2016 debuts with better startups, smarter mentoring, rising venture capital interest

Tampa startup Tembo, made up of, from left, Ulixes Hawili, Samantha Taranto, Phil Michaels, Sercan Topcu and Brent Caramanica, uses mobile phone technology to provide early childhood education in the world’s slums.
Tampa startup Tembo, made up of, from left, Ulixes Hawili, Samantha Taranto, Phil Michaels, Sercan Topcu and Brent Caramanica, uses mobile phone technology to provide early childhood education in the world’s slums.
Published Jan. 23, 2016

The Tampa Bay startup community's resolution for the new year must have been to kick into higher gear. From venture capital investing to clever new entrepreneurial ventures, the region is starting to leverage all those earlier years spent building an infrastructure to help sharp, committed people launch — and execute — new business ideas.

The good news is the area startup scene is starting to get more notice from VC firms and from Silicon Valley itself — ground zero for successful entrepreneurs and money. Even Forbes, after casting a wide net and conducting extensive interviews in search of the country's most promising young entrepreneurs, picked the co-founders of a Tampa startup for its Class of 2016 30-Under-30 list. And fresh programs are taking shape in Clearwater and St. Petersburg to spur new momentum and bring more muscle to entrepreneurs as they become greater players in this region's economy. Read on to get just a sampling of what's afoot.

• • •

It's hard to believe Phil Michaels, now 28, came up with the idea for the Tampa startup Tembo only 15 months ago. The idea is to provide quality early childhood education to the slums of the world via mobile phones. Really? Do poor people in slums have mobile phones? Turns out many do, and an increasing number have smartphones, Michaels tells me. The University of Tampa MBA graduate and his team of mostly 20-something UT students and grads have already spent time in Nigeria's slums testing how to deliver early childhood learning. Last September, Tembo ("elephant" in Swahili) entered the annual $1 million Clinton Global Initiative Hult Prize, becoming the only U.S. team to advance to the finals (a Taiwan team eventually won). Forbes magazine, after a series of extensive interviews, picked Tembo's team for its list of the best and brightest young entrepreneurs.

Michaels says he acquired his impatience from growing up in southern New Jersey, where he sold lemonade at soccer games, peddled Pokémon cards and worked as a "bookie" in high school sports. He was a finalist on Shark Tank in season four, he says, but like most finalists never made it to the actual televised show. Last year, he earned both a University of Tampa MBA and a master's degree in marketing. He is polite, well-spoken and obviously determined.

He says Tembo is busy raising $1 million to fund the team's moving back to Africa to fine-tune its educational programs and mobile delivery system before "scaling the business up."

The goal, he says, is "to educate more than 2,000 children and create 100 jobs hiring home educators by the end of year." The educators train the parents so they can teach their own kids, Michaels says. An interesting twist: While the service could have been offered for free, Tembo discovered people saw more value in an educational product they had to pay for to use.

The company expects to make money as parents pay for the program through their mobile phone accounts. The telecommunications provider will split revenues with Tembo.

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So far, Tembo is talking to various potential investors, including Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and is even reaching out to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Tembo has also entered several other startup competitions, including the Venture, a $1 million annual competition for innovative social entrepreneurs backed by whiskey giant Chivas.

As members of 30-Under-30, Tembo now has access to a private app that connects to a network of current and former entrepreneurs offering what Michaels calls a wealth of expertise and idea-sharing.

"Social enterprises (such as Tembo) are starting to get recognition," Michaels says, "even though there's always been a dichotomy between doing good and making money. We are trying to show they can be one and the same."

• • •

Calling itself a one-stop shop for investors to meet promising Florida startup companies, the Florida Venture Forum gathers at downtown St. Petersburg's Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club this week for its annual Florida Venture Capital Conference. The forum is in its 25th year and boasts 600 young Florida companies that have pitched their business ideas to venture capital experts over that period.

This year's event features 18 Florida companies, including seven from Tampa Bay. Florida Venture Forum president Kevin Burgoyne, in an interview, says he sees rising interest in Florida from out-of-state venture capital firms and anticipates a strong turnout at the St. Petersburg event.

"No matter where you go in the state, you see places for entrepreneurs at any stage to go and get the support needed to grow and develop their companies," Burgoyne says. He rattles off some of the key drivers in the Tampa Bay market, from incubators in St. Petersburg to the Tampa Bay WaVE in downtown Tampa, as well as the rise of resources dedicated to entrepreneurship at the University of Tampa and the University of South Florida, among other academic institutions.

Burgoyne sees momentum growing on both sides. "Investors increasingly are moving to Florida or assigning people to cover Florida if they are not based in the state. More out-of-state venture capital firms are willing to travel here," he says. And on the company side, he sees an "increasingly competitive field of applicants" vying to make their pitches to investors at the annual conference.

At the St. Petersburg event, more than a third of the selected companies are local startups.

Largo-based Alakai Defense Systems specializes in laser and electro-optical sensing of explosives, homemade explosives, and improvised explosive devices. CEO Ed Dottery, a West Point graduate with a master's degree in applied physics from Stanford University, says Alakai recently put its first product "into harm's way to protect soldiers" in what he calls a "faraway place."

From Wesley Chapel, CareSync provides software and services for chronic disease management that links nursing facilities with patients, family and caregivers and all providers. The firm is fresh off an $18 million VC investment last year.

St. Petersburg-based InformedDNA taps an independent national network of board-certified genetics specialists to help health plans in the appropriate uses of genetic testing.

Tampa's Lung Institute provides cellular therapies and other forms of regenerative treatment for chronic lung disease.

St. Petersburg's Marxent provides augmented and virtual reality solutions for retailers and manufacturers, and counts Lowe's Home Improvement as a client.

Tampa's Thuzi offers a technology platform that enhances events and services to brands in casual dining, e-commerce and sports teams among other fields.

Tampa's TowerCloud designs, builds and operates fiber optic networks for wireless carriers and other bandwidth intensive carriers.

"As a state," says Burgoyne, "we are doing a better job of telling our own story and shining light on successful Florida companies."

No question. The progress is palpable. There's still much to do.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.