LARGO — The Tampa Bay Innovation Center resembles some of the very startup businesses it tries to nurture.
It's relatively young (spinning off from the research group Concurrent Technologies Corp. a year ago); it's trying to build a new brand name; it's lean; and it's brimming with ideas.
The innovation center is part business incubator, but greater part business accelerator for ideas that have already hatched. It wants to become the go-to place for budding entrepreneurs seeking expert advice, space and tools to bring their products or services to the broader marketplace.
Tonya Elmore, who leads the center and led its predecessor, STAR Technology Enterprise Center (known as StarTec), said the mission has stayed the same: to accelerate entrepreneurial success.
"It's really our vision that's changed," she said. "Our vision now is to become the focal point for innovation and early-stage entrepreneurship throughout the region."
Admittedly, she's starting modestly. The old StarTec had 13 employees. Elmore began the Innovation Center with just two workers, including herself. The operation is now up to four employees and Elmore is about to hire the fifth, a program manager.
Elmore and center manager Danielle Weitlauf recently discussed their game plan.
Why the name change?
Elmore: A couple of reasons. One, it better encompasses all the programs and services we provide. And, the biggest reason, is everyone thought that the Young-Rainey Star Center and StarTec were the same entity, and we're not. We're just a tenant of the Star Center, and I always have to explain that.
How did you evolve?
Elmore: At the beginning, we were formed as a second-tier affiliate out of a larger corporation (Concurrent Technologies). We were fortunate enough to get some funding to work with SoCom (U.S. Special Operations Command), so there was always some federal dollars.
What happened was the last agencies we got funding to do research for … wouldn't allow us to fund what I really wanted to do, which was work with the kind of businesses we had at StarTec.
At that point, we made an agreement with the parent company. They were best off doing those (research) contracts. I would continue doing what I wanted to do, which was work with StarTec. That was another reason for the rebranding.
You want to become a focal point for entrepreneurs. Is there a shortfall in networking now that people can't find you?
Elmore: Our new website (tbinnovates.com) does a better job at describing the services and programs we offer than we had in the past. That's really going to help with that. We're getting a lot of requests now to put events related to innovation and entrepreneurship on our website. That's the whole point of what Danielle is doing with grass root efforts.
Grass root efforts, such as?
Weitlauf: One of the first things we did was to start this new venture called StartUp Xchange It's once a month at different locations throughout Tampa Bay. A couple of our mentors are available for about two hours for anyone with a startup question. It's usually at a bar or restaurant. Anyone can come in, sit down at a table. There's usually two or three entrepreneurs with each mentor. … So it's drumming up that culture and stirring it up a little bit.
Elmore: We didn't come up with it, though.
Weitlauf: No, we researched some other areas — Boston, Atlanta, Austin — places with a strong entrepreneurial environment. They told us what had worked through their trial process and what hadn't.
Beyond Facebook, this was our first real dive into social media. We set up a meetup page on meetup.com and had about 60 followers in the first three months.
Elmore: We've had everyone from principal field investigators from Moffitt to someone who needed help funding a simple manufacturing product. It runs the gamut.
What about other new programs? How does the Launch Lab work?
Weitlauf: Launch Lab is a very affordable way for somebody with an idea to come into a space that has materials, a research database, an environment that is conducive to expanding on their idea. It is shared, co-working (space) so it's similar to going to a Starbucks working alongside somebody working on a totally different idea, yet building on that energy.
Except you don't have to pay for coffee refills?
Weitlauf: Exactly. There's free coffee, that's part of it. There's a conference room. There's meeting space. There are all sorts of benefits to it. If you break it down to what somebody would probably pay to go to Starbucks, they can come in here and access all these tools and resources.
Elmore: And there's the mentor's corner as well.
Weitlauf: Our mentor's corner is great. It's for our Launch Lab, our incubators, our accelerators. We have mentors who will come in on Fridays and they have appointments with each of the clients interested in that specific area. While our companies have mentors available through their board, this gives them a real direct benefit on HR, sales and strategy, accounting, corporate attorneys.
How many entrepreneurs are you housing here at the center now?
Elmore: Twelve. Out of that, there's two in the working stage, one in the incubator and nine in the accelerators. We've just lined up two more but haven't signed lease agreements with them yet.
So you still have space?
Elmore: Not manufacturing space. But I have some office space, like just about everyone else in the county.
How are you funded?
Elmore: Last year's budget as a not-for-profit ran a little over $700,000 (using primarily a grant from the Pinellas County Industrial Development Authority and fees).
Weitlauf: The authority was established to transition the land and building and assets here at the Star Center (which was created after the Energy Department stopped using the site for military contract work in the 1990s). Any fees and rents that come in from the other tenants here come back to support the authority.
Elmore: Right now, under the Industrial Development Authority, we've got a five-year contract to continue doing what we're doing. Some of the fees we collect go back to offset their investment. And those are not public dollars.
Do you have a stake in the products of companies housed here?
Elmore: Some of them we have equity in; some of them we don't. Our new model is that we do not take equity because the IRS is frowning on not-for-profits taking equity stakes in a for-profit company. We'll evaluate that as we grow and develop.