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Hooper: Startups ignite Tampa Bay's entrepreneurial energy

Taylor Mitcham, owner/operator of SkyNinja, a company that uses drones for such services as inspecting cellphone towers, pitched her story to a media panel during a Feb. 12 "Pitch the Press" event at Tampa Bay Startup Week. BRIAN BLANCO | Special to the Times.
Taylor Mitcham, owner/operator of SkyNinja, a company that uses drones for such services as inspecting cellphone towers, pitched her story to a media panel during a Feb. 12 "Pitch the Press" event at Tampa Bay Startup Week. BRIAN BLANCO | Special to the Times.
Published Feb. 15, 2018

The savvy inquisitor would have asked about capitalization, profit margins and production costs.

The business professor might have questioned the projections and viability. The venture capitalist would have demanded ROI data.

Me? I had a simpler question.

Why Tampa Bay?

As part of a media panel, I got to hear elevator speeches during Tampa Bay Startup Week's "Pitch the Press" event at CAVU event space in Tampa Heights. Armed with innovation and energy, the group did not disappoint.

But the fact they chose here to begin their quest surprised and impressed me more than the interesting ideas and rising success of their startups.

Taylor Mitcham is the owner/operator of SkyNinja, a company that uses drones for such services as inspecting cellphone towers. When she decided to relocate out of Philadelphia, Florida's weather undoubtedly proved enticing.

Mitcham, however, said she employed spreadsheets and delved into research to guide her choice. Among the cities she considered: San Antonio, Texas. But Tampa's startup ecosystem, chocked full of supportive events, captured her attention.

"Tampa also appears to be growing more than San Antonio and has a higher GDP (almost double) than San Antonio," Mitcham said. "I found more articles and content about the investment and construction in Tampa Bay versus San Antonio.

"The minority and small business development initiatives were also a nice bonus that also helped me realize that Tampa Bay was the right move for me. Plus, it doesn't hurt that there are beaches close by."

Nick Indellicati grew up on a Palm Beach County livestock ranch and also worked in his parents' restaurants. The childhood memories of fresh ingredients and healthy living led him to found CATI, a company that can deliver balanced, prepared meals to your door.

But he didn't leave Gainesville, where he launched his company at the University of Florida and return to Palm Beach. He came to Tampa, again drawn by a startup-friendly environment.

"Tampa Bay has become such an icon within the startup community," Indellicati said. "If you're hardworking, passionate and genuine, all you have left to do is open yourself up to the community — and jackpot."

Ditto for Samyr Qureshi. As the co-founder and CEO of Knack, which provides peer to peer tutoring at many major colleges, he's guiding a company ranked by Inc. Magazine as one of the nation's top 30 emerging companies.

Qureshi's company also started at a UF incubator in Gainesville. When he looked for a new home, he landed here.

Sure, Qureshi grew up in Palm Harbor and graduated from East Lake High, but the decision to return to Tampa Bay involved more than being close to home.

"We feel in the early stages of building a business, there's a huge benefit to keeping focus and building your product in a less crowded/competitive environment," Qureshi said. "Tampa is low-cost, an attractive place for young talent and in our opinion, the city provides a great quality of life.

"Thus, in the short-term, it made more sense to keep our costs low, recruit talent in a less-saturated city, and to be near our users to better our offering."

The "Pitch the Press" event comprised just one of several Tampa Bay Startup Week events I attended along Franklin Street in Tampa Heights.

Overall, the buzz in the crowd, the promise offered by the entrepreneurs, the sheer volume of the hopeful attendees — an estimated 4,000 entrepreneurs, twice as many as last year, participated in events on both sides of the bay this week — all illustrated that something special is happening.

Here. In Tampa Bay.

And we have reason to look for more greatness. Stage 1 Ventures' Jon Gordon has organized a $10 million seed fund for Tampa Bay WaVE that will be primarily funded by investors throughout the Tampa Bay community. Jeff Vinik plans a new innovation hub for Water Street.

Such efforts will breed success, spur civic pride and create a contagious can-do attitude. Just listening to the pitches and walking through the showcase spurred my own thoughts of starting a business, and I have as much entrepreneurial courage as a gnat.

Some day, these upstart business folks might hit the big time and flee to Silicon Valley or Austin or some other hub they envision as more viable. Or maybe they will never reach the highest of heights and return to working for someone else.

But that they chose to launch their hopes and dreams in our town leads me to believe we're poised to make our mark. Let's spread our arms wide and welcome their ingenuity, energy and entrepreneurial spirit.

Let's help them get it done.

That's all I'm saying.

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