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Robert Trigaux: St. Petersburg will get an incubator, but much more may be coming

A "business incubator" symbolizes a city's commitment to entrepreneurs and building an economy from the ground up.

St. Petersburg lacked one. Until now.

Powered by Pinellas County legislators, notably state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, a $400,000 state grant was approved by the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott to fund the new St. Petersburg Technology Incubator to be located in the city's downtown.

The downtown incubator will focus on helping small businesses in innovative industries already anchored in St. Petersburg. We're talking about the marine sciences niche owned by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and adjacent SRI International. We're also talking about health care organizations that include Bayfront Medical (with its new Shands Hospital affiliation) and the All Children's Hospital that is now part of the powerful Johns Hopkins medical empire.

A downtown incubator also would coincide with the building of a new facility for the USF St. Petersburg College of Business with its emphasis on entrepreneurial studies.

Scouting for a temporary space already has begun. Later, they'll settle on a permanent site of about 40,000 square feet.

The Largo-based Tampa Bay Innovation Center, Pinellas County's chief business incubator, will oversee the state grant and manage the St. Petersburg incubator. And eventually the Largo incubator might also end up in St. Petersburg.

"It's our long-term strategy to be consolidated under one roof," says Tonya Elmore, veteran president of the Largo incubator.

But that scenario is years away. Elmore emphasizes the new St. Petersburg incubator first must get properly funded for the long term and prove itself successful.

And even if the Tampa Bay Innovation Center does move to St. Petersburg, a scaled-down incubator likely would remain in Largo, catering to defense industry startups and those needing manufacturing support.

Downtown St. Petersburg business leaders working with Elmore and Pinellas legislators for the grant to open a St. Petersburg incubator could not be more pleased.

"She is for real," says Peter Betzer, who heads the business group known as St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. "Tonya recognizes the capabilities here and how, once they can all be wired together, we will take off."

"The cool part of Tonya is that people may come in and talk about incubators, but she has been the one to do it," adds St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce CEO Chris Steinocher. "She is proven, so I am high as a kite knowing she is coming to St. Pete."

And if the Tampa Bay Innovation Center relocates later? It's frosting on the cake.

"That's a long-term play," says Steinocher. "In a perfect world, it would be helpful to have something all together."

Downtown Tampa opened its First WaVE incubator earlier this year. Soon it will be St. Petersburg's turn.

Both cities and their business leaders need to make sure they succeed.

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

Robert Trigaux: St. Petersburg will get an incubator, but much more may be coming 05/22/13 [Last modified: Thursday, May 23, 2013 12:12am]
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