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Jeff Vinik plans new venture capital fund and innovation hub at Water Street Tampa

TAMPA — Jeff Vinik says the Tampa Bay area needs a bigger, stronger ecosystem for startup companies, and on Tuesday he announced three major initiatives to nurture them.

First, Vinik said he will, with other investors, create a venture capital fund with as much as $50 million or more to support startup entrepreneurs, some with direct grants. That, he believes, would make it the largest fund of its kind in Florida.

"We're going to have a grant program similar to what's going on in St. Louis, called the Arch Grants there, where we give away $25,000 to $50,000 to those startups ... who we think are really, really good," Vinik told a summit on urban technology and development at the Tampa Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina. "We want to be a magnet for attracting them … from throughout the Southeast and the rest of the country."

Next, Vinik outlined plans to build an "innovation hub" on the second floor of Channelside Bay Plaza. He expects it to occupy 40,000 to 75,000 square feet of space — or 20 to 40 percent of the building — and take 12 to 18 months to create.

"That's almost two acres," he said. "That's big, and that's because we're bold, and we've got to move the needle here."

Plans for the hub are still coming together, but Vinik said he wants it to have room for hundreds of people, maybe even up to 500 people.

"We need a central location" bringing together startup companies, would-be startups, venture capitalists, potential mentors, academic resources, lawyers and financial advisors, all in one spot, with plenty of opportunities for support and cross-pollination.

The idea for the hub emerged from trips Vinik has taken for more than a year to see similar initiatives around the country with Jim O'Connell, the CEO of the Vinik Family Foundation. A Chicago center for technology and entrepreneurship called 1871 was an early stop and a big inspiration, Vinik said.

The Tampa hub will be a tenant of Strategic Property Partners, the real estate development company that Vinik runs with Cascade Investment, the personal wealth fund launched by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, to develop the $3 billion project known as Water Street Tampa.

Last, Vinik said he's taking a major equity stake in the startup accelerator DreamIt, which works with startups focused on health care and urban technology to help them raise capital quickly and grow their businesses. Vinik did not disclose how much he's investing, but said he expects to end up with an ownership stake in the company equal to that of its founders.

"DreamIt and I are getting married," he said in a telephone interview after his speech to the "Building Cities of the Future" summit. He expects DreamIt to be at the new innovation hub. "I think we can make it into one of the best accelerator companies in the country."

All three moves are designed to help build and raise the profile of the region's startup business culture. Vinik said he likes existing organizations like the Tampa Bay Wave, new initiatives like the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator and long-term efforts like Tampa !p, an innovation effort involving the University of South Florida, Moffitt Cancer Center, Florida Hospital Tampa, Busch Gardens and University Mall.

But outside the Tampa Bay area, he said, the region's resources, aspirations and successes are not known well enough or widely enough.

"We are not doing a bad job here, but nobody knows our story," he told about 300 real estate executives, tech entrepreneurs and others at the summit, organized by DreamIt and Bisnow, which hosts conferences on trends in commercial real estate.

The other area where Vinik said the bay area needs to improve is transportation. On that, he repeated his support for supporting and pursuing a variety of approaches, including an expanded Tampa streetcar line, a more robust local bus system (he said Hillsborough County ought to spend 30 percent more on its buses than it does), autonomous vehicles, better-coordinated regional efforts and more.

Tampa "has all the potential in the world," he said, but "we must do a better job" on both transportation and innovation "if we're going to become a great city."

Contact Richard Danielson at or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times