Saturday, November 18, 2017
Business

2016 debuts with better startups, smarter mentoring, rising venture capital interest

RECOMMENDED READING


The Tampa Bay startup community's resolution for the new year must have been to kick into higher gear. From venture capital investing to clever new entrepreneurial ventures, the region is starting to leverage all those earlier years spent building an infrastructure to help sharp, committed people launch — and execute — new business ideas.

The good news is the area startup scene is starting to get more notice from VC firms and from Silicon Valley itself — ground zero for successful entrepreneurs and money. Even Forbes, after casting a wide net and conducting extensive interviews in search of the country's most promising young entrepreneurs, picked the co-founders of a Tampa startup for its Class of 2016 30-Under-30 list. And fresh programs are taking shape in Clearwater and St. Petersburg to spur new momentum and bring more muscle to entrepreneurs as they become greater players in this region's economy. Read on to get just a sampling of what's afoot.

• • •

It's hard to believe Phil Michaels, now 28, came up with the idea for the Tampa startup Tembo only 15 months ago. The idea is to provide quality early childhood education to the slums of the world via mobile phones. Really? Do poor people in slums have mobile phones? Turns out many do, and an increasing number have smartphones, Michaels tells me. The University of Tampa MBA graduate and his team of mostly 20-something UT students and grads have already spent time in Nigeria's slums testing how to deliver early childhood learning. Last September, Tembo ("elephant" in Swahili) entered the annual $1 million Clinton Global Initiative Hult Prize, becoming the only U.S. team to advance to the finals (a Taiwan team eventually won). Forbes magazine, after a series of extensive interviews, picked Tembo's team for its list of the best and brightest young entrepreneurs.

Michaels says he acquired his impatience from growing up in southern New Jersey, where he sold lemonade at soccer games, peddled Pokémon cards and worked as a "bookie" in high school sports. He was a finalist on Shark Tank in season four, he says, but like most finalists never made it to the actual televised show. Last year, he earned both a University of Tampa MBA and a master's degree in marketing. He is polite, well-spoken and obviously determined.

He says Tembo is busy raising $1 million to fund the team's moving back to Africa to fine-tune its educational programs and mobile delivery system before "scaling the business up."

The goal, he says, is "to educate more than 2,000 children and create 100 jobs hiring home educators by the end of year." The educators train the parents so they can teach their own kids, Michaels says. An interesting twist: While the service could have been offered for free, Tembo discovered people saw more value in an educational product they had to pay for to use.

The company expects to make money as parents pay for the program through their mobile phone accounts. The telecommunications provider will split revenues with Tembo.

So far, Tembo is talking to various potential investors, including Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and is even reaching out to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Tembo has also entered several other startup competitions, including the Venture, a $1 million annual competition for innovative social entrepreneurs backed by whiskey giant Chivas.

As members of 30-Under-30, Tembo now has access to a private app that connects to a network of current and former entrepreneurs offering what Michaels calls a wealth of expertise and idea-sharing.

"Social enterprises (such as Tembo) are starting to get recognition," Michaels says, "even though there's always been a dichotomy between doing good and making money. We are trying to show they can be one and the same."

• • •

Calling itself a one-stop shop for investors to meet promising Florida startup companies, the Florida Venture Forum gathers at downtown St. Petersburg's Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club this week for its annual Florida Venture Capital Conference. The forum is in its 25th year and boasts 600 young Florida companies that have pitched their business ideas to venture capital experts over that period.

This year's event features 18 Florida companies, including seven from Tampa Bay. Florida Venture Forum president Kevin Burgoyne, in an interview, says he sees rising interest in Florida from out-of-state venture capital firms and anticipates a strong turnout at the St. Petersburg event.

"No matter where you go in the state, you see places for entrepreneurs at any stage to go and get the support needed to grow and develop their companies," Burgoyne says. He rattles off some of the key drivers in the Tampa Bay market, from incubators in St. Petersburg to the Tampa Bay WaVE in downtown Tampa, as well as the rise of resources dedicated to entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida, among other academic institutions.

Burgoyne sees momentum growing on both sides. "Investors increasingly are moving to Florida or assigning people to cover Florida if they are not based in the state. More out-of-state venture capital firms are willing to travel here," he says. And on the company side, he sees an "increasingly competitive field of applicants" vying to make their pitches to investors at the annual conference.

At the St. Petersburg event, more than a third of the selected companies are local startups.

Largo-based Alakai Defense Systems specializes in laser and electro-optical sensing of explosives, homemade explosives, and improvised explosive devices. CEO Ed Dottery, a West Point graduate with a master's degree in applied physics from Stanford University, says Alakai recently put its first product "into harm's way to protect soldiers" in what he calls a "faraway place."

From Wesley Chapel, CareSync provides software and services for chronic disease management that links nursing facilities with patients, family and caregivers and all providers. The firm is fresh off an $18 million VC investment last year.

St. Petersburg-based InformedDNA taps an independent national network of board-certified genetics specialists to help health plans in the appropriate uses of genetic testing.

Tampa's Lung Institute provides cellular therapies and other forms of regenerative treatment for chronic lung disease.

St. Petersburg's Marxent provides augmented and virtual reality solutions for retailers and manufacturers, and counts Lowe's Home Improvement as a client.

Tampa's Thuzi offers a technology platform that enhances events and services to brands in casual dining, e-commerce and sports teams among other fields.

Tampa's TowerCloud designs, builds and operates fiber optic networks for wireless carriers and other bandwidth intensive carriers.

"As a state," says Burgoyne, "we are doing a better job of telling our own story and shining light on successful Florida companies."

No question. The progress is palpable. There's still much to do.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

Comments
Florida jobs recover from Irma, unemployment rate drops

Florida jobs recover from Irma, unemployment rate drops

As economists predicted, the tough hit that Florida jobs took from Hurricane Irma was not long-lived. The state added 125,300 jobs in October, almost breaking even from the 127,400 jobs it lost in September. According to state figures released Friday...
Updated: 6 hours ago
Apple will postpone release of  HomePod

Apple will postpone release of HomePod

The Washington PostApple said Friday that it’s pushing back its plans for a Siri-powered smart speaker until sometime early next year.The HomePod speaker was announced in June, with an initial launch date set for December. Apple said that its smart s...
Updated: 6 hours ago
HSN, Good Housekeeping pick five contest finalists

HSN, Good Housekeeping pick five contest finalists

ST. PETERSBURG — Good Housekeeping and St. Petersburg-based HSN have chosen five finalists for their entrepreneur competition. The partners are searching for a novel item to promote as endorsed by the Good Housekeeping Seal, denoting reliability and ...
Updated: 10 hours ago
Trigaux: State of Tampa Bay startups? Disconnected we falter but there’s a plan to fix that

Trigaux: State of Tampa Bay startups? Disconnected we falter but there’s a plan to fix that

How are we doing?That was the Big Question posed more than once this past week in Tampa Bay. First, the Tampa Bay Partnership and USF debuted in-depth and new ways to measure Tampa Bay across a wide range of indicators to gauge whether we are gaining...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Tesla’s latest creation: An electric big rig that can travel 500 miles on a single charge

Tesla’s latest creation: An electric big rig that can travel 500 miles on a single charge

The main course was expected: a pair of sleek silver Tesla semi-trucks that get 500 miles per charge, go from zero to 60 mph in five seconds and — if the hype is to be believed — promise to single-handedly transform the commercial trucking industry.B...
Published: 11/17/17
We ask Tampa Bay startup leaders how best to advance entrepreneurial ecosystem

We ask Tampa Bay startup leaders how best to advance entrepreneurial ecosystem

What one thing could be added to the Tampa Bay startup community to help it grow and prosper?The Tampa Bay Times reached out to these leading area entrepreneurs and startup experts for answers.RELATED COVERAGE: Trigaux: State of Tampa Bay startups? D...
Published: 11/17/17
Before you hit the mall: here are some key holiday shopping hours

Before you hit the mall: here are some key holiday shopping hours

Plotting a shopping strategy for the holiday weekend? Here’s a look at holiday store opening hours for some major retailers:Thanksgiving8 a.m.: Kmart1 p.m.: JCPenney4 p.m.: GameStop5 p.m.: Best Buy, Macy’s, Toys "R" Us, Kohl’s6 p.m.: Old Navy, Target...
Published: 11/17/17
Electric, autonomous vehicles featured at Tampa auto show

Electric, autonomous vehicles featured at Tampa auto show

TAMPA — The two biggest trends in the automotive space are ones you’ve likely heard of: electric vehicles and autonomous cars. Both will feature prominently at the Tampa Bay International Auto Show today through Sunday. The event at the ...
Published: 11/17/17
Developer changes approach as downtown Largo project lags in financing

Developer changes approach as downtown Largo project lags in financing

LARGO — Driving down West Bay Drive, you may notice some changes to downtown Largo.A new 29-unit apartment complex on Ridge Road stands finished and ready for residents. South of the complex, land that was formerly home to a community of rundown cott...
Published: 11/17/17
Want to travel solo? Local enthusiasts share stories, tips for holidays trips

Want to travel solo? Local enthusiasts share stories, tips for holidays trips

Stephanie Maisonneuve visited the walled city of Cartagena, a port city off the Caribbean coast of Colombia. She rode horseback down the city’s cobbled streets clucking past flower-filled balconies and massive, wooden arched doors. The travel enthusi...
Updated: 11 hours ago