Saturday, December 16, 2017
Business

Large-scale business incubator will rise in downtown St. Petersburg as beacon for startups

A plan to build a major business incubator in downtown St. Petersburg — one big enough to catch the attention of entrepreneurs across Tampa Bay and beyond — has won key initial backing of the city and Pinellas County.

The incubator would encompass at least 40,000 square feet, with an additional 10,000 square feet set aside for an anchor business tenant, at a cost of about $12 million. Funding would come from federal and state dollars.

"This is significantly larger than most incubators — by intention," said Pinellas economic development director Mike Meidel. "We want it to be unique and a true asset to the county and all of Tampa Bay."

Can St. Pete's young startup community sustain such a muscular facility?

Yes, says a confident Tonya Elmore, whose Tampa Bay Innovation Center effort ran the Star Center incubator in Largo for years and now operates the modest-sized TEC Garage incubator space inside St. Petersburg College's downtown building.

"We already must turn away startups at the TEC Garage," Elmore says.

Three players are behind the new incubator.

The facility will be run by Elmore's Tampa Bay Innovation Center. The city will provide the land for the incubator, to be located at the southwest corner of 11th Avenue S and Fourth Street.

And Pinellas County would own and help develop and maintain the incubator. The Tampa Bay Innovation Center recently won a memorandum of understanding with Pinellas County to facilitate the next phase of the project, including tenant recruitment and fundraising.

Meidel says proceeds from the expected county sale of the old Star Center will assist in funding the new downtown incubator. Federal grants will be sought via the U.S. Economic Development Administration, while state funds will be pursued via a bill to be introduced in the Legislature.

Meidel and Elmore expect to pursue private sponsorships. And recruiting a strong anchor tenant — one that can add its own marketing punch and expertise to help incubator startups and that can pay market rates on its lease — will also help move the incubator closer to becoming self-sustaining over the long haul.

Elmore says the new incubator is at least two years from opening, if the rollout happens as planned.

The as-yet-unnamed incubator is expected to house some technology startups. Beyond that, a choice will likely have to be made. The incubator may support life sciences and marine sciences startups. Or, more likely to Meidel, it may support advanced manufacturing sectors, including medical device startups and rapid prototyping businesses.

Meidel says incubators are "hot" commodities across the country. "The nice thing is this is pretty unique. The size and scope of this project will get their attention."

A cornerstone incubator would also reinforce what economic developers hope is a lasting trend. Young tech companies, and their younger workforce, clearly like the downtown buzz.

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

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