Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Business

Clearwater CEO opens North Pinellas business incubator

CLEARWATER — Clearwater is a long way from Silicon Valley. It's not widely known for its high-tech startup companies.

Locally, Tampa and St. Petersburg have launched business incubators and startup accelerators to give emerging tech entrepreneurs a leg up — Clearwater, not so much.

However, one local CEO is taking steps to change that.

Steve Allen, founder and chief executive officer of the growing iDatix Corp., has opened a business incubator on the third floor of his company's headquarters at 1499 Gulf-to-Bay Blvd.

It's a place where budding entrepreneurs can rent a cubicle, work on their business plans, and bounce their ideas off mentors and other entrepreneurs.

"Most businesses fail within the first 18 months. If you have a supportive environment, the survival rate goes way up," Allen said. "Here, you get support and education, and you get a sounding board — people who will give you challenging questions."

It's called the Technical Arts Facility for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or TAFFIE. Right now it consists of a website, TAFFIE.net, and a newly opened floor of modern-looking workspace that's designed with an open office plan that can accommodate up to 40 people.

Membership costs $300 per month for a cubicle to call your own, or $125 per month for the right to come in and park a laptop in one of the incubator's open work areas.

Entrepreneurs who join get access to a 3-D printer, a metal lathe, conference rooms, a mail drop and an impressive-looking executive boardroom for when it comes time to pitch their ideas to investors. It also offers a place to meet with potential clients other than at Starbucks or at home.

TAFFIE had a soft opening last month and so far has attracted a handful of members by word of mouth. There's a video production company, a lawyer who's working on a legal app, an LED lighting company and a group that's developing a health care app for caregivers outside the hospital setting.

Some of these entrepreneurs have other jobs. They drop in whenever they can on the third floor of the four-story iDatix building, at the prominent intersection where Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard splits into Cleveland and Court streets.

"I try to set aside a little bit of time every week," said Peter Rivellini, a Clearwater lawyer who's developing a crowdsourced legal research app. "This gives me a place to go where I can just concentrate on this project."

Tampa has a business incubator, the Tampa Bay WaVE Venture Center. St. Petersburg has one called TEC Garage. But Allen wanted to create one closer to entrepreneurs in north Pinellas County.

Clearwater actually has a budding and little-noticed cluster of tech companies in and around its downtown. Firms like ZVRS, AutoLoop and ThreatTrack Securities employ hundreds of tech workers in three office high-rises.

"Nobody knows they're there. We're more than a beach," said Allen, 51, dressed in jeans and a sport coat.

His software company, iDatix, helps companies automate their business practices. Over 14 years, Allen has grown it from a single office to a strip mall off Roosevelt Boulevard and finally to a company that now employs 40 people.

Technology incubators in St. Petersburg and Tampa have opened with the aid of government grants, but Allen hasn't received any government assistance. He wouldn't mind getting some kind of sponsorship from Clearwater, but the city says it can't financially support his incubator because it's a private endeavor.

Allen plans to cover the incubator's costs by renting space and eventually by investing in some of the companies that are grown there.

"For the best ideas, I've lined up investment people, including myself," he said. "We can give them an investment in exchange for a portion of their company. We're making an investment in them, helping them to succeed, and then we have the opportunity to benefit from that investment."

Contact Mike Brassfield at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.

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