Synapse Innovation Summit connects Tampa Bay entrepreneurial ecosystem

From the latest on humanoid robots, to the medical advances that restored freedom of movement to an amputee, to the transportation technologies that are transforming our world, talent and tech were on display at Synapse’s 2018 Innovation Summit in downtown Tampa. 

After two days of talking business, and making connections that could help them achieve their ambitions, attendees -- most of them local and already doing entrepreneurial projects -- were fired up and ready to get back to work. Billboard robots named Fonebot and Tagi by Florida Robotics entertain guests during Synapse.

The message going out the door was clear: the Tampa Bay Area is on an upward trajectory and ready to build upon its entrepreneurial ecosystem. With Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater seeing growth in tech firms, the area is no longer just a nice place to retire, or a great destination for travel when it’s too cold up North. The growing region is increasingly becoming recognized as a vibrant, growing tech hub that attracts and retains some of the globe's top talent. 

“The time is here. The time is now. You can do this,” Arnie Bellini, CEO of the Tampa-based Connectwise, says encouragingly at the opening session. “We’re here to help.” 

Tampa Bay is an easy sell -- just take the people to the beach, boating or fishing, or to a Tampa Bay Lightning game, he suggests. 

“That’s it. It’s over. They want to live here,” he says. “They don’t live to work.”

Lightning Owner Jeff Vinik, a partner in the $3 billion Water Street Tampa development downtown, says the Tampa Bay Area can be the entrepreneurial ecosystem leader in Florida or even the Southeast in five to 10 years. 
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“We’ve got everything going for us,” he tells the crowd. “It is ours for the taking. There is no leader in Florida for this ecosystem.”

The Clearwater-based Tech Data Corp., which is now the largest company in Florida, is ready and willing to do its part to stimulate innovation, says Executive VP and Chief Information Officer John Tonnison in the concluding session. 

The company will use its voice to “make waves for our community” and contribute to the talent pipeline through training, he says.

“Tampa Bay has a real strong anchor tenant,” he asserts. “Lifting and enabling a tech company is our DNA.''

Connecting local entrepreneurs

Put on by the nonprofit Synapse, named for the link between nerve cells in the body, the second annual Innovation Summit included 15 hours of programs and 10 hours of celebration designed to help connect and establish relationships among those who can contribute to the growth of the Tampa Bay entrepreneurial ecosystem.

There were 257 exhibitors, more than 70 pavilions and 55 breakout sessions. Coffee urns abounded. Boxed food was piled high. And hydration stations were positioned to meet the needs of the approximately 3,500 who flooded into downtown Tampa’s Amalie Arena March 28 and 29. Guests at the Amelie Bowl to hear speakers at Synapse.

From the speakers, to the startups, to those who wanted to know more, they came to share, learn, and grow – and connect to those who can help them reach their goals and achieve their visions. 

The business infrastructure, like the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research, which has helped 70 tech companies, as well as the Florida Opportunity Fund and the Florida Growth Fund are in place, having been developed through the efforts of the Florida Legislature.

“We’ve actually built the entire economy that you need,” former Sen. Jeremy Ring tells a breakout session on “The Current and Future Innovation Ecosystem: How Florida Can Take Your Business from Inception to Exit.” “Most people don’t know that it exists.”

To move forward, he advises connecting the largest companies with entrepreneurial-minded investors.

“We as a state are thriving in our innovation economy. One of the problems we have is that we don’t have any big consumer wins [like Google or Apple],” says Ring, a Parkland Democrat running for Florida Chief Financial Officer in the 2018 Elections.

Instead of trying to attract the Amazons, we should grow our own from the ground up, says Ring, who believes all students should have the option of taking coding classes instead of a foreign language.

Building the community

To look for hidden gems of talent to build up the Tampa Bay entrepreneurial ecosystem, one first should consider the people involved -- and their motivations.

“There’s no lack of diversity in workforce, but there really is a lack of diversity in the startup community,” says Rolando Torres, COO of Abacode Cybersecurity, a panelist in the “Growing an Inclusive Innovation Ecosystem in Florida” breakout session. “Our parents were looking for the gourmet job with the big pension. We’re looking to be the engineers of the future.” 

With the exception of entrepreneurial-minded Cubans, he says, many minorities find walking away from a secure job and salary to start their own business difficult.

Of course there are other exceptions. In the case of panelist Hayes Fountain III, President and CEO of Widescope Consulting and Contracting Services LLC, he walked away from a VP job with Ion Media Networks because he figured he could do for himself what he’d been doing for others.

But in areas like East Tampa, which Derrick Blue calls “the hood,” there’s not a shortage of business ideas. There are gas stations, car washes, and folks selling bootlegged CDs. Derrick Blue, CEO of Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan, a speaker for Growing an Inclusive Innovation Ecosystem in Florida.

“People don’t know what they don’t know,” says the Interim CEO of Tampa Hillsborough Action Plan Inc., 5508 Co-Working and Collaboration Exchange. “What 5508 does is it legitimizes that.”

5508, converted from 30,000 square feet of storage space into a business incubator at 5508 N. 50th St.,Tampa, is a comfortable meeting place for people in the neighborhood. Oftentimes, they won’t go to other places like the Hillsborough County-backed Homebrew Hillsborough, a monthly coffee networking group, or 1 Million Cups of Coffee at the Entrepreneur Collaborative Center in Ybor City, which are designed to encourage and build up businesses.

The panel’s advice for peers who want to start a business? 

• Get used to rejection, advises Hugh Campbell, Founder and Owner of the professional services company AC4S.  
• Build a team with diverse talents, he adds. 
• Look for partners for collaborations, says Marisol Casablanca McDonald, Sales Manager of Information Technology Solutions for Conserva.
• Look for help, Torres says. 
• And be assertive, adds Rachel Fisher, CEO of Clear Data Solutions.

As a minority or woman in the tech field, one may feel at a disadvantage. But perspective is important. It was a game changer for Fisher. “Who you know is really important. We don’t know the people. We’re not buddies with the person that has the money or the company or the connection,” she says.

Being left out may not be intentional. “Those are their friends, those are who they turn to,” she explains. “The challenge is how we get into ... the 'in crowd'. Part of it is you just have to bash your way in.” (L-R) Fabian Yepez, Rachel Fisher, and Tahisia Scantling speak at the event.

She worked her way in and now has a large network of women connectons. “I do want to turn to them,” she says. “People you know that are talented, use them.” 

Fountain sums up his advice with the acronym TALK. “People do business with those that they Trust, have Access to, that they Like and that they Know,” he explains. “That’s my gift.”

“It’s all about relationship -- and it starts here in events like this,” adds Casablanca McDonald. “You have to commit to what you do.”

Lack of funding, and the inability to commit to working with a team, are impediments. “You have to figure how you are going to do that,” Torres says. “This isn’t going to be something that you are going to own yourself. You have to be open to splitting the pie.”

Environment, exposure and education also are impediments in low-income areas, according to Blue.

“Some issues and impediments are generational, generational patterns of poverty,” he says. “You want to teach me how to do an app? I need lights in my house.”

The panel also included Tahisia Scantling, a consultant with the Tampa Bay Black Business Investment Corporation, who oversees the small business training program CATCH, and Fabian Yépez, Regional VP for Prospera in the West Coast of Florida. Speakers mingle before the Growing an Inclusive Innovation Ecosystem in Florida breakout session.

An important goal of the summit was to stimulate conversations like that one. Some of the introductions happened over sandwiches, salad and cookies provided by Metropolitan Ministries’ Inside the Box Cafe, a social entrepreneurship effort that helps put homeless people to work. Such  conversations can continue through Synapse’s online platform, introduced during the summit by Synapse Co-Founders Marc Blumenthal and Brian Kornfeld. 

The platform is designed to provide an easy way for members of the ecosystem to find and connect or reconnect to those who can help them along the way. It’s available online here.

The event brought out people like Mary Kay Team Leader Tarsha Ahmad and her 19-year-old daughter Jaya from St. Petersburg, who are working together in a startup to help people reduce clutter. 

Ahmad found the Innovation Summit intriguing. “It has just been across the board top notch,” says Ahmad.

Her constructive criticism? She had hoped to do more face-to-face networking with exhibiters on the second day, only to discover they weren’t there anymore. 

Rewiring the human brain

A doctor from North Canton, OH, Dr. A.J. Seth, CEO of The Bionic Miracle, was both a speaker and exhibiter. Seth, renowned for his work with an amputee able to regain full feeling and movement in a prosthetic arm, told 83 Degrees Media he was hopeful something “concrete” would develop from the summit.

“We have a lot to offer. I think that by partnering with people we can show society that we don’t have to become robots to make huge advances,” he says.

Seth, who is working with the Ybor City-based military outreach and innovation center SOFWERX, also enjoyed seeing the new innovative technologies. “I love doing all of this with what God gave us. I think that’s what God wanted us to really do,” he says. (L-R) Rachel Murphy, Tania Steele, and Taylor Szostak talk to Dijmo Serodio about their experience with Sofwerx.

After the 16-hour surgery in December 2015, his patient’s brain believes it has regrown an arm. “When she takes a shower her hand goes warm,” he says. “I believe her brain has rerouted itself.”

His book, Rewired, will be released by Harper Collins in January of 2019.

Meanwhile, a Pensacola not-for-profit, the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, displayed humanoid robots and exoskeletons in the Exhibits section. Jerry Pratt, Senior Research Scientist, shared developments at a breakout session. 
The bottom line? There have been improvements that can enhance the quality of life for paralyzed individuals. Not only can they walk again, but they can look at others face to face rather than being looked down upon, he points out.

Work is being done for outer space as well. “Someday, probably before humans are on the planet, there will be probably be thousands of robots on Mars,” he says.

They’ll be setting up habitats and putting together equipment that produces oxygen from that planet’s air. 

But there are things that human legs can do that robots made on wheels can’t. Like squeeze into tight spaces.  

It’s been hard to come up with a design as good as human muscle. “The things we can build the joints with are not quite as good as biology can work with,” he explains.

Battery power is a limiting factor.

While the event showcased lots of new technology, everything from blockchain to artificial intelligence to defense and energy, an important goal was to highlight what is happening and could potentially happen in the future in the Tampa Bay Area.

The Innovation Hub

Lakshmi Shenoy, who moved to Tampa in February to be CEO of a new Tampa Bay Innovation Hub, shared a little bit about herself and vision for the hub in the concluding session. 

“I love new ventures,” says Shenoy, who left her job in the leadership team of Chicago’s 1871, where digital startups are born. “I believe entrepreneurship is an equalizer. Anyone with an unwavering drive and well-thought-out solutions to a real problem can build a company.”

Some of the key issues 1871 faced at its inception in Chicago: a brain drain (recent graduates moving out of state), lack of investments, and lack of identity because there was no mouthpiece to share the regional story, she says.

“With an identity a region can be recognized,” she asserts. Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of Tampa Innovation Hub, speaks at the Synapse Innovation Summit.

During a six-year period there was lots of growth. “What’s more important to me is who is part of that story,” she continues. “It grew to be over 35 percent female and over 30 percent of the startups met inclusions standards.”

While she hasn’t yet had a chance to build the Innovation Hub, she did say it will be designed as more than a physical place. “The hub is the mechanism that harnesses the energy that’s palpable at Synapse today. There’s a power in creating a hub for innovators,” she explains.

She says the community needs to share its stories about talented entrepreneurs. “We want them to choose us over Silicon Valley,” she says. “… We want them to romanticize our lives in Tampa Bay.”

She’s committed to building the hub in the Channel District. “I want to help us continue to strive to reach our full potential. The entrepreneurial spirit and sense of community here in Tampa Bay is inspiring,” she says. “There is something happening here and you can feel it.”

Technological advances in transportation

Transportation is a part of the discussion, and so two innovators in that area were part of the session that drew the summit to a close.

Kasra Moshkani, General Manager of the southeastern United States for the transport company Uber, says shared self-driving vehicles can reduce traffic on the road by at least 90 percent. 

A change like that would make our cities “unrecognizable,” he says. 

“Places that embrace ridesharing today will have a natural advantage,” he says. “We need to get people in the habit of leaving their cars at home, sharing their rides, or better yet not even buying them.”

Ultimately shared journeys reduce congestion and pollution, leaving more space for people and parks while providing affordable and reliable transportation for all, he says.

“There is an alternative to a world that looks like a parking lot and rides like a traffic jam,” he asserts. “Uber has proven that ridesharing can service every single corner of a city.”

Transportation in the future, particularly the new technology under development for five years by Hyperloop Transportation Technologies, could change the way we live and work. Dirk Ahlborn, CEO of Hyperloop Transportation Technologies

The way it works now, people decide where to work based on where they live, points out CEO Dirk Ahlborn. With Hyperloop, people could become more independent geographically, deciding to live in Tampa and work in Miami -- or vice versa. 

“Most people get excited about living in one place and working in another,” he says. “With Hyperloop, you could actually build satellite cities 100, 200 miles away.”

Powered by magnets and sunlight, Hyperloop could link airports in a city, making them terminals for one huge airport much farther away. Freight shipments from China or Europe could come within hours instead of weeks.

It’s no pipe dream. The technology already exists. Using capsules to transport people through tubes at or near the speed of sound, it could revolutionize travel globally. 

And there were some exploratory conversations about how such a system would look here, says Synapse spokesman Cesar Hernandez. The next step would be to address the feasibility of such a service.

According to Ahlborn, the system is “completely green using alternative energy.”

Low operational costs mean it could be profitable in a short amount of time, unlike the government-subsidized transit systems.

“We started building the world’s first Hyperloop passenger capsule last year. It will be ready [for assembly] in July or August of this year,” he says.

After that, it will undergo testing. Hyperloop also must work with politicians to secure the necessary approvals.

“We’re there. We’re getting ready,” he concludes. “You are all part of it.”

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. Now a wife and mother, Cheryl discovered her love of writing as a child when she became enthralled with Nancy Drew mysteries. She earned her bachelor's degree in Journalism and Sociology from Loyola University in New Orleans. While working at Loyola's Personnel Office, she discovered her passion for helping others find jobs. A Miami native, Cheryl moved to the Temple Terrace area in 1985 to work for the former Tampa Tribune