If the Embarc Collective had charted out a growth timeline when it launched in 2018 — and then opened a shared physical workspace in early 2020 — it definitely wouldn’t have included a global pandemic.
Even if it had, CEO Lakshmi Shenoy couldn’t have foreseen the Tampa startup community growing like it has in that span.
“In the moment, I definitely was not thinking, ‘This is when we are going to double our size,’ Shenoy said. “It’s only now as I can sit and can be reflective that I can say, ‘Yeah, this makes sense.’”
The rapidly evolving digital landscape has kept Embarc members and staff busy over the last 18 months, as local startups have expanded and attracted new investors, and the collective itself has added coaches and resources. In August, the tech entrepreneurship and acceleration hub welcomed its 100th member months ahead of schedule, with more than half of those joining during the coronavirus pandemic.
Established through $10 million in backing from Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, the Embarc Collective was designed to help get Tampa Bay startups off the ground, giving them coaching, training, access to resources and connections to investors and other entrepreneurs that could boost the region’s visibility in the tech world.
Two years later, Tampa is getting recognition as an emerging tech city, with Embarc and Vinik’s Water Street Tampa development often cited as reasons why. In the past year, tech companies like ID.me, Fast and HomeLight have opened Tampa hubs, a sign of the region’s tech boom.
“Even though those are later-stage companies, they’re huge wins for the overall community,” Shenoy said. “They are able to see that there is a growing amount of talent here that could either be future members of their team, or maybe future acquisitions. The startups that are around here are helping to perpetuate the technology-first culture that we want to grow in this region. From that standpoint, it’s tremendous.”
The more startups that come along and attract venture capital, the better chance Tampa has of becoming “the Silicon Valley of the South,” said Zac Smith, a senior vice president specializing in mergers and acquisitions with financial advisory firm Embark (which has no relation to Embarc).
“You’re going to see the Microsofts, the Apples, whoever, purchasing some of these firms, and that’s going to continue to boost the economy here, promote jobs, promote education and promote commerce,” Smith said. “We’re truly on the precipice or tipping point of this happening.”
Several Embarc members have already scored national funding. Last fall, Tampa telecom startup Phonism announced a deal with Texas’s Ribbon Communications to be part of the company’s global network of information technology support services.
Phonism is was one of the first 30 or so startups to join Embarc, said CEO Steve Lazaridis. Since then, he estimates the company’s workforce has doubled and revenue has nearly quadrupled. The company is still growing, with employees across the U.S. and in Europe, and is planning a rebrand to help them boost their market share. The access to coaches, strategists and investors Phonism got through Embarc played a role in that, he said.
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“When Embarc Collective launched in Tampa, we saw that as an opportunity to become part of a larger ecosystem,” Lazaridis said. “You have someone you can talk to. You have more than one person you can talk to. And everyone’s learning from each other.”
As it passes 100 members in Tampa, Embarc has designs on expanding statewide. The remote-work culture brought about by the pandemic led the company to bring on members in Orlando, Naples and Southwest Florida.
“The support and the way that we are offering help to startups validates a lot of our hypotheses when we got started not so long ago,” Shenoy said. “(Reaching 100 members) was definitely a goal. And now we have to grow that goal.”