Sunday, April 22, 2018
Business

Trigaux: Tampa Bay's rising tech scene helps secure nonstop San Francisco flight

Legendary crooner Tony Bennett can still leave his heart in San Francisco. But Tampa Bay startups may soon find both vital California venture capital funding and collaboration with Silicon Valley are about to get easier for young companies here.

The reason, of course, is Tampa International Airport's announcement Monday that its long quest to win a nonstop flight from Tampa to San Francisco has been achieved. United Airlines starts daily service on the new route next year on Feb. 16.

United says it is launching this flight because the airline recognizes Tampa Bay's technology community is growing quickly and needs to be better connected with Silicon Valley.

A decade ago, it was a widely cited woe here that busy Silicon Valley venture capitalists (VC) looking for fresh companies to invest in would never visit any U.S. city not reachable by a nonstop flight. That left one-stop Tampa Bay on the outs for years and made that "one-flight" VC lamentation part of this area's entrepreneurial culture.

Today, VC funding of Tampa Bay companies is improved, if still lean. Nor does a nonstop flight to San Francisco mean VC funding is about to flood this market. While Orlando has enjoyed nonstop flights to San Francisco on United and Frontier for some time, its startup community is not flush with VC money.

Still, veteran entrepreneurs and leaders in the Tampa Bay startup community (including many who once worked in Silicon Valley) offered up plenty of reasons to feel positive about the coming San Francisco connection.

"As a former resident and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley prior to coming to USF, the ability to have a direct flight is a strong step in the right direction to building opportunities not only for investment in our community but also for stronger collaborations and partnerships with San Francisco-based companies, both early-phase as well as established companies," says Michael Fountain, director of the University of South Florida Center for Entrepreneurship. "Let's hope that these flights will be heavily used in both directions."

At the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, this area's tech advocacy group, CEO Daniel James Scott cites several wins from the new flight, including the ability for this area to attract more talent from San Francisco. Over the last five years, he told Times business writer Justine Griffin, San Francisco's tech employment grew 61.5 percent, but the cost of living there also grew 53 percent. In Tampa Bay, tech employment grew 50.9 percent, while the cost of living increased only 24 percent.

"As workers become increasingly remote" — meaning they can more easily choose where they want to work from geographically — "and Tampa Bay's growth and accessibility increase, we are in a solid position to attract talent by removing this barrier," Scott says.

Tampa's ReliaQuest, a young and fast-growing IT security business, recently attracted $30 million in venture capital. CEO Brian Murphy says a nonstop flight to San Francisco offers all sorts of benefits, from more efficient trips to his own company's California office to broader exchanges between USF, University of Tampa and TBTF expertise and the northern California tech community.

"The more people start to visit Tampa from California, the more likely we may see some of them understand why being headquartered here is a great thing," says Murphy. "And we are happy to invite them to relocate."

That very sentiment — Tampa Bay's good lifestyle at lower cost — is echoed by Brent Britton, a Tampa lawyer for a San Francisco law firm and a high-profile leader here in the tech community. "The Tampa Bay region may not yet have evolved into a Silicon Valley-style technology hub," Britton says. "But now, with this direct flight, we have been ordained as a shiny new spoke."

Serial entrepreneur and area startup adviser Joy Randels praises the nonstop connection, saying it "eliminates the all-day travel excuse" for venture capitalists out west and "puts us on par with Boston and NYC as well as Miami for travel time." Local tech companies also gain easier access to the West Coast for customer acquisition and partnership opportunities — key factors, she says, to help companies here grow and then stay here.

"We have an incomplete cycle here," says Randels. "To build a great startup ecosystem requires companies at all stages, combined with great engineering and design talent as well as capital. You have to be able to start a company and have it move through growth to acquisition."

The nonstop San Francisco flight is no cure-all. But Randels' vision is more likely to materialize as Tampa Bay and Silicon Valley/San Francisco start to enjoy easier access with one another. A TBTF survey released last week found that the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metro area is home to one out of every 94 U.S. tech workers.

"Tampa is fast becoming a center for technology," United Airlines managing director of domestic planning Jim Ferea told the Times on Monday. "And we wanted to connect the city with the largest city for technology."

That's the kind of music to Tampa Bay's ears even Tony Bennett would like.

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

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