3 Things Tampa Bay Needs To Help Startups Thrive

There is no doubt that the Tampa Bay region is eager to establish itself as a key player in the national startup scene. 

That was the ultimate takeaway from 83 Degrees Media's latest community conversation in the "Not Your Average Speakers'' series, "How Do We Grow From Here? Nurturing The Tampa Bay Startup Culture.''.

Q: What is our biggest challenge in drawing investors and entrepreneurs to the region and earning national credibility? 

A: Greater access to capital, a branded regional identity associated with opportunity and incentives to keep promising young students in the Tampa Bay area after graduation.

About 60 innovative business leaders, educators, students and startup founders from Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota gathered at USFSP's Student Center on Tuesday, May 13th, to listen, share thoughts and engage in a Q&A with notable panelists from the Tampa Bay region.

Panelists included Stephanie Ashley of Hillsborough County Economic Development, Venture Capitalist Timothy J. Cartwright of Naples, and Entrepreneurs Ashok Kartham of TiE Tampa Bay, Daniel James Scott of USF St. Petersburg and Dr. Javier Torres-Roca of Moffitt Cancer Center. Realtor Tami Simms of St. Petersburg served as moderator.

A few takeaways:
  • We need a regional brand in Tampa Bay that encourages specialized research in diverse fields that will draw and retain top entrepreneurial talent and investors, both private and public. A recent meeting between economic development leaders at Tampa International Airport reiterated this point. What should that brand be?
  • Tampa Bay needs capital. While groups like First WaVE, Gazelle Lab and the Tampa Bay Innovation Center offer accelerator programs, a recurring theme in comments from Cartwright, Kartham and Torres-Roca is that when it comes to big money investments -- say, the $5-$10 million range, Florida's entrepreneurs have to look elsewhere -- usually, the West Coast. How can we draw more venture capital, angel investors and government grants to the region?
  • The Tampa Bay startup crowd needs to attract and retain more students. A few students from the USFSP Entrepreneurship Club lingered after the session, asking questions and engaging with panelists and members of the audience. Where can the community go from here to continue to engage more entrepreneurial young minds?

Growing An Innovation Economy

"An innovation economy always has a recipe -- Austin, Boston, Denver -- and Tampa Bay has a lot of those same ingredients: a University of scale that does specialized research; a business-friendly government; media who will highlight entrepreneurship and innovation; and the last thing (I know everyone is waiting for me to say it): access to capital,'' says Cartwright, Chairman of the Tamiami Angel Fund I, SW Florida's first ever Angel Fund.

For a thriving entrepreneurial economy, Cartwright says Tampa Bay is positioned well with multiple specialized places of research like the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute and the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. But more would be better.

When it comes to capital, revenue-producing companies that have identified marketing strategies and value creation are the most appealing to an investor, says Cartwright.

Kartham, president of TiE Tampa and a successful serial entrepreneur, agrees. "TiE wants successful entrepreneurs who have done it before, who have expertise, who have traction. It allows us to ask 'Can we help really grow this company?' ''

Government plays a key role in recognizing and supporting the community's need for capital to attract top-notch talent, high-profile conferences and young entrepreneurial minds. Ashley, Hillsborough County's Economic Development Manager, notes that the county's Economic Development Innovation Initiative (EDI2), which launched in June 2013, was "fostered by a need within the community. From the government perspective, we're there to play a support role for the growing ecosystem, not to lead the charge.''

The EDI2 subsidizes up to 50 percent of the cost for startup events, conferences and accelerator programs in Hillsborough County and is designed to nurture innovative projects in the region. Previous projects funded in part by the EDI2 include Startup Bus Tampa Bay; Robocon; the Community Innovation Center at the John F. Germany Public Library; and Ignite Tampa Bay, among others.

Ashley also stresses the interaction between Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties as a collaborative endeavor. For example, the United States Association of Small Business and Entrepreneurship’s National Conference will be held in downtown Tampa on January 22-25, 2015 – an event that will "put the spotlight on Tampa Bay regionalism as a whole,'' Ashley says.

How do we attract young entrepreneurs to the region?

Scott, co-founder of Alorum and the USFSP Entrepreneurship Club, highlights education, calling "the student pipeline'' the most valuable asset in the Tampa Bay region.

Moderator Simms suggests that a mentorship component is necessary for successful entrepreneurs, noting that the Tampa Bay region has multiple programs at schools like the University of Tampa and University of South Florida dedicated to training young minds -- "and other states want to steal them!''

"We want students to stay,'' says Scott. "From a University point of view, it's a question of 'How engaged can we get students in the community, so that it's hard to leave and replicate that network?' ''

Again, the answer may come back to capital. Scott notes the distinction between an angel investor, who "believes in a project inherently,'' and a private investor, who asks about returns. We need more angel investors in the local region, he says.

"It's exciting to talk about bringing talent here,'' says Ashley. "We're working to create an ecosystem and culture where even if local high school students go away to college, they want to come back to start a business.''

Advice For Entrepreneurs: "Burn The Canoes''

Torres-Roca, who moved to Tampa only two years ago and founded Cvergenx, Inc, has a word of advice for would-be entrepreneurs: "Follow your passion. It's the most important thing. If you don't have any passion for what you are doing, don't be an entrepreneur.''

Ashley suggests that young business-minded individuals "immerse yourself in your community'' to make connections and seek out potential mentorship opportunities. 

"Have a 'burn the canoes' mentality,'' says Cartwright. "When you land on that island of entrepreneurial dreams, you've got to burn the canoes, because there’s no going back.''

Cartwright also addresses and debunks the stereotype of the entrepreneur as a model of "rugged individualism,'' who single-handedly builds a company. "Start with an honest self-assessment, figure out what you don't know and put someone on your team who does know it,'' he says.

Kartham reminds would-be entrepreneurs to focus on the customer first. "Care about the customer's problem more than anything. Connecting the right people with the right product is very important.''

Scott cautions aspiring entrepreneurs to carefully evaluate ideas. "Ask 'Can I do something?' versus 'Should I do it?' The ability to do something is distracting -- we need an infrastructure where we can go to someone and ask, 'Should I do this?' ''

Opportunity To Become A Big Fish In A Little Pond

So, why should someone do business in Florida?

"It's a better quality of life, and a lower cost of living,'' says Kartham, who moved to the Tampa Bay region from Chicago after considering options on the West Coast.

The latest NYAS event was underwritten by Pinellas County Economic Development, USFSP, Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute and PNC Bank, with in-kind support from and White Book Agency

Justine Benstead is a freelance writer who spends her days walking her dog Chloe in her South Tampa neighborhood, drinking far too much coffee, tweeting @JustineinTampa (https://twitter.com/JustineinTampa), and taking photos with her trusty Nikon. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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