At Tampa’s Synapse Summit, all eyes on Florida’s tech, innovation growth

Startups, investors and leaders weighed in on what the state is doing right, and where it still needs work.
From left: University of Florida president Kent Fuchs, University of South Florida Rhea Law and University of Central Florida president Alexander Cartwright speak on a panel at the 2022 Synapse Summit at Amalie Arena on Feb. 17, 2022.
From left: University of Florida president Kent Fuchs, University of South Florida Rhea Law and University of Central Florida president Alexander Cartwright speak on a panel at the 2022 Synapse Summit at Amalie Arena on Feb. 17, 2022. [ PRESTON MACK | Florida High Tech Corridor ]
Published Feb. 18, 2022

Tampa wasn’t exactly a power player on the global tech scene when Pam Miniati was organizing the Florida Israel Business Accelerator five years ago.

“We’d say, ‘Come to Florida!’ and they’d know where Florida is; and we’d say ‘Come to Tampa!’ and they’d say, ‘Tampa? Where is Tampa?’” Miniati said Thursday at the fifth annual Synapse Summit at Amalie Arena. “It was not on the map. It was not on anyone’s radar, especially internationally.”

How have things changed since? When Miniati told this story, she was sitting on a panel with a tech entrepreneur from Australia and a venture capital investor who started out in Sweden.

“I see a lot of parallels with what happened in Stockholm,” said Andreas Calabrese, the general partner of TampaBay.Ventures. “You have companies go larger or exit or go public, and then the employees from those companies get together and say, ‘Hey, what was something we weren’t working on at our former company that we need to start working on now?’”

This was the first Synapse Summit to take place in person since before the pandemic, and a big theme was how far the region has come, and how different its fortunes now seem.

“This community is going to be, if it’s not already, the best place to innovate anywhere in the world,” Synapse co-founder and CEO Brian Kornfeld said. “The past five years have been great. These next five years are just going to be that much better.”

Related: Tampa's Synapse Summit founder talks innovation and FOMO in the tech world

One highlight was a panel featuring three state university presidents: Rhea Law of the University of South Florida, Kent Fuchs of the University of Florida and Alexander Cartwright of the University of Central Florida. The three discussed their schools’ roles in fostering Florida’s talent pipeline, often cited by relocating companies as a strength of the region.

“It really, really is important that our state be known, that our region be known, that our cities be known, as places where there’s talent available to drive innovation; where companies can recruit that talent, where their employees can take courses and be part of that ecosystem that’s driven by superb universities like the three of us,” Fuchs said.

Several speakers talked about what Florida can do to bump its startup ecosystem to another level. That might require a coordinated statewide effort to lead funding initiatives and opportunities for businesses at the pre-seed level — particularly those new to the startup world.

“If you’re an entrepreneur from Florida looking for funding, where do you start? There is no one centralized location,” said Sarah Lucas, chief operating officer of Boca Raton investment group New World Angels. “If you need to be in the know to access those resources, you already are at a disadvantage.”

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

Another roadblock to growth might be a lack of affordable housing, said Domm Holland, CEO of online payment startup Fast. Holland, a native Australian, moved his family from San Francisco to Tampa when the company opened an East Coast hub here last summer.

“As much as we want more people living here, we need far more houses,” Holland said. “There’s still so much growth ahead, but I don’t know where they’re going to live.”

Florida is “uniquely poised” to make significant inroads in several of the sectors most primed for growth in the coming decades, Lucas said, including health tech and green tech.

“Climate, health care, it’s just so obvious here,” said Eric Aaronson, an investment analyst who works with Mark Cuban. “We see sea level rise or populations aging, and it’s something that you’re going to see us act on out of necessity.”

Other panels hit on topics like the commercialization of space travel, esports, NFTs, the metaverse and the blockchain. Tampa Bay entrepreneurs were spotlighted throughout, such as Rosa Shores, co-founder and CEO of blockchain services firm BlockSpaces, which recently raised $5.75 million in seed funding; and Michael O’Rourke, co-founder and CEO of blockchain services company Pocket Network, which was recently valued at more than $1 billion.

“I remember seeing a cohort from a local accelerator five years ago and looking at the different founders, and wondering if any of them would be successful,” Kornfeld said. “And now I look at cohorts of the local accelerators, and I wonder if any of them are actually going to fail.”