Tampa Innovation Alliance: Creating synergy through actions, connections, collaborations

It’s mid-afternoon on a crisp, sunny Friday -- the day before Tampa’s annual Gasparilla parade. Mark Sharpe sits in a corner seat at Buddy Brew Coffee Shop on Kennedy Boulevard. Occasionally, he waves to patrons, several of whom recognize the former Hillsborough County commissioner. 

Sharpe is a runner. When the board for the Tampa Innovation Alliance brought him on as executive director in late 2014, Sharpe told them as much. Change comes about through action, he said. 

“I told them, we’re going to do a lot of stuff; and that stuff that we do is how we rebrand the university region,” Sharpe says. “We don’t rebrand the university area by coming up with a cute name and glossy material. You rebrand by your actions.”

One action move: Tackling transit in the Tampa Bay region.

Sharpe has just come from a meeting with Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano, who estimates that a new ‘people mover’ being installed at TIA would take 2.7 million cars off the airport roads. Enhancing transportation options and thus improving mobility locally, is a key goal on the Innovation Alliance’s 2016 agenda. 

“The importance of quality transit is that it provides people -- like those in this coffee shop -- with alternatives,” Sharpe says. “And the Alliance area intends to be the leader in offering people viable alternatives.”

The intersection of transit and technology

At a Jan. 26 transit meeting, members of the Tampa Innovation Alliance and community and business leaders met to discuss transportation in and around Tampa Bay, from big-picture topics like rail and ferry to smaller, neighborhood concerns for safer sidewalks or better bike lanes. 

Representatives from Florida DOT District 7, HART, the Westshore Alliance, the Downtown Tampa Partnership, All Aboard Florida, CUTR, and a number of private business owners came together to discuss “the Alliance area, and steps we can take -- both in the short term and the long term -- to enhance transportation into and out of the Alliance area,” Sharpe says, “and also things that we can do in the Alliance area to change the way we think about moving.” 

Multiple options are being considered -- rail, bus rapid transit and bicycle lanes, for example. The 2016 Automated Vehicle Summit will be held in the Alliance area, furthering the conversation on driverless cars.

State- and HART-funded studies to determine which modes of transit are most viable in Tampa are currently underway. Sharpe hopes to see the Alliance district -- 25,000 acres in north Tampa and northeast Hillsborough County -- better connected to other neighborhoods in the city and in surrounding regions, such as south Pasco County.

$2 million in funding has been reserved by Hillsborough County for use in projects within the Innovation District. ‘Streetscaping’ on Fowler Avenue and Busch Boulevard will be implemented with a focus of making the area safer, Sharpe says.

Building a place to live, work, play and stay

Tampa Innovation Alliance partners include alliance chairman and Busch Gardens CEO Jim Dean; Florida Hospital Tampa CEO Brian Adams; Moffitt Cancer Center COO Jack Kolosky; University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft; and Roger Hirschhorn, SVP at RD Management, which purchased the struggling University Mall on Fowler Avenue in late 2014.

Community collaborators, advisers and well over 100 members have joined these core partners since then. Sharpe, who has long highlighted the importance of proximity when it comes to developing successful innovation districts, only expects to see that number increase.

“We’re all about networks,” Sharpe says. “We are a networking organization that helps to facilitate the conversation.”

Conversations extend far beyond the district -- representatives from around the region are welcome to attend monthly Innovation Alliance meetings. At one point, in Buddy Brew, Sharpe unlocks his iPad and opens the Google Maps application. Tampa, St. Petersburg, Clearwater, surrounding cities: they’re not too far apart, he says.

“Our objective is to enhance all of Tampa Bay,” Sharpe says. “Our goal is to build one of the most advanced innovation districts in the nation, and we think that’s how we’re going to attract the brightest people that want to come live and work in our innovation district.”

Student involvement from USF and area high schools is another key element in long-term plans for the district, Sharpe says.

The announcement of a new on-campus Publix at USF -- thought to be the first on-campus full-service grocery store in the nation -- is a mark of the innovation the area is already becoming known for, he adds. 

Interest in a new robotics lab, which would be built near or on the USF campus, could attract students at the high school level to attend college in the area, Sharpe says. 

The Alliance, which has developed partnerships with FIRST Robotics and Middleton High School, aims to host the 2016 annual Roboticon event at University Mall. Through a partnership with Suntrust, the Alliance hopes to build a permanent robotics competition field in the Innovation district. 

“The most innovative regions, that are able to attract companies that are designing some of the coolest products in the world, require well-trained engineering talent,” Sharpe says.

A June hack-a-thon, sponsored by Hillsborough County, will focus on developing applications to help the city’s homeless population. Hillsborough County will also apply for a TechHire grant, which would provide resources for non-traditional hiring and tech training. 

Students, startups and small business in Tampa Bay

The second annual Innovation Gathering, which brings partners, students and members of the larger Tampa Bay technology community together for an evening focused on progress, will take place at University Mall in late October 2016.

“Events like the Tampa Innovation Alliance dinner are wonderful opportunities for startups to meet with other local businesses, form relationships, collaborate and increase their exposure,” says Derek Redmon, whose 3D medical printing company VisualFlo was on display at the first gathering in fall 2015.

“I would recommend participating in -- or at least attending -- the next event to anyone,” says Redmon, who developed VisualFlo while conducting biomechanics research in grad school at USF.

“You’ve got to collaborate to compete,” keynote speaker Bruce Katz explained during the inaugural gathering. 

Coming together as a community is key to economic success for innovation districts in cities, Katz said.

As the cofounder of local startup companies Citizinvestor and Vocreo, Jordan Raynor, asked during the gathering, “Why not Tampa?”
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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.