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Startups migrate to TEC Garage incubator, drawn by rising 'cool' factor in downtown St. Petersburg

Jerry and Mary-Jo Robinson ran a Central Avenue marketing firm in St. Petersburg before deciding to found a startup called HubCentrix aimed at helping companies better manage their files online.

Monica Stynchula launched ReunionCare to help families better manage home care for aging parents.

Fran Snyder created Listening Room Festival to help build a new market for up-and-coming musicians by booking gigs in people's homes and in corporate offices.

These entrepreneurs and others are busy building their startups inside the new space known as the TEC Garage. The business incubator officially debuts 24/7 in an Oct. 22 open house in St. Petersburg.

Eventually, TEC Garage — which leases 6,000 square feet of space once occupied by the now-closed Florida International Museum — will provide working space and mentoring services to dozens of entrepreneurs drawn by the incubator's cool look (think Starbucks on steroids, with a full kitchen and conference rooms). Adding to this draw are the incubator's growing ties to its St. Petersburg College landlord and the solid track record of those running TEC Garage.

Tonya Elmore for years ran the Tampa Bay Innovation Center and Star Technology Enterprise Center incubator in Largo. After launching TEC Garage, she has relocated her team there. The Largo incubator, launched in 2004 with federal funds inside a former Department of Energy plant that made parts for nuclear weapons, will wind down and may be put up for sale by Pinellas County.

On a tour of TEC Garage, at 244 Second Ave. N, Elmore said the timing of coming to downtown St. Petersburg is just right. A former downtown condo resident, she knows firsthand how sleepy the city one was. No more.

"There is a 'cool to be downtown' trend," Elmore said, a theme echoed by the startups in place at the incubator. ReunionCare's Stynchula said she is selling her home in Tampa and relocating to be closer to downtown St. Petersburg and her incubator space.

It's all about momentum. Interest in TEC Garage was primed by the city and area chamber of commerce's efforts to promote the nearby "Greenhouse" business counseling center and its weekly "1 Million Cups of Coffee" entrepreneurial presentations. The Greenhouse was sparked in turn by the larger millennial generation's enthusiasm for starting their own businesses and a downtown buzz generated by the success of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg's College of Business focus on teaching entrepreneurial skills.

Not that this will end with TEC Garage. Elmore's nonprofit team, backed by the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership and other business groups, has won city approval to build a much larger, more sophisticated business incubator south of downtown.

The facility, to rise on a city-owned 2.5-acre site at Fourth Street and 11th Avenue S, will provide 40,000 square feet to house medical and marine science entrepreneurs.

What's the attraction downtown? Says Clearwater transplant, marketing guru and TEC Garage entrepreneur Darin Dugenske of HD Group Enterprises: "The energy is buzzing."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

Startups migrate to TEC Garage incubator, drawn by rising 'cool' factor in downtown St. Petersburg 10/15/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, October 15, 2014 8:26pm]
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