Synapse Summit seeks to knit together a growing Tampa Bay startup community

About 600 people attended three years ago. Last year, 3,300 came. This year, the crowd topped 5,500, turning Amalie Arena into an anthill of tech and entrepreneurship.
Published Jan. 24, 2019

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay area's tech startup scene is like an anthill: It's busy, but a lot happens out of sight, and even some of the hardest workers don't have a good view of the big picture.

That's why more than 5,500 entrepreneurs, startup founders, investors and assorted techies converged on Amalie Arena Wednesday and Thursday for the second annual Synapse Summit.

"One of the things that we're trying to do is spread the news of the good things that are already happening here," said Brian Kornfeld, president and co-founder of Synapse Florida, a nonprofit organization created by entrepreneurs to build connections within the state's network of private-sector innovators and investors.

The concourses around the arena were set up with more than 300 exhibitors with new products or ventures in health care, virtual reality, block chain technology, artificial intelligence, cybersecurity and financial technology. More than 80 breakout sessions covered everything from tips for working with NASA to e-sports to secrets of successful female entrepreneurs.

About 50 to 60 percent of the summit's registered participants came from around the Tampa Bay area, Kornfeld said. Another 20 to 30 percent were from other parts of Florida and the remainder came from outside the state, including a handful who traveled from Canada, Brazil and Europe.

Two years ago, a forerunner of the summit drew 600 participants. Last year, the first year under Synapse sponsorship, it saw a crowd of about 3,300.

LAST YEAR: 'Faster, more accurate, more reliable connections'

"If we're going to get where we need to be as a state — where we need to be as a city — we've got to have 10,000 people at this event in three years," Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik told a crowd of accredited investors over lunch on Thursday. He is investing $10 million to create Embarc Collective, a Tampa-based nonprofit technology support organization.

"On the investor side, there is a ton of money in Florida," Vinik said, but a lot of it was made by people in finance or real estate, or people who had businesses somewhere else and retired here.

"Florida is not full of people who speak the language of venture and entrepreneurialism and startups and growth," Vinik said. "It's up to us. We are all evangelizers. It's not only about having great companies and capital. … It is about growing this movement, because it's an important movement for the state."

As part of that effort, the nonprofit Institute for Commercialization of Florida Technology is partnering with Florida Funders, a Tampa firm that invests in startups and is a main organizer of Synapse Florida and the summit, to manage the institute's $22 million portfolio of more than 60 startup companies from around Florida.

"These are companies that have received either loan or investment funding from the institute," said Reneé Finley, who chairs the institute's board. "Now (Florida Funders) will help to grow that portfolio, bringing in additional follow-on investment for those companies to continue their growth."

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BACKGROUND: Tampa Bay's entrepreneurial ecosystem? It's young and could use a boost, University of Tampa study says

This week was a first appearance at the summit for Immertec, a nine-employee Tampa company whose software allows medical device companies to train doctors remotely in real time by putting users in a distant operating room in 3-D, where they can look over the shoulder of a surgeon at work.

It was worth it, said Immertec co-founder and CEO Erik Maltais, whose company initially struggled to find backers in the Tampa Bay area but does not want to move to a more established tech stronghold like San Francisco.

"We made a lot of connections," had productive conversations with big players in virtual reality and met "a lot of people interested in investing from this event," he said.

"This ecosystem has had a lot of talented companies like (Tampa business software company) ConnectWise," but is "missing the glue" that holds a community together, Maltais said. "Embarc Collective, Tampa Bay Wave, the Synapse Summit — these are the types of events that are that glue."

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Times photographer Brontë Wittpenn contributed to this report. Contact Richard Danielson at or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times.