Imagine a business summit in which the speakers all emphasize the power of innovation, the promise of the future and the importance of a collaborative community.
And then imagine that less than a month later, a pandemic sends all those newly motivated attendees into lockdown.
That’s pretty much what happened at the last in-person Synapse Summit, a Tampa gathering of innovators, entrepreneurs and investors from Florida and beyond.
“We were the last big party in town,” said Brian Kornfeld, Synapse’s co-founder and president. “And then everything shut down.”
Two years later, Synapse returns this month for its first in-person conference of the pandemic. More than 100 CEOs and business leaders will speak about leadership, technology, business trends and more on Feb. 17 at Amalie Arena, with workshops, showcases and networking opportunities galore — none of which Synapse could fully deliver during last year’s virtual event.
“People were not seeing each other face to face, and part of the purpose of the Synapse Summit is to create connections and collisions of people that don’t take place naturally on a day-to-day basis,” Kornfeld said. “To get thousands of people back together for something other than a sporting event, it’s going to be the first big party back in the last two years. We’re going to kick this off with a bang and help set up Tampa Bay for what the next five years are going to look like, because those next five years are going to be even more transformative than the last.”
Over a recent Zoom interview, Kornfeld talked about building Tampa’s innovation landscape and the sense of FOMO (or “fear of missing out”) that runs throughout the tech community. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What do you most remember about that last event a month before the pandemic?
The thing that I most remembered was the fresh faces. It was people who I honestly had not met before. And it was people who were just getting themselves engaged for the first time within our innovation community, people who had been playing on the outskirts but never really thought it was what they needed to do and what was right for them. For me to walk around and meet so many new people for the first time, and have them come up with smiles and energy, saying, “Man, I wish this was four days longer, because there was so much stuff to see, we didn’t get to see it all” — those are the things that I always take away.
Since then, we’ve seen workplace culture get decentralized a little bit. Has that decentralization been a barrier to what we’ve traditionally thought of as innovation?
It’s been a little bit more of an enabler, especially here in Tampa Bay. One of the things people complain about here is how spread out we are. If you want to go up to Wesley Chapel and Pasco County, out to Lakeland, down into Sarasota, even downtown Tampa to downtown St. Petersburg — people complain about that body of water in the way, as if the bridge is this thing that has ogres, where it’s impossible to cross over. Instead of having to drive places for meetings, people are finding new ways to connect and make those curated introductions happen. It’s helped enable people to go faster and make people more more efficient with their time.
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Water Street Tampa has this core group of companies that are moving in and creating this hub for tech development. Are we seeing an innovation district take flight?
I’ve been following this project since its inception. A smart way to look at that community is not just the quantity of the companies, but the quality of the companies, and where they’re coming from and what they stand for. The companies that are moving here all want to be in the center of the action. Then you start to see what meetings are able to take place in those restaurants downstairs over lunches. Those are going to be the places to see and be seen, and to bump into people at coffee shops. A lot of companies from the outside that are coming here, they’re going to want to be part of the cool-kids club, and that’s where it’s going to be.
How would you say, over the last five years, that Tampa Bay’s investment landscape has changed?
We have outside capital and banks that pay attention, but also we have a much higher quality of founders here, and the founders are much further along, much better educated. That really helps, because it helps to create competition between investors. Five years ago, there was pretty much one or two investment funds, and they had all the power, all the control. They were able to pick and chose which deals they wanted to go after. Now investors are starting to get that fear of missing out, where they don’t want to be too late. They’re a lot more aggressive, and by being more aggressive, we’re seeing bigger wins.
You mention this fear of missing out, whether it’s FOMO of not being in Water Street or the fear of missing out on the next big marketplace. Is that real? Can you explain the psychology, especially as it relates to tech innovators, of missing out on something?
So many people who are in this world, they want to do it because they want to set up a great lifestyle for themselves, they want to work hard, they want to go after a particular mission. They’re trying to build something big, and everything they don’t get to be a part of is seen as a missed opportunity, not as a passed opportunity. One is active and one is passive. When you start to see everything as a missed opportunity, you look at ways to help create those opportunities for yourself. And I see a lot of that, where people are a lot more active in trying to create those opportunities by being present and a part of those connections.
8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 17 at Amalie Arena, 401 Channelside Drive. $49 and up for a virtual ticket, $149 and up for general admission, with discounts for students, military/veterans and first responders. synapsefl.com.