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32 speakers get 5 minutes each to ignite Tampa Bay's economy, imagination

Cory Foy, a software developer with 8th Light, says apprenticeships in the workplace can give young people more solid starts.
Published Apr. 26, 2013

TAMPA

Think you can set a fire and ignite a passion under Tampa Bay in only a few minutes? It's not easy.

But 32 diverse folks gave it a try in strictly enforced five-minute pitches at the landmark Tampa Theatre on Thursday night.

Themes ranged from pushing Tampa Bay's come-from-behind need for mass transit to new ways to fund civic projects and the workplace smarts behind this year's Fashion Week Tampa Bay. The evening was the third annual "Ignite Tampa" event, part of the national Ignite movement started by O'Reilly Media. The events are aimed at inspiring regional communities to get involved, make something better or, simply, get off our backsides and be more creative.

"We're trying to ignite passion for change," says Joel Lopez, a co-founder of Ignite Tampa and an area technology leader behind the area's popular Bar and Code Camps for software developers.

What will come of this? I have no idea — and that's the beauty of it. Along with several hundred other attendees, I heard at least a dozen fresh and deserving ideas from enthusiastic local people. Many I had never met before. To be fair, Tampa Bay's getting better at putting on events of this kind — TEDx Tampa Bay talks and 83 Degrees' "not your average speakers" series come to mind. The steady mix of such passion-based idea exchanges can help raise the creative and economic bars of this metro area.

Thursday's deliveries from the Tampa Theatre, for the most part, were unpredictable, often thoughtful and sometimes amusing. Many received applause and whistles.

Moffitt Cancer's M2Gen chief Bill Dalton hit the stage to spotlight the rise of "precision medicine" driven by a national database of cancer tumor data. That medical movement of "cancer bioinformatics" is catching international attention that, Dalton said with pride, "all started in Tampa."

Entrepreneur Kurt Long, founder of the Clearwater firm FairWarning that provides medical privacy services, celebrated high school students vying for the "Next Generation Entrepreneur" competition that Long helps back with a $10,000 prize. "The future of Tampa Bay will depend on young entrepreneurs," Long stressed. That theme was reinforced by other speakers, including Steven Burnley of Academy at the Lakes in Land O'Lakes, whose school robotics teams compete in "sports of the mind" as intensely as any football team.

An energized Hillsborough County commissioner Mark Sharpe, inspired by the earlier cheerleading style of Tampa International Airport chief Joe Lopano, called for community support for mass transit. Sharpe's slides listed "cool" cities for tech jobs — none of them in Florida. How, he shouted, could Tampa Bay possibly be behind Detroit? Sharpe said St. Petersburg is "cool" then asked the audience: How do we know that? "Because they tell us," he deadpanned. He even suggested changing TIA's name to "St. Pete-Tampa International and have one airport that covers the entire region."

Daniel Scott, who teaches entrepreneurship at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and co-founded the Gazelle Lab business accelerator, pitched perseverance. He cited Broadway phenom Stephen Sondheim as a role model as a composer and lyricist who toiled in obscurity for years. Then came his breakthrough in the 1957 production of West Side Story, followed by decades of major achievements. Attaining a vision, Scott said, "is hard and uncomfortable" and worthy of taking some risks in life.

Other five-minute pitches were more down-to-earth. Cartographer Coleman McCormick at Spatial Networks Inc. in Clearwater spoke of the potential of local communities in building maps that can offer more detail and context, at less cost, than mapping heavyweights Google, Yahoo, Apple and Mapquest. He called for a "Wikipedia of maps" fueled by volunteers. "Let's make better maps," McComick urged.

Other pitches were cautionary. Sarasota area Internet strategist Mical Johnson tackled the rising influence of Google. He urged the audience to fight the numbing tendency to "Google" everything for answers and accept as gospel whatever comes up near the top in searches. Entrepreneur Justin Davis, whose Madera Labs is a startup inside the new FirstWaVE Venture Center in downtown Tampa, raised an intriguing idea. While many adults routinely practiced musical scales or soccer skills as kids, they stopped "deliberate practice" routines when they grew up. That's a mistake, Davis argued. "We need to bring that into the workplace," he said, in order to get back in touch with world-class skills.

The common string through most of these five-minute bursts is that Tampa Bay needs to stay fresh and better attuned to new ideas. The economy, arts and the community itself are all changing even if we can't see it in our daily routines. There's a lot of change to consider and some of it is worth embracing.

I won't even touch on some of the more out-there presentations that explored right-brain versus left-brain thinking, or the positive power of universal forces, a concept reinforced with slides of Yoda from Star Wars and Neo from The Matrix.

Let's end with speaker Joy Randels, who has 11 start-up companies under her belt, who called for more area entrepreneurs to be supportive of one another. The kinds of substantive change Tampa Bay wants — to become more innovative, to see more area start-ups succeed and gain in size and jobs — can take 20 years to achieve. Don't simply gauge this region by retail storefronts, commercial buildings or tourism, she said.

"How do we grow?" she asked. "Challenge the status quo."

That alone ought to ignite something for the better.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@tampabay.com.

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