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Synapse Summit grows with the Tampa Bay startups it champions

The event, now in its third year, attracted more than 7,200 to Amalie Arena this week.
Jeff Bulloch with Exiom Inc. talks on Wednesday with visitors to his booth interested in Exiom's 3D-printed casts, splints and braces at the Synapse Summit at Amalie Arena in Tampa. MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

TAMPA — Just five minutes into this week’s Synapse Summit, an expert on cryptocurrencies wanted to gauge how knowledgeable the crowd was about the topic.

“How many people here own some sort of cryptocurrency? Bitcoin or something else?” Washington D.C. attorney Carol Van Cleef asked the 100 or so people listening to the panel. Happy to see about half the hands go up, she said, “these audiences are getting better all the time.”

And there’s a snapshot of the goals of the Synapse Summit in action: a local startup scene that’s growing and learning, with everyone talking to everyone else. This year’s summit drew more than 7,200 registered participants to Amalie Arena for two days of meeting, exploring, networking, and, many hope, deal-making.

“This is where companies come to plug into Florida’s innovation ecosystem to connect with partners and talent and customers and investors,” said Marc Blumenthal, a partner in Florida Funders, an early stage investment firm, and one of co-founders of the summit.

The event drew about 60 percent of its participants from the bay area, another 30 percent from elsewhere in Florida and 10 percent from outside the state, with many from cities like Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and a few from as far away as Albania and Brazil.

Saivamsi Hanumanthu (left) and Pairris Jones, with Florida Polytechnic University, speak with an attendee at the Synapse Summit at Amalie Arena on Wednesday. MARTHA ASCENCIO RHINE | Times [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

More than 320 exhibitors showed off their ideas, technology and business models, and 300 speakers discussed a huge range of topics: cybersecurity, health care innovation, attracting talent, opportunities in Latin America, 5G, block chain, raising capital, artificial intelligence and the business of cannabis.

The summit grew out of a realization, backed by University of Tampa research, that the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem needed more inter-connection, stronger leadership, less duplication of effort and startup-savvy investors.

Related: The research: Tampa Bay's entrepreneurial scene is still young and could use a boost

In 2017, 600 people attended a precursor event to the summit at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina (now the Tampa Marriott Water Street). The first summit under the Synapse name moved to the arena the following year and attracted a crowd of 3,300. Last year, the event grew to 5,500.

On Wednesday, the second day, there was an emphasis on growing women’s involvement in entrepreneurship. The recently opened Embarc Collective innovation hub and the nonprofit Tampa Bay Wave announced that JPMorgan Chase is giving $500,000 over two years to increase training and access to capital opportunities for women-owned technology startups in the bay area..

Spanx founder Sara Blakely talked about how her lifelong desire to elevate women initially distilled itself into the idea of cutting the feet off a pair of pantyhose so that she could wear a favorite pair of cream-colored pants with open shoes, which led to lines of undergarments, active wear and other products for both women and men.

Keynote speaker and Spanx creator Sara Blakely speaks at the Synapse Summit at Amalie Arena on Wednesday in Tampa. MARTHA ASCENCIO RHINE | Times [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]

“The best compliment I can receive is when someone says, ‘You guys created something I didn’t know I needed, but now I can’t live without,’ ” said Blakely, 48, who grew up on Clearwater Beach and was named by Forbes in 2012 as the world’s youngest self-made female billionaire. “One of the things I always say is sell the problem you’re solving, not the product.”

For the co-founders of SoleVenture, a St. Petersburg-based startup that launched at the summit, the problem to be solved was providing an all-in-one platform to help the fast-growing number of freelancers set up their businesses, line up work, invoice those who hire them, track their money, save to pay their taxes and secure benefits like health insurance.

“I said, this is going to be half the U.S. workforce by 2028. How is there not a business doing this?” said SoleVenture co-founder and chief executive officer Eve Epstein.

Epstein and SoleVenture’s other co-founder, Robyn Rusignuolo, attended last year’s Synapse Summit together while working for another company. At the time, they had kernels of ideas about new businesses, but nothing like a plan to go into business together.

“Synapse was the catalyst for our decision,” Rusignuolo said. “This is exciting that we have this in Tampa Bay. I didn’t know that this existed here. Coming here — the energy, the entrepreneurial spirit, the fact that there are 5,000 people coming together in this ecosystem to showcase innovation and entrepreneurship — it was really inspiring.”

The crowd at the Synapse Summit listens to Spanx creator Sara Blakely at Amalie Arena in Tampa Wednesday. MARTHA ASCENCIO RHINE | Times [MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times]