By the old start-a-business-in-a-garage standard, the FirstWaVE Venture Center in downtown Tampa borders on swank. The day I visit it is a pleasing mix of promise, chaos and, yes, entrepreneurial buzz. The center does not officially open until early March. But parts of it already are in use by startups, or being reserved by other entrepreneur support groups that range from Startup Weekend Tampa and newly arrived Founder Institute to Mayor Bob Buckhorn's annual Hack-a-Thon and the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. Other portions of the center remain under construction. People from across the entire region seem to be pitching in to ensure the center gets off to a strong start. And expectations are high.
The one-stop-shop for entrepreneurs and technology startups is backed by both a $1 million U.S. Commerce Department grant and local matching funds. It will open in 16,000 square feet of donated space on the second floor of downtown Tampa's cylindrical Sykes tower (known affectionately as the Beer Can building).
"We want a noisy lab of people creating companies," says center director Linda Olson, a startup veteran and founder of the original Tampa Bay WaVE, the popular nonprofit support group for tech startups. "We want to connect entrepreneurs."
That this new center landed in a prominent downtown Tampa office building, rather than a random suburban building, is not lost on the startup community. The center's prime location will attract more attention and publicity — and criticism if things go poorly. But the center has the potential to serve as a beacon for the considerable if disjointed regional effort still under way to build a Tampa Bay foundation for entrepreneurs.
For Mayor Buckhorn, the center's opening hits all of his political cylinders. It encourages entrepreneurs to start businesses and create jobs. It draws sharp, young people, the lifeblood of any community. And it happens to attract them to downtown Tampa, whose revival Buckhorn clearly sees as his top priority.
"They are where they need to be," says the mayor, who visited and spoke at the center on Thursday for the first time. "We want those jobs from startups to stay here."
Yet the clock already is ticking. The center's $1 million federal grant runs for two years, and business leaders already are working on what happens next. An executive committee of veteran business leaders and entrepreneurs has formed to lend the center additional gravitas and guidance. But its key task is to find ways to make the FirstWaVE Venture Center financially sustainable before the current round of funding expires in 2014.
Inside the center, a one-person startup might share a desk. If the startup grows and adds people, it might get its own walled space with a locking file cabinet. If a startup is lucky enough to reach five or six employees? Then it's ready to move on, says Olson.
That's the formula. Get them in shape, move 'em out, bring in the next round. Everybody helps everybody else.
In one walled cubicle is three-person Mega, a web graphics and video startup. In another is Madera Labs, a Tennessee transplant Founder Justin Davis already is infamous at the center for holding impromptu "home page throwdowns" where all kinds of different websites face withering critiques. That's exactly the interaction that draws entrepreneurs to places like this.
Down the hall at KiteDesk sits co-founder and serial entrepreneur Jack Kennedy. He helped start the 1990s e-commerce firm Tradex Technologies, which was eventually sold to Ariba for a reported $1.86 billion.
Near the center's entrance, "idea" rooms boast glass walls laden with hand-scrawled strategies and connecting arrows. White boards and posters capture in shorthand group efforts to define the center's culture, mission and vision. Visual depictions called "empathy maps" reflect how a startup's product might be viewed from a customer point of view.
Even some of the furniture is entrepreneurial. Desks are being assembled on the spot from unused doors and table legs from Ikea. It's hip. And it saves precious dollars.
The center's schedule is filling up with accelerator programs for startups that applied to the program, and a rapidly expanding list of enrichment events, from boot camps to mentoring sessions.
Thanks to the federal grant, the center has hired some full-time staff. Among those coming aboard is program director Jennifer Metz, who will lead the startup accelerator sessions. She has a background in area economic development and formerly worked as "launch manager" at Star TEC (Technology Enterprise Center) in Largo. Deborah Alvarez Neff also has joined as operations director.
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An impressive array of regional muscle and enthusiasm is behind the FirstWaVE Venture Center. A sampling of the area experts and influentials rolling up their sleeves:
• The University of South Florida partnered from the start with Tampa Bay WaVE on the federal grant application seeking $1 million. Tracey Swartz, who helps run USF's business incubator program, says she is keen on making the center sustainable.
• Area companies Bright House Networks and Vology already have installed top-of-the-line telecommunications services to support the center.
• Tampa's AVI-SPL is supplying high-tech audio-visual equipment. St. Petersburg's LumaStream is adding LED lighting.
• George Gordon, who recently sold his Enporion utility supply chain business, sits on the boards of technology advocacy groups in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. He also chairs the center's steering committee, whose members, among others, include Tribridge founder Tony DiBenedetto, Tampa Bay Partnership CEO Stuart Rogel and USF's Swartz.
• Alex Sink, Florida's former chief financial officer and a past candidate for governor, just moved Florida Next, her pro-innovation policy think tank, into space in the downtown center and pledged her financial expertise and statewide contacts to help to bring more venture capital to the startups there. "What you saw on your visit should be just the beginning of building a similar culture all over Florida," Sink told me.
• Innovation consultant Michelle Royal, founder of HDYI: How Do You Innovate?, jumped in at the start as a facilitator to help the center understand and embrace a culture of innovation.
• Mukang Cho, CEO of In-Rel Properties, which recently bought the Sykes tower (officially called Rivergate Tower), made available his building's vacant second floor because, he says, he's eager to see new things happen in downtown Tampa.
• Entrepreneur Mike O'Donnell relocated from Seattle to Tampa Bay with his own startup business (Leaves.com) and also opened the first Florida location for the Founder Institute business accelerator. He's already using space in the center for startup and training events and has lined up 25 area mentors to help startups there.
And as proof of his veteran status, KiteDesk entrepreneur Kennedy supplied any startup center's most critical component for success (beyond a supply of Red Bull):
The Ping-Pong table. (Even Mayor Buckhorn played a couple rounds Thursday.)
Will the FirstWaVE Venture Center work? The early vibe is good. The hard work is ahead. The minefields are many.
Will the challenge of funding local startups force many young companies hopefully born at the center to eventually leave the area? Will other existing startup efforts in the area collaborate — or compete for the same resources?
Olson is one of many leaders eager to portray the new center as one more player among many doing good things to build Tampa Bay's entrepreneurial ecosystem. This isn't a Tampa center, they insist. It is a Tampa Bay center.
It's a good message. And it may be a key part to the center's acceptance and sustainability.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected].