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Trigaux: Pitch our 'A Team' to venture capitalists

Why doesn't Tampa Bay take its best and brightest entrepreneurial stars on a national road show to tell distant venture capitalists:

We may have sunshine and beaches, but we've also got quality startups to fund.

That was one striking suggestion of venture capitalist, government adviser and former pharmaceutical industry CEO Bob Ingram. In fact, that's what he's about to do to reinvigorate North Carolina's famed Research Triangle Park.

Why bother to pitch what already is the best known technology cluster in the southeastern United States?

"We've grown complacent," warns Ingram, who chairs the foundation that oversees Research Triangle Park. He was Monday's keynote speaker at Moffitt Cancer Center's annual "business of biotech" conference in Tampa.

"Assemble your top tier team. Target venture capital firms in Boston, Research Triangle and San Francisco," he urged in an interview. "Your return on that effort will probably be pretty good."

Florida's ability to lure venture capital is puny in the best of times. Now venture capital firms are retrenching after the recession.

So let's take the offensive.

Why does Florida fare so poorly in startup investing? Ingram says venture capitalists concentrated in California or the Boston area are lazy because there are so many startups in their own backyards. It seems a cliche by now, but many venture capitalists won't visit a distant firm if they can't get direct plane flights.

Ingram's own firm, Hatteras Venture Partners in Durham, N.C., focuses its biotech investing in the Southeast. But this area needs to show off its A Team of entrepreneurs, Ingram says. An outdated image of Florida as a place of sun and leisure still persists, he admits.

"What else is here?" he posed Monday at Moffitt. "And what is the substance of it?"

The uphill battle to fund biotech startups so dominated Monday's conference that Moffitt CEO Dr. Alan List wondered if a conference devoted solely to venture capital should be organized.

Moffitt is well-known as the regional leader for cancer treatments. But the center, on Tampa's University of South Florida campus, is also trying to commercialize its most promising research.

Moffitt has nine startups and seven more under development, says Jarett Rieger, who directs Moffitt's office of technology management and commercialization.

Florida enjoyed an initial jump-start a decade ago when then-Gov. Jeb Bush wrote a big check to persuade one of California's premier biotech firms, Scripps Research Institute, to expand into Florida. Other biotech firms followed but the recent recession slowed industry momentum. And, Rieger says, cutbacks in federal funding at the National Institutes of Health are forcing Moffitt and other biotech enterprises to look elsewhere for funding.

Those sources include state government, drug companies' own venture capital funds and philanthropists who, for personal reasons, may want to help fund a biotech startup's fight against certain kinds of cancers.

Ingram noted North Carolina used to be known for textiles, tobacco and furniture. But no more, he says.

Florida can evolve, too.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Trigaux: Pitch our 'A Team' to venture capitalists 02/11/13 [Last modified: Monday, February 11, 2013 7:06pm]
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