Hillsborough County Seeds Local Startup Culture

How would you like to meet your future business partner at a local conference, or grow your startup company from seed stage, right here in Tampa Bay?

Thanks to the Economic Development Innovation Initiative (EDI2), there's a growing chance that you could. In August, an initial sum of $307,000 from the $2 million fund was awarded to 23 startup projects and events in the Tampa Bay region.

"We were able to allocate money for something that I really believe is the most important element of economic development going on in the country right now -- and that's the startup community,'' says Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe.

Sharpe, who pioneered EDI2 along with Project Manager Stephanie Cvetetic and Economic Development Director Lindsey Kimball, says he hopes the project will begin to answer some important questions: "Where is our startup community, and how does it work? What are other startup communities around the nation doing? How do they work? How do you build one? And we're trying to really understand the role of the government, which is not to lead, but to let the startup community itself lead.''

Building A Strong Local Startup Base

The fund "is not meant to provide startup funding to any one company,'' Kimball explains. "The benefit needs to be spread across the entire community."

Sharpe agrees, noting, "The initial objective of the group is not to help businesses form -- we're not an accelerator. We don't give seed money. The first step of this whole process is to help galvanize the startup community, so folks like the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, Tampa Bay WaVE, and others can have a place to come and request sponsorship for a program.''

Tampa Bay WaVE received first-round funding of $25,000 each for both the First WaVE Accelerator program and the First WaVE Venture Center, which serve early stage tech companies and offer experts-in-residence services.

Cvetetic says, "These programs house companies within our community, within a common space, who are contributing to the ecosystem. We're helping to elevate the programs so they're able to continue supporting local startups.''

Technova FL Inc. received $25,000 for the Sept. 28 event Bar/Code Camp 2013, a one-day tech conference hosted at the University of South Florida College of Business in Tampa. Cvetetic calls the anticipated 900-1,000 attendees "impressive,'' saying, "When you think about an area where the startup community is just growing, an event that can command that type of attendance sends a tremendous message.''

Moffitt Cancer Center was awarded $7,500 for the eighth annual Business of BioTech, which brings faculty, area business leaders, and the general Tampa Bay community together to allow for "conversations about entrepreneurship, innovation, and the next thing happening in biotech,'' says Cvetetic.

Established, cutting-edge conferences like Business of BioTech "bring talented people here from outside the market that might not have come to Tampa Bay otherwise,'' says Kimball.

Learning Really Is For Everyone

Along with "high-profile events and grassroots startup efforts,'' Kimball notes, the EDI2 program will also award funding to "things that are going to help kids get excited about their careers, computers, and getting involved in STEM [science, technology, engineering, math].''

Robocon Tampa Bay 2013, an inaugural robotics event that allows elementary, middle and early high school kids to build robots and develop science skills, was awarded $18,250. The program is a venture of Learning is for Everyone, Inc., which also received $25,000 for the program Community Innovation Center, a public maker space that will provide entrepreneurial support and economic development opportunities in a shared, resource-rich environment.

Developing a strong startup base that includes Tampa students is part of the EDI2 plan, says Cvetetic. The program was rolled out at Middleton High School, a magnet school in East Tampa, during a summer computer and coding camp.

"We bombarded into a classroom when they were in the middle of writing code for video games,'' Cvetetic shares. "Students were able to hear community leaders talking about what the vision is for this community.  There are great universities here and whether they want to stay here for school or leave, why don't we work to create a community where they're going to have a place to start a company, or have a job in technology, right here in Tampa Bay?''

Tampa is the first community to set up such a formalized startup program, says Kimball. "We want people to be able to think of Hillsborough County as a place where you can grow your tech startup company and make valuable connections.''

Measuring Results

EDI2 award money is allocated from general fund resources that are set aside for the economic development process by the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners. For the county, the project is an opportunity to measure results -- to determine the worth of the innovative events taking place in the area.

"What we're trying to do is to truly have a better way of measuring the strengths and weaknesses of our startup community. How do we track the dollars that we spend? That's something that we take seriously,'' says Sharpe. "The EDI2 program will help us really see what that return on investment is for the taxpayers.''

A five-member EDI2 Advisory Committee will meet three times per year to review funding requests from various startup elements throughout the community and then make a recommendation to the Economic Development Department as to whether or not the request should be funded, says Sharpe.

The committee, which was appointed by County Administrator Mike Merrill, recommended 23 of 26 applications for funding during its first meeting August 20th. First cycle awards were distributed to Healthcamp Florida, Inspiration Labs, MOSI Tampa, Startup Weekend Tampa Bay, Startup Bus, SBDC at USF, Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, and others.

The application review process ensures that several stages of criteria are met, including:

  • Determining how each project or event will leverage private sector dollars.
  • Evaluating event metrics.
  • Reviewing the track record of the project.
  • Identifying the economic development impact of each project.
The county won't pay for more than 50 percent of the total amount of an event, and certain policies apply (the county will not fund food, drink, or lodging, for examples). Requests are capped at $25,000.

There is a small caveat to the policy: applications for less than $5,000 can be approved by staff and county administration without going through the more rigorous cycle -- though the majority of applications in the first round "were in excess of $5,000,'' says Cvetetic.

The pilot project sunsets in December 2015. Results will be measured at that time and the Board of County Commissioners will decide whether to renew the project.

"We are being cautious as we start out, but the goal and objective truly is to transform Tampa Bay -- to take this community from a service economy that is heavily dependent upon the housing industry and to shift it toward a more high-wage economy that gets its power from the startup community,'' Sharpe says. "We're going to prove to the Board that it's a value. We are going to be able to show people the results.''

Putting The Tampa Startup Community On The Map

Sharpe hopes to host a 'startup summit' in the fall to introduce an interactive EDI2 map to the startup community.

"Using startup efforts in Boulder, CO, as our model, I've been meeting with the members of the startup community here in Tampa Bay over the past year and a half. When I looked at Brad Feld's book "Startup Communities,'' and what you need to have a thriving startup community, I thought, 'We need to be doing this','' says Sharpe. "And that's really the nexus of the introduction of EDI2. We walked in not quite sure where we were going, but I think this is exactly where we need to be.''

The complete first round of EDI2 applications is available for review online. The deadline for the second cycle of funding is November 15, 2013. Applications are available to the public online. The next EDI2 meeting will be from 9 a.m.-11 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, at County Center, 601 E Kennedy Blvd, in the 18th Floor Conference Room.

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, and taking photos with her trusty Nikon. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

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