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Jeff Vinik's innovation hub seeks community ideas to improve Tampa Bay's startup culture

The old District 3 building in downtown Tampa will become home to Embarc Collective, a nonprofit startup support initiative that Jeff Vinik is creating to strengthen the Tampa Bay area's ability to attract entrepreneurial talent. The building, which was used for the popular Art of the Brick exhibit last year, is a few blocks up Jefferson Street from Amalie Arena, seen here in the lower right corner. That puts it just north of Water Street Tampa, the $3 billion mixed-used redevelopment that Vinik is creating in partnership with Cascade Investment, the personal wealth fund of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. RICHARD DANIELSON  |  Times
The old District 3 building in downtown Tampa will become home to Embarc Collective, a nonprofit startup support initiative that Jeff Vinik is creating to strengthen the Tampa Bay area's ability to attract entrepreneurial talent. The building, which was used for the popular Art of the Brick exhibit last year, is a few blocks up Jefferson Street from Amalie Arena, seen here in the lower right corner. That puts it just north of Water Street Tampa, the $3 billion mixed-used redevelopment that Vinik is creating in partnership with Cascade Investment, the personal wealth fund of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. RICHARD DANIELSON | Times
Published Aug. 2, 2018

TAMPA — Jeff Vinik's innovation hub-in-the-making introduced itself Wednesday with a new name, news about its future home and the roll-out of a community survey as it aims for a full launch in early 2019.

Embarc Collective, a $10 million project, will not be a traditional start-up incubator or accelerator itself, but will work to provide tech entrepreneurs with resources that they might not otherwise find in the Tampa Bay area now.

Those could include having access to an international network of experts. They also could include a curriculum that entrepreneurs, even those with some experience starting businesses already, can tap into and out of as they need.

"The hub exists to make Tampa Bay a prime destination for diverse startup talent," said Lakshmi Shenoy, whom Vinik hired as the new organization's CEO. "We don't need to duplicate what's already here. It's all about complementing what's here."

To figure out what resources are needed, the collective went live Wednesday afternoon with a community survey at embarccollective.com. Its goal: to pick the brains of entrepreneurs at the center of the bay area's startup ecosystem, organizations that play supporting roles for innovation and anyone else thinking about taking the plunge themselves.

The survey will stay online for maybe two weeks, and the collective could deliver a report on the needs it identifies in early October.

When he announced plans for the innovation hub in December, Vinik mused that it could be a good fit for Channelside Bay Plaza, which is getting a major renovation and being renamed Sparkman Wharf.

Instead, Embarc Collective's home will be the District 3 building, a structure built in 1921 that previously has housed a paper company, wholesale grocer and event space. Last year, it drew crowds for the Art of the Brick, a traveling collection of more than 100 Lego sculptures brought to Tampa by Vinik and his wife Penny through the Vinik Family Foundation.

A LOOK BACK: Lego T-rex and scores of other brick sculptures free to see in Tampa

That location puts the collective just north of Water Street Tampa, the $3 billion mixed-use redevelopment that Vinik is creating in partnership with Cascade Investment, the private wealth fund of Microsoft founder Bill Gates. By the time they move into the 30,000-square-foot space at District 3, Shenoy's three-person team is expected to grow to about a dozen.

Embarc Collective, which is seeking nonprofit status, is expected to provide community programming in entrepreneurship, technology and innovation along with resources for entrepreneurs.

Together, both those efforts should complement the work of a wide range of existing accelerators and incubators, such as the Tampa Bay Wave, TEC Garage in St. Petersburg, Dreamit Ventures, the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator and the blockchain-focused hub BlockSpaces, as well as the University of South Florida and the University of Tampa.

Shenoy, 35, came to Tampa from a job as vice president of strategy and business development at 1871 Chicago, a tech entrepreneurship hub in Chicago that UBI Global rated as the top university-affiliated incubator in the United States.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Jeff Vinik hires Chicago startup specialist Lakshmi Shenoy to run Tampa innovation hub

Since February, Shenoy has met with more than 400 people about the bay area's startup culture, which she says is robust in many ways, but not nearly well-known enough outside the region and spread out geographically.

To counter that, she talked about creating a "density of opportunity."

"This region, I've learned, is huge, and being able to create that sense of a central landing zone for entrepreneurship is really important," she said. In Chicago, her previous employer filled that role. In Paris, the go-to innovation hub is Station F. In Lisbon, Portugal, it's Startup Lisboa.

"The market is doing a lot already, and what I see the role of Embarc Collective is just to amplify and elevate that profile of all that activity that's happening," she said. "There is no reason why entrepreneurs and their teams shouldn't be looking to Tampa Bay as a great place to build their business, but we're not telling that story loudly enough outside this region."

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