemic.

Individual grants will be awarded up to $500,000 over a 12-month period of performance and up to $750,000 over an 18-month period of performance. Applications will be accepted until Dec. 3. The program will be administered by the Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship within the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

Regional transformation

The EDA separately is providing a $7.5 million grant for the new Tampa Bay Innovation Center business incubator that will be built at 11th Avenue and 4th Street South in St. Petersburg, said Mike Meidel, Pinellas County Economic Development Director, who joined Ross and local technology support organization leaders on stage.

Mike Meidel, Pinellas County Economic Development director, was joined on stage by Linda Olson, Tampa Bay Wave CEO, and Ken Evans, managing director of the business accelerator at the Tampa Bay Innovation Center

In 2012, a $1 million EDA grant allowed Tampa Bay Wave to evolve from a meetup group to a nonprofit organization that houses and services technology startups, said Linda Olson, founder and CEO. Since then, Wave has worked with more than 300 tech startups that have created 2,500 jobs and collectively have raised more than $300 million in an area not known for early-stage investment capital, she said.

“It was thanks to that single investment that I believe much of the regional transformation you see here today can be credited with,” Olson said. “Not only did that money help launch Tampa Bay Wave’s signature programs, but it helped galvanize the region around the idea that entrepreneurship and innovation matter for long-term sustainable economic development.”

Ken Evans, managing director of the business accelerator at the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, said he’s seen dramatic growth in both the number and quality of startups in the nearly 20 years he’s lived in the area, as well as the talent pool and customers.

“We have made great progress,” Evans said. “But a healthy tech ecosystem is measured by the number and scale of new products that it ships, and we are maybe just 20 years into what’s a 50-year journey of changing the economic DNA of this area, and striking a balance between our traditional service-based economy and a product and innovation economy that we need to grow.”

St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Chris Steinocher said Ross’ announcement in St. Petersburg is a validation for the entrepreneurial community.

“We’ve always tried to get ourselves on the radar screen. Nobody believed this area was an entrepreneurial community and I think we’ve proven the point with our successes. Now his endorsement coming here and making the announcement here is like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval that says, you’re part of it now, you’re at the table. That’s all we’ve ever asked for. Give us a shot in this community to be at the table and watch what our entrepreneurs can do,” said Steinocher, who was in the audience with two St. Petersburg City Council members, Robert Blackmon and Chairman Ed Montanari.

“It’s exciting he did decide to make [the announcement] here,” Montanari said. “I see St. Petersburg as the western hub for Florida’s high-tech corridor. We’ve got a lot going on here … It’s the perfect place to start a program like this.”

Blackmon called the local kickoff for the program a real coup for St. Petersburg.

“I think whatever is good for tech is good for St. Petersburg because we have land limitations and the future of our industry here is going to be tech. We have a high quality of life, still a low cost of living comparatively to the rest of the nation, so I think the future of tech is going to be in St. Petersburg and the Pinellas County and Tampa Bay region,” Blackmon said.

The Palladium is part of St. Petersburg College, which has imbued the principles of entrepreneurship into all of its programs, said Tonjua Williams, SPC president.

Tonjua Williams, SPC president

“When we continue to foster innovation, creativity and movement, we grow in our economic standing, in our professional standing and in economic mobility for our families,” Williams said.

Ross acknowledged the area’s growth, calling Pinellas County a “flourishing high-tech hub,” with 31,000 advanced manufacturing workers and 22,000 technology workers.

“The work your citizens do to develop technologies and supply chains locally is so critical as we emerge from the devastation of Covid-19. It is important that we continue to develop the networks and resources that entrepreneurs need in this new environment,” Ross said.

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