Tampa Bay Wave diversity program attracts companies to area

In a sign of the region’s growing status as a tech hub, a trio of companies from Tampa Bay Wave’s recent TechDiversity Accelerator are setting up shop here permanently.

JustProtect, a firm specializing in cybersecurity risk and regulatory compliance assessments, has relocated from New York City with plans to have 10 to 15 employees in Tampa by the Spring of 2020.

Lazarillo, the developer of a guidance app for the blind and visually impaired, has moved to Tampa from Chile.

TheIncLab, a Virginia-based company that develops artificial intelligence-enabled systems that learn and interact with humans, has plans to expand here in 2020.

An ecosystem to help startups thrive

For JustProtect founder and CEO Vikas Bhatia, the cost-of-living, affordable office space, and the ability to attract talent without fierce competition from giant corporations all factor in the decision.

Vikas Bhatia, JustProtectBut Bhatia says the major drawing point is a tech ecosystem that helps companies thrive and forge connections. A cybersecurity veteran with some 20 years of experience, Bhatia formed JustProtect in May 2017. He first set his mind on a move to Tampa when JustProtect was part of the Fall 2018 cohort of Dreamit, an accelerator program for early-stage startups backed by Tampa Bay Lighting owner and real estate developer Jeff Vinik.

From there, Bhatia connected with the Embarc Collective accelerator and innovation hub and the Wave’s TechDiversity program, which is part of a national initiative funded by the Nielsen Corporation’s Nielsen Foundation.

He plans to initially set up JustProtect’s Tampa office in the 32,000-square-foot collaborative space Embarc Collective is building in downtown Tampa and utilize their team of expert advisors.

“The support network that exists in Tampa, the fact that we can get plugged into a community, and be surrounded by other people trying to do the same thing, to grow businesses, was a key factor,” Bhatia says. “We were able to get plugged in very quickly to the startup community, the business community. It was really a differentiating factor for us moving to Tampa. The networking is amazing. It’s a smaller community so you get known quicker. I only moved to Tampa three weeks ago and already I am working with three of the universities in the area on developing a pipeline of talent. That wouldn’t happen in New York City. That wouldn’t happen in the Northeast.”

Building on growth

Lazarillo founder and CEO René Espinoza were studying electrical engineering and working part-time at a nonprofit specializing in low-cost assistive technologies when he first started to develop a smartphone app for the blind and visually impaired.

René Espinoza, Lazarillo“I had the opportunity to work with people with different visual disabilities from low vision to total blindness,” Espinoza says. “I discovered all the challenges they had from knowing when they needed to get off of a bus to finding their way to a hospital or university, and how people were not always willing to help. After this, I decided to do my thesis with the help of a friend with blindness and developed the first prototype. The prototype was so effective that we start Lazarillo as a company in January 2016 in Chile.”

 

Espinoza says he set his sights on moving to the United States because the app, which is free for users, was growing organically here without a marketing effort.
 

He says he chose Tampa in part because of the wealth of institutions -- universities, organizations for the blind, and even amusement parks -- that could utilize the app.

 

Then there is the support Tampa Bay Wave offers. Specifically, Espinoza says he liked the fact that, after the 100-day accelerator program is finished, companies remain members of the Wave and are able to continue to rely on the nonprofit group’s expertise and support.


“I think that’s the most valuable part of this program,” he says.

Expanding to reach customers and talent

TheIncLab launched in McLean, VA in 2015 with the vision to be the first lab focused on human-centered AI, founder and CEO Adriana Avakian says.

Adriana Avakian, TheIncLab“The team is focused on designing and development AI-enabled systems that learn and collaborate with humans,” Avakian says “Over the years, we build the entire platform that enables data collection, analysis, storage, and visualization with a meaningful, intelligent human-machine interaction experience.”

The 4,000-square-foot lab in Virginia quickly attracted defense industry customers. A second location in Nashville opened in 2019 with a focus on commercial customers. Now, TheIncLab is planning a Tampa/St. Pete area expansion in the first quarter of 2020 for a lab focused on defense intelligent systems for human-machine teaming.

Avakian says the area offers affordable real estate, ready access to the engineering talent pool at neighboring universities, and the ability to leverage training programs such as the Department of Defense SkillBridge initiative, where companies train service members transitioning out of the military. There’s also the close proximity to customers such as MacDill Air Force Base and the U.S. Special Operations Command and the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation, or PEO STRI, in Orlando.

Addressing a need for diversity in startups

As a nonprofit entrepreneurial hub focused on helping tech companies build, launch, and grow their business, the Tampa Bay Wave has a track record of attracting companies in its accelerator cohorts to the region permanently. Previously, businesses have moved from New York, Connecticut, Gainesville, and Austin.

“I think what happens is when they get engaged, they see how supportive our local ecosystem is, how capital efficient they can be here compared to perhaps Silicon Valley and what a great place it is to do business with the corporate community,” says Rich Heruska, the Accelerator Director at Tampa Bay Wave. “Of course, the weather doesn’t hurt.”

But the TechDiversity accelerator stands out for its mission. The Nielsen Foundation funds the program specifically to address the lack of diversity in venture-backed startups in the U.S.

The program is open to companies where a minority, woman, veteran, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person has a majority ownership stake and operates the company. It culminates with a Demo Day presentation in front of potential investors. This year’s event at FIVE Labs in Tampa drew a crowd of 150, Heruska says

A report from RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC sheds light on the inequities the Nielsen Foundation and Tampa Bay Wave are working to address. From 2013 through 2017, nearly 91 percent of the Founders of venture-backed startups were male and more than 77 percent were white. Meanwhile, less than 2.5 percent were Middle Eastern, less than 2 percent were Latino and only 1 percent were black.

“When you boil it down, the Nielsen Foundation was very passionate about serving historically underrepresented founders,” Heruska says. “They wanted to level the playing field for women, minorities, veterans, and LGBTQ.”

Bhatia with JustProtect says that focus on diversity was innovative and unique.

“The fact that Nielsen recognized that innovation does not just come from Silicon Valley or Stanford grads showed me someone was really paying attention,” he says. “As much as the outside world might perceive what’s going on in Tampa as Tampa working to catch up or Tampa doing what everyone else is doing in New York or the Valley, the fact that this TechDiversity Accelerator came from a company with presence in this region and was focused on Tampa was very, very, very innovative. The willingness to defy the norm, to go against the grain, and say there’s this whole other community out there that is innovative and has a different perspective, for that to be championed in Tampa was huge to me.

"Being part of this accelerator was not just about meeting investors and customers; there are a whole bunch of accelerators that will help you do that. The thing that was most attractive to me is here is a major corporation saying we believe that innovation doesn’t just come from certain pockets of the community. That to me is a game-changer.”

To learn more about the companies and organizations in this story follow these links: Just Protect, Lazarillo, TheIncLab, Embarc CollectiveTampa Bay Wave.

To read the report from RateMyInvestor and Diversity VC on diversity in venture-backed startups in the U.S. follow this link: Diversity in U.S. Startups.
 

 

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather and the wealth of outdoor festivals.
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