Saturday, May 26, 2018
Business

Tampa Bay wins rare chance to assess health of its emerging start-up scene

Is Tampa Bay doing a good job of supporting entrepreneurship and innovative business start-ups? A new effort may shed some critical light on how the regional "entrepreneurial ecosystem" works and whether there are some key gaps that need attention.

A well-regarded Kansas City think tank for entrepreneurship, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, is providing a $150,000 grant to the University of Tampa and a group of academic experts in entrepreneurship to assess Tampa Bay's start-up environment and better identify what's driving entrepreneurship here rather than in more established regions.

"For many years the gold standard was Silicon Valley and communities tried to emulate what they saw there and on Boston's Route 128," says Rebecca White, the University of Tampa's entrepreneurship expert who will head the research effort. "More recently there has been a shift and a greater interest in understanding communities of entrepreneurs outside of these traditional areas and a focus on what is making more mainstream cities interesting from an entrepreneur's perspective."

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The grant's goal, says White, is to create a model to "better understand and evaluate the health of entrepreneurial ecosystems in any city." The University of Tampa will issue an annual report on the "health of the entrepreneurial ecosystem" based on the grant's efforts.

It all sounds professorial and dry. But the grant offers an unusual opportunity to step back and critically review Tampa Bay's start-up culture. The so-called entrepreneurial ecosystem here has evolved quickly if haphazardly in the past decade with literally hundreds of business start-ups launched, many of them technology related. Most have failed for lack of money or quality of idea or lack of drive — as is the norm with all start-ups. But many others are still emerging, growing and refining their business plans, seeking venture capital, and adding jobs to the area economy.

That last benefit — jobs — is of particular regional economic significance since Tampa Bay, like most of Florida and many other states, depends excessively on growing by trying to recruit businesses based elsewhere to expand or relocate here with the lure of financial incentives. Leaders in the entrepreneurial community here argue that if incentives must be used at all, then share some of those resources to encourage local start-ups. That debate is just starting.

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At the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, this area's chief tech advocacy group, executive director Daniel James Scott says he is "most excited" by the study's potential because "almost all of the conversation around entrepreneurial ecosystems has been driven by anecdote." This study may offer a more quantitative view, says Scott, a veteran of the area start-up scene.

Dissecting the ecosystem to look at what works well and not so well should help this region understand how its limited resources might be best put to use. The ecosystem here is loosely defined but is a complex mix of veteran entrepreneurs and mentors, university programs that teach elements of entrepreneurship, business incubators and accelerators designed to nurture start-ups, angel investor groups willing help fund early start-ups, and dozens of formal and informal groups with names like Startup Weekend, Startup Grind, Startup Bus, Tampa Hackathon and 1 Million Cups of Coffee. And that's just scratching the surface.

Lots of very smart, very driven and, yes, very opinionated individuals help make up the Tampa Bay entrepreneurial ecosystem. But few if any folks have a broad grasp of what's making it tick — or where it really stands in the much broader entrepreneurial revolution.

Scott hopes that along with the focus on governmental and policy aspects, the effort can also look at Tampa Bay's access to venture capital and talent, private infrastructure support and finding ways to identify which entrepreneurial ventures here are most aligned for success.

In addition to White, director of UT's Lowth Entrepreneurship Center, the academic team includes University of South Florida assistant professor of entrepreneurship Diana Hechavarria, as well as researchers representing the London School of Economics and George Mason University, Indiana University and Lund University in Sweden.

Almost by definition, entrepreneurship is meant to defy convention and try something new. So assessing it will be a challenge. But an important one.

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

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