FirstWaVE Venture Center: Shared Space In Downtown Tampa For Startups

When Tampa Bay rings in the new year, its tech community may be tipping its proverbial party hat toward the infamous "round building" of Downtown Tampa.

The forthcoming launch of a new collaborative workspace inside Rivergate Tower will attempt to focus collective energy and resources toward supporting area startups and retaining top talent.

Why should any budding entrepreneur or promising innovator relocate to Silicon Valley or another techie valhalla if Tampa Bay’s arms can extend wide enough to offer an environment rich in opportunities to interact with mentors, trailblazers and other burgeoning companies looking to launch, grow and expand?

Missing Piece

To CEO Sean Carey of HD Interactive, the Tampa Bay area, while supportive, had always lacked one key element commonly found in major tech communities: a centralized hub for innovators to come together and share ideas.

In June 2012, Linda Olson, founder and executive director of Tampa Bay WaVE, and some colleagues began discussing the availability of six i6 Challenge grants from the U.S. Department of Commerce's Economic Development Association  honoring top business ideas in the country to advance American innovation and entrepreneurship.

Olson partnered with University of South Florida and Tracey Swartz, assistant director for USF CONNECT's Tampa Bay Technology Incubator, and brainstormed about local startups' greatest needs. They spoke with area business, government and community leaders, including Heather Kenyon, president and CEO for the Tampa Bay Technology Forum (TBTF). A recurring theme emerged that echoed Carey's concern.

"We asked ourselves if we are going to do anything together as a community, what would we want to achieve," says Kenyon. "We immediately started talking about a co-working collaborative space and felt it was something missing."

Community Backing

Olson and Swartz received news in September 2012 that their proposal had earned a $1 million grant over two years for the eight-county Tampa Bay region and set out to help at least 50 Florida-based startups secure early-stage funding by planning the launch of The FirstWaVE Venture Center, an innovation and incubation center. But not without the help of the community it served, says Swartz, who notes that she and Olson were able to raise more than $1 million in matching funds comprised of cash and in-kind contributions from community partners and businesses in the Bay area, including $600,000 in paid lease fees at Rivergate Tower, courtesy of a donation from Sykes Enterprises, the round building's main tenant.

Olson says the collaborative and supportive environment they hope to foster in the new Venture Center is what enabled the grant application to be so successful and has been impressed with the willingness and support of the Tampa Bay community throughout the process.

A broad group of more than 40 strategic partners have contributed support, including the TBTF, Florida High Tech Corridor Council, City of Tampa, Tampa-Hillsborough Economic Development Corporation, Tampa Bay Partnership, The University of Tampa, Hillsborough County and various private companies.

What started as a flurry of proposal activity across numerous organizations has since narrowed to an executive steering committee of 8-10 members that includes Kenyon. The group is focused on supporting long-term sustainability of the FirstWave Venture Center as well as short-term efforts to launch it.

"If you're able to create a place where entrepreneurs can get the resources they need or someone there knows a contact who can help, it can provide them with a safety net they wouldn't otherwise have," Kenyon says.

Venture Vision

Olson meets regularly with space planners to finalize the Center's configuration for what has been reported as much as 16,000 square feet with about a fourth of it carved out specifically for events, another fourth for co-working space and the rest devoted to business incubator and accelerator activities, meet-ups and other programming. No set target date has been announced for the Center's official launch though Swartz says ideally they hope to have the new space open to the public even in its first stage of development in January or February 2013.

Ten allocated office spaces have been reserved already with a waiting list in place. Once a build-out is completed, Olson anticipates the Center will be able to accommodate 20 tech start-up companies. She continues to talk with corporate partners and others in the community to secure donations and sponsorships for all critical office functionality and resources. Of the total $2 million in combined funding, Olson says budget dollars will be split about evenly between space needs and programming resources and notes that those wishing to stay up-to-date on the Center's progress can text "WAVE" to 88588.

Swartz describes the Center's programming offerings as a "one-stop shop'' for entrepreneurs with access made available to USF and UT students as well as companies wanting to work on projects, brainstorm with colleagues, meet with mentors or attend seminars and events, including workshops written into the grant as part of the Small Business Innovation Research program. "There are a lot of organizations geared toward entrepreneurs, but this will definitely offer a unique space, because it is not just an incubator, not just an accelerator, not just co-working space, but a combination of all of those," Swartz says.

The Big Picture

Colleagues in Pinellas County at the Largo-based Tampa Bay Innovation Center have been on a similar mission since 2003 to offer opportunities for entrepreneurs to connect and learn from each other. Its president Tonya Elmore and her team work with hundreds of technology clients every week to help foster successful entrepreneurship, high-tech job creation and product development. She says that like the rest of the Tampa Bay area, she and her organization will be taking notice of next year's launch of the FirstWaVE Venture Center and opportunities to partner in the future and points out that her center has collaborated with organizations like Tampa Bay WaVE, USF and biotech and entrepreneur-focused groups in the past.

"The smartest entrepreneur will take advantage of every resource they have available. So not one center or one program can be the end-all be-all, nor should it be," Elmore says.

Olson concurs. "We want to leverage our partnerships with the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, USF, UT and other different groups out there doing great things to support entrepreneurs. We want to help the entrepreneurs who find us to find these other resources, too, and help them navigate through the weeds."

While the mission behind the new Venture Center may be to create a common meeting space for innovators and entrepreneurs, the Venture Center is not without its own economic objectives, as well. Swartz notes that for the life of the two-year grant, the new Center and its related programming are being designed to facilitate growth for at least 50 Florida-based startups to create a projected 245 new jobs.

Some view the addition of this new downtown center for entrepreneurial activity as influential in characterizing the area's economic future.

"This is vital to the entrepreneurial ecosystem of the Tampa Bay region and provides one of our missing links in the path to a stronger economy," says  Rebecca J. White, Professor of Entrepreneurship, Distinguished Chair and director of the Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Tampa.

Million-Dollar Idea

When HD Interactive's CEO first learned that a group of local business visionaries had secured a large federal grant to create new centralized meeting space for Tampa Bay's tech community, Carey was encouraged.

"This opportunity will make the dreams come true for some technology entrepreneurs and provide a place for Tampa's new wave of developers and creatives to flourish,'' Carey says.

Olson says she sees real opportunity for the Tampa Bay tech community to redefine itself.

"We have everything we need to have a really strong, thriving ecosystem, but I don't know if the community sees it,'' Olson says. "By having a physical space where we can shine a light on what's going on, we can show that we have something here and that we're growing it."

Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer working on her first novel and living in the 'burbs of Tampa Bay. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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Chris Kuhn is a freelance writer, editor and blogger who resides in the northern ‘burbs of Tampa with her husband and a rambunctious Shih Tzu. She is a frequent contributor to area print and online publications and previously served as editor for a local women’s publication. A graduate of Florida State University, Chris has been published nationally and written two books, her most recent, an anthology celebrating public art as a central focal point for storytelling across various Florida communities, including Tampa. When she is not writing, Chris loves checking out art, movies and museums, and discovering new Thai restaurants.