1. News
  2. /
  3. Business

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]
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]
Published Feb. 12
Updated Feb. 12

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]


  1. A pair of wood storks, left, and a large group of white ibis rest and feed in a wetland area off Loop Road in the Big Cypress National Preserve. Florida is home to more wetlands than any other state except Alaska. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2008)]
  2. People fill Community Cafe as drag queen Viktoria Sommers reads a Dr. Seuss book to children during Drag Queen Story Hour.  [Times (2019)]
  3. Tampa Electric Co. announced plans to double its solar capacity over the next three years.  Pictured is a Tampa Electric worker installing a solar panel on the roof of the Tampa International Airport economy parking garage in 2015. [James Borchuck | Times (2015)]
  4. Wawa and Coppertail partnered to create a craft beer that will only be at the gas station's Florida locations.
  5. The Publix at Channelside (pictured) opened in late August. Now the new store at Westshore in Tampa will open later this month. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
  6. Brian Davison is chief executive officer of Equialt, which bought this Safety Harbor home in a tax deed sale. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission contends in a new lawsuit that EquiAlt is a Ponzi scheme, and Davison has diverted investor funds for his own lavish personal spending. Times (2015)
  7. Daily recreations like this Bible scene at the Holy Land Experience in Orlando will end at the Christian theme park, which has been suffering from low attendance and debt for years.
  8. Madico spent $40 million developing its new corporate headquarters and factory on Belcher Road in Pinellas Park. [Amy Pezzicara | Pezz Photo]
  9. The developers of Avalon Park West in Wesley Chapel are planning a $736 million downtown core to accompany nearly 2,700 residences and 355,000 square feet of commercial and office space in a walkable neighborhood. . As part of the deal, Pasco County will consider kicking  in a $33 million 30-year incentive, mostly a tax rebate to help with infrastructure costs.
  10. Pasco County commissioners introduced an ordinance Tuesday governing upkeep of empty property after residents complained about the condition of the Links Golf Club in Hudson, which closed in June 2019.
  11. In this Aug. 8, 2015, file photo former owner of the San Francisco 49ers Edward DeBartolo, Jr., is interviewed before the Pro Football Hall of Fame ceremony at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. President Donald Trump pardoned DeBartolo, who was convicted in gambling fraud scandal. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
  12. Outback Steakhouse at 4302 W. Boy Scout Blvd. near International Plaza and Bay Street. [Monique Welch | Times]