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Rising competition: It's time Tampa Bay intensifies its startup culture

What comes first: a powerful regional brand or a vibrant entrepreneurial community?

The elusive answer is proving to be a dilemma to Tampa Bay.

Startup business leaders say this metro area needs a bolder identity to attract both veteran entrepreneurs and the type of deep-pocketed investors eager to risk their money on fresh-idea businesses.

Others suggest that puts the cart before the horse. Until Tampa Bay can demonstrate it is indeed a hub of successful entrepreneurial activity, it's tough to slap a believable brand on this part of Florida.

This issue arose, briefly, at a Tuesday evening panel discussion held by 83 Degrees, the online, upbeat chronicler of regional innovation. The panel's topic: "How Do We Grow From Here? Nurturing the Tampa Bay Startup Culture.''

When asked from the audience what themes Tampa Bay should build its identity around, the panelists punted.

I don't blame them. Tampa Bay has struggled for years to tell the bigger world who it is. Most efforts have come up frustrated or vague.

Let's just say this metro area is still working on its 21st century identity. And the growing entrepreneurial community here wants a vibrant startup culture to be part of it.

Enter Miami.

Earlier this month, a billionaire entrepreneur named Manny Medina spearheaded a technology conference there called eMerge Americas Techweek. It drew 6,000 people, 150 speakers on tech innovation, eight expos, an invitation-only mayoral summit and a cool $250,000 grant from South Florida's pro-develop­ment Knight Foundation.

The event came on the heels of Microsoft announcing it will open its first U.S.-based innovation center in Miami.

Wrote the Miami Herald of eMerge: "If Medina's vision is fulfilled, eMerge Americas Techweek will grow into a South by Southwest-style annual event with Latin flair." South By Southwest is the annual and hugely hip gathering on innovation, technology, entrepreneurs and creativity that routinely draws about 70,000 to Austin, Texas.

Not to pooh-pooh Tampa Bay's ambitions. They are commendable and, if anything, should be vigorously multiplied. But there are some lessons in Miami's rapid pursuit of becoming a tech hub.

First, Miami already boasts a global brand as a Latin gateway, tropical urban center, fast-lane lifestyle and the dumping ground of Latin American flight capital (look at those pricey condos going up — again) that's always looking for viable investments.

Second, Medina — who sold his Terremark data services company in 2012 to Verizon Communications for $1.4 billion — stepped up to lead this effort with the street cred of a local entrepreneur who has hit it big. Tampa Bay's still looking for that tier of successful individuals.

And third, Miami's focusing a lot of its tech/startup firepower on one event imposing enough to get national media attention. Tampa Bay's startup efforts remain spread among its multiple counties, cities, universities and incubators. It still seeks critical mass.

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

Rising competition: It's time Tampa Bay intensifies its startup culture 05/14/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 14, 2014 7:38pm]

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