TAMPA — Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik told his love story with his adopted hometown to hundreds of local tech workers Wednesday.
But it was a message of tough love, too.
The Tampa Bay region is "behind Nashville by about 10 or 15 years," Vinik said. Its startup community and angel investors are unknown to the business world and each other. The area's well-documented transportation woes need answers. Still missing is an ecosystem to cultivate entrepreneurs.
"As a community, we need to take it to a higher level," Vinik said.
The remarks came at the start of the Synapses Innovation Summit at Amalie Arena, a tech and entrepreneur conference now in its second year. Organizers hope the gathering can start to fill in the gaps Vinik laid out and connect disjointed, and often anonymous, technology and entrepreneur companies from across the region so they can build and grow together.
Marc Blumenthal, co-founder of Synapse, described it as Netflix meets Match.com. He kicked off the summit by unveiling a new web platform for local businesses and investors to engage.
One of the biggest collaborations in the region's history is already underway. Vinik and Bill Gates' Cascade Investment have teamed up to form Strategic Property Partners, the driving force behind downtown Tampa's most ambitious redevelopment project, Water Street Tampa near Amalie Arena.
In his remarks, Vinik highlighted some of SPP's efforts to jump-start the entrepreneurial community and tap into its potential. That includes the new innovation hub at Channelside Plaza he recently announced.
The 40-acre, multi-billion development he has planned can't thrive unless Tampa is able to retain its young talent, he said. He recalled a recent meeting with 50 local high school students, where he told them that if two-thirds left for college and never came back to Tampa Bay, "then we are failing."
"By magic they are not going to stay here," the former Wall Street investment manager said. "We've gotta give them a reason to keep them here."
The good news is no one else in Florida has stepped up to become the state's center of innovation. And Vinik believes no other area is better situated than Tampa Bay to assume that mantle.
"It is ours for the taking," he said. "We put our minds to it, together, collectively, as a group, five to 10 years from now we will be the leader in Florida, if not the leader in the southeast in terms of startup activity entrepreneurialism, which will do wonders for the culture of this area and the growth of this area overall."
The Synapses Innovation Summit will take place Wednesday and Thursday. About 2,500 attendees are expected.
Also scheduled to address the conference: IBM chief innovation officer Bernard Meyerson; Army Col. Josh Potter, a transnational threats expert with Special Operations Command; ConnectWise CEO Arnie Bellini; Peerfit CEO Ed Buckley; retired Tribridge CEO Tony DiBenedetto; and Lakshmi Shenoy, recently hired to run Vinik's new innovation hub.