Jennifer Whelihan is the manager of the Hillsborough County Economic Development Innovation Initiative (EDI2), which supports startups and private investment through grant funding and other support.
Whelihan sat down with the Tampa Bay Times to discuss how local tech startups have been affected by COVID-19.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How has EDI2 shifted to help startups and small businesses during the pandemic?
The program was created about seven years ago from our county commissioners and our leadership. And as you know, we were moving and grooving, everything has been so wonderful with our Hillsborough County tech and innovation community, (there’s) so much growth, so much opportunity. And then coronavirus happened, and we sort of as a community have experienced this different type of standstill.
So we're seeing a total migration of digital technologies at a totally new scale and speed, pretty much across every sector. So it has been a highlight shone on the tech community of the importance of digital and how it is defining the world of business. We've seen this through COVID-19 and a lot of it through (the) recovery in varied ways, by providing safer options for workers, such as our interview right now — you and I are both working remote — and things like that. We are seeing that digital transformation at a very fast pace.
What was the startup scene like, right before the pandemic hit?
Moving and grooving, very fast paced. You could just search for Tampa, Hillsborough County tech and we were on all these top lists, as (an) up and coming market already, a growing market for tech and innovation. We were having folks in companies move from other major markets here, bringing their companies here from New York, California, you name it, Colorado, even. And so we were really just so enthused and working so hard together.
We’re still learning how tight we need to be and collaborative we need to be, and how innovative we need to be as a community. And so, it’s incredible, the resiliency that you have seen through such a crisis like this one.
When the pandemic first started, what were you hearing about how startups would be impacted?
Startup Genome, which is a very well known research organization, had their report come out and we were kind of wondering what they were going to say about the impact. And of course, we know what we feel, but that’s always really important data. So basically, you were hearing different things like ‘Oh, you know, the tech community, may or may not be as impacted’ but they very much were.
I'm going to give you this stat from Startup Genome — they said basically 41 percent of startups have less than three months of leeway or runway. They are tight on budget and 74 percent of these startups, they had to lay off full time staff just like other small businesses, and they had a dip in revenue. There was a bright side obviously, they were continuing to work, they were able to adjust and be agile and do what they needed to do digitally, using the technology that they already were accustomed to using.
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And some obviously saw some growth depending on the sector, they were hyper focused in, whether it’s healthcare, etc. Some that were focused in, let’s say, hospitality, had a different experience. So it was, I think, very much in line with what many other business sectors were experiencing.
How have startups adjusted their business strategies during coronavirus?
A lot of these companies are trying to see, “Okay, not only are we rescaling, but we’re having to do it at a very quick pace.”
So one group in particular Synapse — they’re a great community organization — they developed a community resource where they were hyper focusing this online talent exchange program where you could connect these companies to these job openings, so, it’s these opportunities for employment or reemployment. So I thought that was really innovative of them.
Also, we’re seeing trend wise, this whole contact free economy, right. So we’re looking at ways to connect, and we’re trying to do this but also in a way that’s providing a safe work environment.
You have different companies that are able to jump in on that like Lunchpool — they’re a Tampa Bay Wave company — they are hosting a lot of meetups and meetings where you have multiple organizations coming together, kind of like a Zoom but on steroids. So it’s really, really cool. And we have that talent here. We have that technology here. So it’s incredible. And I encourage our community businesses to support the businesses we have right here, the technology we have right here.
Even other digital solution companies like eNotaryLog or DocuVantage, these are companies that are homegrown, out of Hillsborough County, out of our incubators and accelerators like USF CONNECT and the (Tampa Bay) Wave and they're providing these services for the needs that we have when it comes to management and adjusting in this new business environment.
What do you think will be the long-term impacts of COVID-19 on Tampa Bay’s startup scene?
That's a really great question. In fact, I talked with several of the community leaders on that particular question.
I do want to mention the R3 program. The R3 program is something Hillsborough County has created for our small businesses. And it is awesome. They have three tiers to it, the kickstart part that provides immediate access to capital infusion to small businesses, which is great. The second part is the back to work, which is also something we have to consider long-term because with innovative cultures, there’s always those challenges of, you know, recreating jobs or what type of reappointment or re-skilling we have to look at as important.
But the third part of that grant, I was very, very excited about and hope that folks in the community apply for, is a safe at work grant because this addresses the equipment, the training materials, having that opportunity to basically upgrade your business equipment with technology investments, so that you're providing an environment that is safe and sanitary, and also reconfiguring your environment for the safety of your customers and your team and your staff.
But I think long term when it comes to the startup community, we have to consider, you know, investment, you know, what is that going to look like?
And ... shifting to rebuild. You know, there’s a lot of different company examples for how they have shifted.
One example that Brian Kornfeld with Synapse shared with me was Fanatics. They do sportswear and sports equipment and things like that, which we have seen a shift in. They have focused more on 3D printing, like becoming more of a 3D lab. So it’s just an example of the willingness, the need to be agile, and that is what makes our tech community so valuable.
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