The former University Mall in North Tampa continues its transformation into a hub of innovation with blackboXXcelerator joining a growing tech cluster that already includes the USF Institute of Applied Engineering, Vu Studios and the Soaring City Innovation Partnership.
Soaring City !p, formerly known as the Tampa Innovation Partnership, or T!p, is a non-profit organization focused on developing an innovation ecosystem and supporting area entrepreneurs, artists and community builders. According to its website, Soaring City boasts over $25 billion worth of innovation facilities, $1 billion in new development and 250 members.
Located on the second floor of the former mall, blackboXXcelerator is the latest facility to open in the expansive RITHM@Uptown development. RITHM is an acronym for Research, Innovation, Technology, Habitat and Medicine, and a play on the word “algorithm.” Chris Bowen, chief development strategist for New York-based RD management and lead developer for the 100-acre mixed-use project, told the Catalyst blackboXXcelerator is similar to other incubators and accelerators found in Tampa and St. Petersburg, but with a twist.
“We’re going to have a heavy dose of community accelerator, as well,” he added. “We’re really going to push training of our local neighbors … that maybe aren’t traditionally introduced to the tech ecosystem and the tech community.”
He said developments like RITHM, and organizations like Soaring City and blackboXXcelerator, ensure entrepreneurs do not have to make their journeys alone. He also credited the location with providing locals a sense of comfortability after frequenting the former mall for nearly a half-century.
Bowen hopes to leverage preexisting traffic patterns and established comfort zones while introducing some of the area’s newer features. He noted Uptown includes USF’s main campus, its recently unveiled $42 million research facility and one of the largest medical research districts in the state. Tech companies, he said, have realized the talent pipeline emanating along Fowler Avenue and have embedded in the area over the last decade.
“And now the neighborhood surrounding that cluster of academic, medical and tech is starting to really pop on the innovation side,” he said.
While the accelerator focuses on fostering tech startups, Bowen said the overarching goal is to take people from the surrounding neighborhoods and help build them into successful entrepreneurs. With the opening of blackboXXcelerator, initially designed as a 7,000-square-foot lecture hall, he said Soaring City now utilizes between 100,000 and 150,000 square feet devoted solely to tech and innovation.
“So, blackboXXcelerator is bringing in very traditional entrepreneurs in a wide range of areas, but also bringing in people who are not traditional entrepreneurs and non-traditional tech people,” said Bowen. “In particular, we’re very interested in bringing artists together with engineers, scientists and other researchers.”
Bowen said people sometimes think they need a Harvard or MIT level program to launch a successful business. He believes the best innovative ideas often occur in basements and garages. He said his team took a 1.5 million-square-foot mall and developed a city center through and around it but left certain pieces of the old mall intact to serve as those innovation-breeding garages.
Bowen said blackboXXcelerator could host major events and lectures, but it can also break down into coworking spaces for everything from basic tech startups and “entrepreneurship 101” to graduate-level training.
“But the heart of it is mentoring,” he added. “We already have a who’s who of mentors on site, working on their own startups and developed companies.”
Bowen is currently seeking input and feedback from the area’s entrepreneurs, artists and various stakeholders to ascertain what is needed most at the site. He wants help identifying what is missing and how best to bridge gaps in the community’s development.
He also wants those in the community to have a front-row seat to see what it’s like to build on a vision, raise capital and bring in investors. He said the process is not magic – it is systematic hard work. For Bowen and Soaring City, he said the mission is to build a community, and through that community, they can achieve great things.
“That’s what blackboXXcelerator wants to do,” he said. “We want people to come into the garage and pick up a wrench.”
In addition to the burgeoning tech hub inside the former University Mall, RD Management also has plans for adjacent apartments, an upscale hotel, a Sprouts grocery store and new retail space. Soaring City is also working with the Florida Department of Transportation to overhaul Fowler Avenue into an economic development corridor, and recently announced a partnership with Florida Blue to create a more resilient and prosperous community.