TAMPA — Surgical training company Immertec won the $100,000 prize Wednesday night in an eight-company competition that capped a daylong visit to the Tampa Bay area's startup community by billionaire investor Steve Case's Rise of the Rest tour.
Based in Tampa, Immertec has patented virtual reality software that allows doctors to learn new procedures remotely and in real time by being able to look over the shoulder of a surgeon at work in 3-D.
"The process of training physicians is difficult and inefficient, and it ultimately limits the adoption of medical innovations," Immertec chief executive officer Erik Maltais told several hundred innovators, investors and supporters of the bay area's start-up community during the pitch competition. By not forcing doctors to travel to receive their training, he said Immertec makes training faster and easier, improving patient care.
"Why here?" Maltais said, posing a question that start-up founders often get from potential investors. "We love Publix subs, not shoveling snow, wearing sandals and shorts to work."
But the question of the day was less "Why here?" and more "Why not here?"
The Rise of the Rest Tour, organized by Washington D.C.-based investment firm Revolution, seeks to highlight, encourage and support startups growing outside the venture capital hothouses of Silicon Valley and Boston. The hard reality, Case said, is that entrepreneurs, ideas, creativity and possibility can be found everywhere, but opportunity is distributed unevenly.
"Over 75 percent of venture capital in this country goes to three states — California, New York and Massachusetts — (while) Florida, the third-largest state gets less than 2 percent," said Case, who went from founding America Online to founding Revolution and its $150 million Rise of the Rest Seed Fund.
"We're trying to level the playing field for entrepreneurship in America," he said, "so that everybody everywhere feels like they have a shot at the American dream, and every community is growing because startups are the main source of job growth."
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The Tampa Bay area was the 41st stop on the Rise of the Rest tour, which started in 2014 in Detroit. Along the way, the fund has invested in 120 companies in 65 cities in 35 states. One of the first, a Detroit company called StockX, is poised to close on a new round of investment that will put its valuation at nearly $1 billion. The bay area was the third stop on the latest Rise of the Rest tour, which visited Orlando and the Space Coast Monday and Tuesday, and is headed to Miami and San Juan, Puerto Rico Thursday and Friday.
"This is a good day for our region," said J.P. DuBuque, president of the nonprofit Greater St. Petersburg Area Economic Development Corp. "It's all about visibility. ... Hopefully, we'll get visibility for some of our companies, and they'll grow and add jobs, generate revenue and build into great companies here."
The Rise of the Rest fund's backers include Clearwater native and Spanx founder Sara Blakely and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, plus a Who's Who of entrepreneurship royalty, including Amazon's Jeff Bezos, former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, former eBay and Hewlett-Packard CEO Meg Whitman, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
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The tour's first stop Wednesday morning was the Penny Hoarder, the fast-growing personal finance website that provides news-you-can-use content on debt, credit, home-buying, careers and jobs on the side to 12 million or more online readers a month. Started as an anonymous blog by Kyle Taylor — he once was so ashamed of his $50,000 in student and credit card debt that he hid his phone so that friends wouldn't see calls from debt collectors — it has grown into a company with 60 employees and, as of 2017, $35 million in revenue.
"It's a great example of what we're trying to spotlight with Rise of the Rest," Case said. "It shows you that a great entrepreneur with the great idea really can, more and more, build it anywhere."
From there, the tour visited the InsideOut sales innovation lab, AbleNook, an Ybor City company that builds easy-to-ship, easy-to-assemble small dwellings that can be used in disaster relief, U.S. Special Operations Command's SOFWERX incubator in Ybor City and Vinik's Embarc Collective innovation hub near Amalie Arena.
During Wednesday night's pitch competition at the offices of ConnectWise, a panel that included Case and Vinik heard pitches from Immertec and seven other local startups:
• COI Energy Services, which connects utilities and businesses to drive energy efficiency in buildings and optimize the electric grid.
• GuestBox, which creates curated boxes of high-end and eco-conscious items for the hospitality industry.
• Pocket Network, a platform that makes it easy for software developers to access any blockchain.
• Presence, which makes student engagement and learning software aimed at helping universities improve graduation rates, student success and workforce readiness.
• RankMiner, a patented artificial intelligence platform that analyzes a speaker's voice predict what a speaker is likely to do, giving call centers vital information they can use to improve operations, increase revenue and reduce employee turnover.
• The Natural Nipple, which was designed by two University of South Florida doctoral students to provide seamless, stress-free breast- and bottle-feeding via a bottle that mimics a real mom's shape, feel and flow.
• WorldWatch Plus, which aggregates and indexes information that governments, nonprofit organizations and media companies generate about companies and people, then delivers that information to clients.
Contact Richard Danielson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times