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What Tampa Bay needs to grow its innovation economy

Margie Manning



Kiki Roeder (left), chief product officer of Punctuate and co-founder of Startup Sisters USA, moderated the panel. Panelists were Linda Olson, Tampa Bay Wave; Michelle Bauer, Tampa Hillsborough EDC; Tammy Charles, Spark Tampa Bay; Marc Blumenthal, Florida Funders and Synapse; and Lakshmi Shenoy, Embarc Collective

A growing talent pool and a deeper capital base have made the Tampa Bay area a better place for startup tech companies.

But the area still has a way to go to achieve its full potential, said Linda Olson, president and CEO of Tampa Bay Wave, a non-profit that services and houses growing companies.

“If we really want to be one of those hubs that’s truly competing on a national level for talent and capital we need to be thinking bigger. Much bigger, in terms of hundreds of millions of dollars going to startups annually. I don’t think we’re even close to that point right now,” Olson said at panel discussion on innovation in Florida.

About 200 people attended the talk, one of the first events locally for Global Entrepreneurship Week, an international celebration of young companies and their founders.

Business and civic leaders have been working to foster startups, especially those in the technology sector, in the Tampa Bay area, because they bring high-skill and high-wage jobs that help grow the local economy.

Funding for startups has improved dramatically over the past several years, said Marc Blumenthal, a partner at Florida Funders, a hybrid of a venture capital fund and crowd-funding platform. He’s also a co-founder of Synapse, an organization formed to help entrepreneurs and investors make connections.

“There was a time when it was hard to find capital,” Blumenthal said. “Now, there’s no limit on the amount of capital that is here for good deals … There’s no reason today why a deal can’t get funded in Florida and we’ve even found some of the money coming from outside of Florida no longer demands they leave.”

He cited two Florida Funders-backed companies — Homee, a Tampa company with an on-demand property maintenance app, and Peerfit, a digital health firm in Tampa — that said no to investors who wanted the firms to relocate, “and the money came in anyway.”

Florida Funders has done an amazing job, Olson said, and there are other similar groups that have increased financial support for startups. But only a fraction of the area’s accredited investors — someone who is financially sophisticated, has a high net worth and can deal with securities not registered with financial authorities — back local companies.

“If you look across I-4 from Tampa to Orlando, there’s 128,000 households that meet that criteria and less than 100 participate in the ecosystem as investors,” Olson said. “So there’s room for improvement.”

She said she was not advocating throwing good money at bad companies.

“We need to expand the marketplace. We want to have more startups that are worthy of capital and we want more capital flowing, because when the region hits the point where we can talk about Tampa Bay being a place where hundreds of millions of dollars are going into early stage companies, then you’re going to see exponential growth in terms of attracting more capital, talent and startups.”

Workers who are attracted to startups are looking for opportunities beyond a single company, said Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of Embarc Collective, the Jeff Vinik-backed initiative to elevate the startup community.

“The more we can create the density of opportunity, not only can we attract people here, but we’re able to retain people, because they know they don’t have to stay with one organization for the duration of their career,” Shenoy said. “They know they can spend a couple of years with one organization and then move to another organization still in the same region. The key is, do we have enough density of opportunity to keep people here.”

The area has done a better job of retaining young people after they graduate college, and bringing in others with needed skills, said Michelle Bauer, chief operating officer of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp.

“It used to be 20 years ago that people could not wait to leave,” she said. “There was nothing going on here, there was no downtown, there was no vibe, there was no zip. Now, we’ve become an importer of talent from other markets.”

One of the panelists, Tammy Charles, is a young professional who stayed in the area. Charles, an entrepreneur and recent University of Tampa graduate, credited the area’s culture of collaboration.

“We have something that’s so powerful, so unique,” Charles said. “I have watched myself grow in my career, because of the mentors, the people who have invested in me, and because of that I stayed. I have such a great network that I’m not going to let that go.”







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