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Executives map out Tampa incubator

The fast-moving downtown facility will complement a similar one planned for the University of South Florida.

Saying they've raised almost $100,000 in seed money in two weeks, a group of area executives plan to open a downtown Tampa incubator for technology companies this summer.

A 10,000-square-foot facility on the University of Tampa campus would have space for as many as 10 start-ups, the group said Monday.

The idea: provide cheap office space for entrepreneurs along with advice donated by lawyers, accountants and technology consultants.

The news is a major step forward for the Tampa Bay area, which has lagged metro areas such as Orlando, Atlanta and Raleigh, N.C., in helping technology companies get started.

What's surprising is how fast the idea is moving from concept to reality. In the two weeks since it first met, the 41-member task force behind the non-profit project has gotten contributions from law firms Foley & Lardner and Holland & Knight, entrepreneur John Kang and the Bay4 venture capital firm.

Its leaders, Foley & Lardner lawyer Marty Traber and PricewaterhouseCoopers consultant Marty Donsky, also have convinced Sykes Enterprises Inc. to donate technology equipment and have signed up two area executives to help with fundraising.

"This has happened amazingly fast," Traber said.

The downtown incubator will complement a similar facility planned for the University of South Florida, officials said, since the USF incubator would be aimed more at individuals and companies that have connections to the university.

"The key is for us to work together and steer a company to the right place, whether it's USF, downtown Tampa or even Orlando, say, if they are in optoelectronics," Traber said.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce took the lead in assembling the task force, responding to criticisms that it's clueless in fostering technology.

"We know this is the way to get more headquarters here," new chamber president Kim Scheeler said. "You have to grow your own."

Despite the optimistic talk, the project faces major challenges if it is to open within 60 days as the executives hope.

The $100,000 is a start, but Donsky estimates an incubator costs $250,000 to $500,000 a year to run. Much of that goes to staff: The plan is to hire a director who would help screen applicants, raise money and work out office logistics.

Then, once the facility gets started, it will need to breed success stories it can tout as it works to get more applicants and more donations. Officials hope it could grow over time, perhaps to as much as 50,000 square feet.

University of Tampa officials say they plan to give the project temporary space for up to two years. Then the project's leaders would need to figure out where to put a permanent facility.

"The goal is to have it privately funded because we want funding to be consistent, not depending on government grants," Traber said.

Traber will run fundraising efforts along with Huntington James and Charlotte Baker.

James, the son of Raymond James Financial Inc. chief Tom James, runs a Tampa company called Fun Holdings, which helps developing companies get started. One of his partners in that company is Baker, a former executive of 2nd Century Communications, one of the area's biggest success stories.

Traber and Donsky realize this may seem an odd time to talk about starting new technology companies as Wall Street hammers cash-starved dot-coms.

"This is not about dot-coms," Traber said. "The companies we want would have real opportunities to make money. It might be software that helps a hospital run an operating room. Or something that helps you schedule on your Palm (organizer)."

By setting up the incubator as non-profit, Donsky said the focus can be on getting quality start-ups, not just on fundraising and making money.

The next challenges are setting up a screening committee for applicants and finding a director.

Meanwhile, Traber and Donsky will be asking companies to donate their time so entrepreneurs can get help writing business plans, tweaking their products and figuring out how to grow.

"We think people will line up for that," Donsky said. "This is a way for successful companies to give back to the community. It's kind of like the United Way for the 21st century."

The facility will charge rent below the market rate, adjusted based on the company's ability to pay. For instance, a company could pay more as it starts making money.

Also, a company would give up 1 percent of its equity, which could pay off for the incubator if some of the companies are major successes. The plan is for successful companies to move out within two or three years.

And if a tenant isn't successful?

"We'll have to be aggressive in kicking people out, say after six months, if it's not working for them," Donsky said. "To be successful, the idea for this is you are always creating room for new people."

_ Kyle Parks can be reached at parkssptimes.com or (813) 226-3405.

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