A Harvard University program to develop and expand an innovation ecosystem is coming to Clearwater, with the backing of The Ring Workspaces and the city of Clearwater.
Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health has rolled out the initiative in cities around the world, but this is the first time it has launched it in the United States, said Ramon Sanchez Pina, director of the sustainable technologies and health program.
The program offers free classes over 12 to 18 months, covering best practices in entrepreneurship, new product development, sustainability and innovation. It’s designed for people who want to start a company to solve pressing problems of the time, while also diversifying the economy, increasing wealth and fulfilling the United Nations’ sustainable development goals.
“For the Harvard School of Public Health, we want these new companies,” Pina said. “In order to have them funded properly, we need to strengthen the local innovation ecosystem.”
The Ring, a workspace provider in downtown Clearwater, is helping fund the program, said Daniels Ikajevs, chairman. An eco-friendly, 18,000-square-foot facility with co-working and dedicated office space, The Ring opened April 26 and now is about 96 percent occupied with 70 companies.
“With this program we aim to attract even more of a startup culture in this city,” Ikajevs said.
Ikajevs’ wife, Simee Ikajevs, introduced Clearwater to Pina. She was Pina’s student at Harvard, taking a class in sustainable growth inside the innovation ecosystem, and pitched bringing the innovation initiative to Clearwater as part of her final project.
Last fall, Harvard researchers conducted a survey that showed Clearwater was ripe for the program for several reasons. There are a lot of young people who want to start businesses and need funding, and also a lot of retirees with money to invest. The area also is affordable, business-friendly and has people willing to help provide resources, Pina said.
Education is key, Daniels Ikajevs said.
“Sometimes people don’t know where to start. They might have a good idea, but they don’t know how to develop those ideas into reality,” he said. “That’s why this program is essential to create a successful ecosystem here in Clearwater.”
The goal is to increase the number of startups in Clearwater, said Janelle Branch, partner and chief operating officer of The Ring. She cited 180byTwo, a fast-growing data analytics firm that moved to The Ring in May from its former location in Armature Works in Tampa.
“The fact that we are able to attract larger companies from Tampa, when we keep getting told we’re a stepchild — this is why this is really groundbreaking for us,” Branch said.
The community has been investing in innovation and doesn’t want to lose its entrepreneurs to other locations, said City Councilmember Jay Polglaze.
The Clearwater Redevelopment Agency, a special tax district for downtown, provided a $600,000 grant to help launch The Ring.
“We have several older office buildings and were looking for innovative ways to renovate them,” said Amanda Thompson, director of the CRA. “We thought the focus on technology and wellness was a great model.”
She also cited The Ring’s ability to bring to market the growing “maker culture” in Clearwater, connecting founders with financing, marketing and other inventors. “The Ring helps build out a pipeline, to go from an idea to taking a product to market,” Thompson said.
The collaborative relationship between The Ring and Harvard elevates that investment, said Lina Teixeira, a member of the Clearwater Downtown Development Board, the Downtown Merchants Association and the Clearwater Downtown Partnership.
“It now transcends from being simply an exceptional space, to a living breathing mecca of ingenuity and opportunity,” Teixeira said.
The program includes online classes as well as in-person one-on-ones, and takes between 12 to 18 months to complete. Participants will get to take part in “pitch clinics” aimed at perfecting presentations to potential investors.
Pina expects the program to launch the first week of November. There’s no limit on the number of people who can participate, he said, and his ask of the community is to spread the word about the program.