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 or losing competitive ground versus other significant metro areas across the country. Thatís major progress .

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A day later, leaders of the University of Tampaís Lowth Entrepreneurship Center issued their critical annual review of the regional support system built to help startups in Tampa Bay. Also a big step.

These seem like distinctly different organizations looking at separate slices of the Tampa Bay economic pie. But theyíre not. The Tampa Bay Partnershipís launch of its detailed Regional Competitiveness Report prominently features a section of indicators measuring this metro areaís "innovation" ó the core issues that also drive UTís fresh assessment of this marketís "entrepreneurial ecosystem."

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In a sense, it was a historic week by such leading groups to offer hard-data, measurable ways to provide better answers to the question that starts this column.

How are we doing?

A key common theme that emerged in all these looks in the Tampa Bay mirror is that this metro areaís tri-city (Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater) structure has created a challenge many one-city metro areas do not have to face. Our economic muscle, innovative capabilities, financial firepower and sheer ability to network socially and economically are dispersed and decentralized. Difficult to knit together when we really need to compete and operate as one powerful entity.

The startup community, in particular, is typically made up of individual and often independent entrepreneurs, startups, single or small groups of investors, accelerators and universities spread across counties and still historically designed to act locally ó not regionally.

The University of Tampa review of our entrepreneurial ecosystem used new techniques this year to measure how connected our startup community really is. The answer: With the possible exception of financial startups, the startup scene here is fragmented, certainly more than many metro area startup ecosystems.

Tampa Bay has the "raw materials" for its startup scene to succeed, says Paul Sanberg, USFís senior vice president for research, innovation and knowledge enterprise. Whatís missing is that we are not "village-like" as are some of the communities that have succeeded in developing their entrepreneurial ecosystems.

"Our geography is spread out, opportunities are widely varied, and often it requires almost brute force efforts to connect entrepreneurs and management talent with the right opportunities," says Sanberg. "What we need is a better, more effective way to match these opportunities ó a mechanism that can secure buy-in from all or the major facets of the community and build the kind of interdependence that spurs economic growth."

Thatís a big problem to overcome.

But a solution may be emerging. Think of it as an online dating service for business startups.

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Itís called Synapse. Itís an online networking tool in the works designed to help anyone in tapping into the regional entrepreneurial ecosystem to find experienced entrepreneurs, investors hunting for opportunities, educational opportunities, co-working options and a host of legal, financial, marketing or other expertise that may prove the missing puzzle piece to a successful startup.

Serial entrepreneur and startup investor Marc Blumenthal, CEO of the pooled investing organization Florida Funders, is heading a team driving the development of Synapse. Look for an official debut of Synapse around next March, perhaps during the March 28-29 Innovation Summit Blumenthal is helping to plan as another way to pull together a scattered startup community here.

Blumenthal sees Synapse starting as something as basic as an online directory, a whoís who of the broader entrepreneurial world here. But it would quickly grow into an interactive search tool to reach specific people and services here they may not know but who have the right mix of interests, skill sets and horsepower sought by the Synapse user.

It is a connector. One of the core Missing Links to help make this metroís startup community more cohesive, more efficient and even more passionate.

That, at least, is the idea. If it works, itís brilliant and, frankly, long overdue. Tampa Bayís startup scene thatís growing. Just not vigorously enough.

If it works well, then we may have a model that could be employed more broadly to better connect the Tampa Bay economy, spread so far apart as it is.

Thatís how competitive edges are born.

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