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In downtown Tampa, a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs is on the way

TAMPA — Can a one-stop shop for everything a startup business might need elevate Tampa Bay into an entrepreneur's dream?

We're about to find out.

Last week a regional coalition of universities, business startup organizations, technology advocates, the city of Tampa, Hillsborough County and private companies won a U.S. Department of Commerce grant of $1 million. Combined with $1 million in local commitments, the $2 million in funding will help launch and operate The FirstWaVE Venture Center, an innovation and incubation hub for tech startups.

It will be based in 15,000 square feet of space provided in downtown Tampa's Rivergate Tower, better known locally as the Beer Can or Sykes Enterprises building, at 400 N Ashley Drive.

"We are so excited," says Linda Olson, who heads the Tampa Bay WaVE, a popular Tampa nonprofit that fosters entrepreneurship. Olson's group and Tampa's University of South Florida led the coalition's effort to win the grant. Olson calls it a "game changer" for area startups.

The goal is to find a magic business mix that attracts entrepreneurs, supports startups, encourages their local presence and generates quality jobs for the area.

Olson sees more possibilities. "If Tampa Bay could have one or two breakout companies, it would change the makeup" of the area as a startup haven.

"We are not waiting for those to happen," she says. "This is a big step in that direction."

The grant, unveiled last week, has not yet been awarded. That means this coalition is still feeling its way on very basic matters.

Who will run the center? USF Tampa, which co-led the grant effort, wants a big role. How will the center be funded after 24 months, when the $2 million is gone? That remains fuzzy.

Startup centers are hardly new. The University of South Florida in Tampa and St. Petersburg, the University of Tampa and Largo's Tampa Bay Innovation Center all have operated versions of business incubators and accelerators.

And many of them have posted very modest success rates or remain challenged by a lack of funding.

The FirstWaVE Venture Center may prove more ambitious. For starters, it wants to collaborate with many of the existing entrepreneurial resources in the area.

"It's always been about breaking down our many silos of startup activity," says CEO Heather Kenyon of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, the regional tech advocacy group.

A potential big beneficiary of this new center will be downtown Tampa. While hardly known as an area for tech innovation, it's trying to change that image and lure more young people to live and work in the area. In June, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn staged a weekend "hackathon" downtown so techies could show how they could leverage city data into useful Web applications.

The new center will utilize Tampa Bay WaVE's strategy of "build, launch and grow" for startups featuring a low-cost workplace, access to entrepreneurial mentors and venture capital funding.

The Tampa Bay Technology Forum already plans to relocate to the downtown center when it opens.

"It's a one-stop shop, and it's so awesome I can't believe it," says Kenyon.

For now, that kind of enthusiasm can go a long way.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

In downtown Tampa, a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs is on the way 09/24/12 [Last modified: Monday, September 24, 2012 7:48pm]
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