Tampa mental health service Cope Notes wins Startup of the Year prize

The startup took home the People’s Choice award at the national tech summit held this week in Tampa.
Johnny Crowder, pictured at home in Tampa in 2019, founded Cope Notes to help people with mental and emotional health problems.
Johnny Crowder, pictured at home in Tampa in 2019, founded Cope Notes to help people with mental and emotional health problems. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Jan. 28, 2022|Updated Jan. 28, 2022

Johnny Crowder checked his startup’s website Friday and saw a number that made his day: 96.

As in, his Tampa tech startup just notched a subscriber in its 96th country.

“That’s amazing,” said Crowder, the founder of mental health text-messaging service Cope Notes. “Once you get up in the 90s, it’s very rare that you hit a new country, because there’s only so many English-speaking countries. That’s really exciting.”

It’s been an exciting week overall for Crowder, 29, and Cope Notes, which this week took home a top award at a nationwide tech summit held this week in Tampa.

Cope Notes, which sends subscribers positive thoughts and affirmations to help combat depression and anxiety, won the People’s Choice award at the ninth annual Startup of the Year summit, a national gathering of tech firms, venture investors and others in the startup world.

It’s the second straight year a Tampa startup has won the summit’s People’s Choice award, which is decided by online vote. Grifin, a financial tech app that allows users to buy stock in companies where they make purchases, took home the prize in 2021.

The People’s Choice award doesn’t come with a prize beyond a small trophy shaped like a microphone. It’s more like a badge of honor, Crowder said, that you can leverage for credibility with potential venture capital investors.

And investors are already interested.

“I went to the afterparty and every single person who came up to talk to me was an investor,” Crowder said. “I was just trying to chill, and all of these investors were asking, ‘What was your revenue in 2020? How many full-time employees do you have?’”

Related: A support group in your phone. Healing for mental illness comes one text at a time.

Founded in 2018, Cope Notes has more than 21,000 users, but Crowder has thus far resisted outside funding. Not because the market’s not there, but because Crowder said he’d rather stay devoted to his user base than spending time seeking funding.

But he’s had positive conversations with investors in the past six months, he said, and the award validated his sense that Cope Notes can still grow.

“Of all the different types of startups that were in the running, the fact that a mental health startup took home People’s Choice gives me more hope than anything, because it shows that the needle is moving in that conversation,” he said.

Related: As 'Startup of the Year' hits Tampa, here's how the local tech scene bloomed

The overall winner at this year’s Startup of the Year competition was Scout, an Alexandria, Va. company developing safety products and services for the space travel industry. The grand prize was up to $50,000 in investments and prizes.

Of the competition’s 100 semifinalists, 19 were from Tampa Bay, and three made the competition’s top 15: Cope Notes, Tampa language education software developers Marvl, and St. Petersburg K-12 workforce development training platform Shamrck.

Another Tampa business won a new prize created this year for companies that grew so fast they no longer qualified for the competition: Genesis Systems, the developer of the WaterCube, a device designed to pull water from the surrounding atmosphere.

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Related: Startup behind 'WaterCube,' aimed at water scarcity, picks Tampa for HQ

In the People’s Choice competition, Genesis Systems won the climate, sustainability and robotics category; and Tampa estate closing services company Trustate won the financial and legal tech category.

“I feel really privileged and grateful to live in a budding startup economy,” Crowder said. “I almost moved to Silicon Valley when I started Cope Notes. I almost moved to Austin. I almost moved to Nashville. There were all these other tech hubs I wanted to bring Cope Notes to. And in a really weird way, this week made me really grateful that I stayed in Tampa. Because I really think we’re going to be the next one of those cities that people decide to move to when they start something great.”