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Tampa-St. Pete’s innovation culture draws praise

Margie Manning



Panelists at the Bridging the Bay were (from left) Erik Maltais, CEO, Immertec; Joe Hamilton, publisher, St. Pete Catalyst; Alison Barlow, executive director, St. Pete Innovation District; and Thomas Pittz, assistant professor, University of Tampa.

The Tampa-St. Pete area has plenty of reasons to brag about its innovation culture.

Workforce, access to experts, a culture that is open to taking risks and a fun vibe were among the factors cited by a panel of people involved in the startup community who talked about what is needed to further connect the two major cities on either side of Tampa Bay.

Steve Gianfilippo, owner and creator of Station House, kicked off Reveal: Undivided.

The panel, “Bridging the Bay,” was organized by Synapse, a nonprofit built to help Florida’s Entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystems thrive. It was part of Reveal: Undivided, an April 5 celebration hosted by Station House, which itself is bridging Tampa Bay, with a soon-to-open location in Tampa’s Hyde Park Village in addition to its sites in St. Petersburg.

Moderator Shannon Pistazzo asked the panel what it would take for people outside of this area to think of St.  Pete and Tampa as one region.

Most people care about stories, not geography, said Joe Hamilton, St. Pete Catalyst publisher and one of the panelists.

“Everybody is trying to market their way to this place of respect, or being thought of as the next Silicon Valley or the next Austin, but it comes down to wins. I don’t think anybody is going to outmarket to any degree to get that without them,” Hamilton said. “When we have the story that comes out of here, we’ll all benefit from that story. Once we have those stories for ourselves, we’ll believe them and stop rolling our eyes.”

Pistazzo asked each of the panelists what in the area’s innovation culture that they would brag about to someone who is not from here.

Shannon Pistazzo, director of business development at Synapse, moderated the panel.

Erik Maltais, CEO of Immertec, a  Tampa company with a real-time 3D virtual reality training platform, cited a dedicated and talented workforce. “I work for 20 people who are extremely talented and passionate about what we do, and I’m thinking ‘how did I get the opportunity to grow into the person who deserves to be their leader,’” Maltais said.

There’s a spirit of collaboration in the area that’s not present everywhere, said Thomas Pittz, who researches entrepreneurship as an assistant professor, management at University of Tampa.

“In the three years I’ve been here, I have had more access and more conversations and more productive work done with folks at high levels of industry and government and academia than I’ve had in 20 years in senior leadership positions in large organizations elsewhere,” Pittz said. “If you want to build a company here, you will find that you will have access to people quickly and often.”

Public-private partnerships and St. Pete’s “Grow Smarter” economic development strategy stand out for Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Pete Innovation district. So does the area’s fun vibe, which she described as “flip flops and laptops,” along with midwestern values.

While many cities boast that they have live-work-play environments, this area is unique because of what Hamilton called “vulnerability” or people willing to try many different things.

“We have a uniquely vulnerable culture here and that ties into those midwestern values,” said Hamilton, who also is co-founder of the St. Petersburg Group, a partner with Seedfunders and director of the Catalyst Fund. “The number of things I’ve started in the last year and are standing up  – I just don’t think there are many communities where you can do that. I do think we lack some of the high-level intellectual support, but we certainly do not lack for the emotional, ‘let’s stand this thing up’ support.”

The panel talked about the importance of Rise of the Rest, an initiative by Steve Case, chairman and CEO of Revolution and co-founder of AOL, to spotlight innovation outside the country’s major technology hubs. The Rise of the Rest bus tour and pitch contest will be in the area on May 1, starting the day at Station House in St. Pete.

Immertec is one of the eight companies that will pitch during Rise of the Rest, and Maltais is excited about the chance to make connections with the partners in the Rise of the Rest fund — including Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, and Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent company Alphabet. “That means those people are invested in Tampa, some of the biggest investors in the country are going to be invested in Tampa Bay,” he said.

Pittz said it would raise the area’s visibility nationwide, putting a megaphone on the message that there’s innovation in Tampa-St. Pete.

“We know how cool this place is … now we’re going to get some national recognition,” Barlow said.

Hamilton took a contrarian view.

“My last corporate gig was for a Steve Case company [Revolution Money] and it was really fun. He was a great operation to be a part of,” Hamilton said. “But I think I’ll take the petulant teenager view here and say we are bad-ass already without them. It’s a nice fun party, but we are already great.”




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