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Synapse Innovation Summit looks to cultivate tech and startup connections

By Richard Danielson
Florida Funders partner Marc Blumenthal is a co-founder of the Tampa nonprofit Synapse, which is organizing its second annual innovation summit on March 28-29 at Amalie Arena. Photo courtesy Florida Funders

TAMPA — Bigger crowd. Bigger stage. Bigger speakers.

Same big ambitions.

Now in its second year, the Synapse Innovation Summit at Amalie Arena on March 28-29 aims to gather together the Tampa Bay area’s entire innovation ecosystem — a group of people and organizations that share a common purpose, but not always a common conversation.

"I want to see people make meaningful connections … faster, more accurate, more reliable connections," said Marc Blumenthal, co-founder of Synapse, a relatively new Tampa nonprofit focused on growing the region’s culture of tech-driven entrepreneurship.

But the event and the nonprofit, which Blumenthal describes as almost a Netflix meets Match.com for tech, are not just for investors and companies.

"What are you looking for?" he says. "Are you an intern looking to work on a blockchain company? We can help get you there. Are you a veteran who knows more about cyber-security than most other people on earth? We’ve got you covered. We can introduce you to the right people."

Here’s the event at a glance:

WHY DO THIS? A 2016 University of Tampa study by the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation concluded that the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem needed stronger leadership, less duplication of effort, startup-savvy investors and a specific brand for the bay area. In a five-county area, it found 64 entrepreneurial support organizations, but they were lightly connected, uncoordinated and, too often, all but invisible. And unlike some more established tech hubs, the bay area covers a much more spread-out region and doesn’t have an urban core geographically wrapped around its lead university.

THE ORGANIZERS: They include Blumenthal, a partner in Florida Funders, a Tampa-based firm focused on investing in startups, and his Synapse co-founder, tech veteran Andy Hafer. Two other key participants in the larger ongoing discussion have been Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who is starting his own innovation hub at Channelside Bay Plaza, and James "Hondo" Geurts, head of acquisition for U.S. Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base, and the driving force behind the creation of the Sofwerx business accelerator in Ybor City.

THE CROWD: Last year the event drew a little more than 600 to the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina. This year, organizers expect 2,000-plus entrepreneurs, investors, researchers, college students, military veterans, government officials, business executives and more. More than 200 companies are expected to have displays at the arena. Breakout sessions will range over topics such as biotech and health care, defense and cyber security, fintech and blockchain, robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality and business development.

THE LINEUP: The 30 speakers include Jeff Vinik; IBM chief innovation officer Bernard Meyerson; Army Col. Josh Potter, a transnational threats expert with Special Operations Command; ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini; Peerfit CEO Ed Buckley; retired Tribridge CEO Tony DiBenedetto; and Lakshmi Shenoy, recently hired to run Vinik’s new innovation hub.

THE CODE NAME: Early on, retired Air Force Maj. Gen. David Scott, now an Ybor City businessman, suggested a code name for the larger effort to create an entrepreneurial culture that’s greater than the sum of its parts: "Cuban Sandwich." The thinking, Blumenthal said, was "it’s kind of like our ecosystem. The ingredients don’t really look like they go together, but they taste really good."

REGISTRATION: Online at synapsefl.com. Tickets $49 to $699. "We’d like to see the community come," Blumenthal said. "If somebody can’t afford it, they should reach out to us. If there’s a good reason for them to be there, we’ll work (as) we have with college students and our active duty military," who are eligible for the $49 tickets. ConnectWise and Synapse also are providing $50,000 in scholarships so 1,000 college students can attend free.

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Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times