TAMPA — Just before the first keynote address at Tuesday’s Synapse Summit, a daylong innovation and investing conference at Amalie Arena, Brian Kornfeld gave the future the floor.
The conference’s CEO pulled up ChatGPT, the artificial intelligence chatbot, and asked for an explanation of why Synapse was awesome “as if it was written by Edgar Allan Poe.”
Within a moment, the app responded in the style of “The Raven.”
… I heard a whispering, a beckoning, a soft enticing
A voice that promised innovation, progress and surprising
It spoke of Synapse Summit, where the brightest minds unite,
To share their dreams, ideas and insights with all their might.
“Here’s to the robots,” Kornfeld said.
Robots, artificial intelligence programmers, cryptocurrency evangelists and garage inventors: All turned out for the sixth annual Synapse, which has grown into one of Tampa Bay’s premiere business events.
The conference has evolved since its inception in 2018, when organizers expected about 1,000 guests, and 3,300 showed up. This year, Synapse drew some 6,000 attendees, 300 exhibitors and 800 investors, cramming 40 keynotes, panels and breakouts into a single day at Amalie Arena.
It’s part trade show, with table after table of pamphlets and free pens and keychains spread throughout Amalie Arena. It’s part motivational conference, with speakers like Peloton instructor Ally Love speaking at center ice. And it’s part showcase for tech investors and entrepreneurs across Florida.
The goal is to create “collisions that are intentionally curated, versus a traditional trade-show floor, where you walk up and down aisles and don’t really have that opportunity to connect with each other,” Kornfeld said. “We learn a lot from places like Disney World or Busch Gardens, where they don’t want you to leave because you’re bored. They want you to want more.”
Among this year’s speakers: America Online co-founder and investor Steve Case; Phoebe Cade Miles, co-founder of Gainesville’s Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention and the daughter of Gatorade inventor James Robert Cade; and Cathie Wood, founder and CEO of Ark Invest, the asset management firm that relocated from New York to St. Petersburg in 2020.
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Case visited Tampa startup accelerator Embarc Collective as part of a tour of emerging markets in 2019, and returned there Tuesday to talk with tech entrepreneurs before his closing speech. The growth of the region’s tech landscape since before the pandemic, he said, is evident.
“My sense is, four years ago, there was a commitment to make more of a focus on startups,” Case said. “In the last four years, it seems like there’s been an acceleration and interest in entrepreneurship. Florida’s benefitted from talent inflows, and Tampa-St. Pete seems to have done well on that front, and is getting more venture capital backing more of these entrepreneurs. So it’s been encouraging seeing the progress the last four years.”
Several of this year’s panels were targeted to of-the-moment issues, like recession-proofing your supply chain or recovering from 2022′s cryptocurrency crash. Artificial intelligence was a big one. At a standing room-only panel on AI, Beth Harrison, digital experiences director at St. Petersburg’s Dalí Museum, talked about the museum’s DALL-E app, which generates art based on descriptions of users’ dreams.
“It’s a wonderful way for our visitors to tap into their creativity and visualize their dreams and participate in this collective dream experience,” she said. “It’s been really popular with our visitors.”
Artificial intelligence won’t replace living artists, she said. But Tim Moore, CEO of Tampa video production studio company Vu, said those artists would be able to use AI in new ways.
“When you look at where this disruption is leading, the idea is that you want to be able to have content at the speed of thought,” Moore said. “Making things is the old way to do things. Thinking things is the new way. So when machines make and the people think, the whole world is better out of that.”
Wood, a longtime AI proponent, stopped short of calling ChatGPS a killer app. But she said it’s evidence of the “mind-boggling” potential AI will bring.
“The killer opportunity is productivity,” she said. “Already, we’re seeing coders becoming twice as efficient within the last three to six months, and we think that’s going to (be) 10 times more over the next five to 10 years because of this technology.”
If a major investment deal goes down at Synapse, organizers said they might not know right away. Synapse may just be the place where the initial handshake happens, with the seven- or eight-figure investment coming down the road.
“There’s still a lot to uncover and a lot to unpack that goes on here in the local market,” Kornfeld said. “We’re just excited to continue to see it.”