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Tampa Bay's sudden boom in business incubators: Good for startups, or pop trend?

Published Sep. 27, 2013

Fast-sprouting business incubators around the Tampa Bay area are raising the specter of regional overload, failure to coordinate their efforts and fear they could do more harm than good.

"Every city council member in every town wants an incubator now that startups like Facebook glamorized entrepreneurship," says Tonya Elmore, who heads the Tampa Bay Innovation Center in Largo. The incubator veteran is a major player behind recent plans to establish new incubators in both downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg, and in Clearwater.

At least nine incubators — places where entrepreneurs can go to find free or affordable workspace, startup expertise, peer support and sometimes even funding — now populate the greater Tampa Bay market.

Five more are proposed, with a majority likely to open within the next year. Three others that once operated — or at least tried to open their doors here — are gone.

This year's burst of incubators and related startup services known as accelerators raised enough concerns to spur a series of regional meetings. These so-called "Tampa Bay entrepreneurship community powwows" draw incubator leaders together to share agendas and ideas, avoid duplication of effort and inefficiencies, and also monitor quality control.

The powwows also touch on a more sensitive topic: Would Tampa Bay benefit from more coordination among or even a formal network of incubators? The third powwow will be held Nov. 8.

Wendy Plant heads the biotech-focused Tampa Bay Technology Incubator on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida. She points to the Orlando area, where nearly a dozen incubators fall under an umbrella network managed by the University of Central Florida. It is an example of a more centralized strategy for encouraging regional business startups.

Other incubator leaders like Linda Olson, who helped found this year's opening of the FirstWaVE Venture incubator and now directs the high-profile facility in downtown Tampa, prefers a more bottom-up style of supporting entrepreneurship. "Our view of the powwow is that it is not about coordinating efforts but more about improving communications," she says.

Tampa Bay's startup resources — dubbed the entrepreneurial ecosystem — encompass not just incubators but educational institutions, veteran startup mentors and advocacy groups like the Tampa Bay Technology Forum and the Tampa Bay 6/20 initiative.

Tampa Bay's incubator fever does raise some key questions:

• Are we suffering from a case of "Incubatoritis" — a looming oversupply of entrepreneurial help spots?

• Will too many incubators lower the startup bar, hurt the quality of new businesses and dilute the lean funding available to run incubators?

• Are incubators starting to dot the landscape because they have become eye candy on city wish lists?

Feeding incubators is the rising popularity in courses on entrepreneurship skills in area schools and universities. Younger, Internet-savvy entrepreneurs often pursue businesses built on new mobile applications, in part because they require low startup costs.

Entrepreneurship also is on the rise thanks to traumatic job losses in the recent recession and the weak recovery.

Even traditional economic development leaders now pay more attention to the startup movement. While Tampa Bay still depends heavily for growth by using incentives to recruit businesses to expand here, regional leaders credit incubators as an emerging tool to create innovative businesses and jobs.

What mainstream economic developers are not doing, though, is sharing much of their incentive funds to support local startups.

Many area incubators boast specific missions.

For example, both the planned incubators for downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa will focus on innovative health care startups while working closely with each city's cluster of hospitals and nearby University of South Florida campuses.

On a more basic level, both St. Petersburg College and Hillsborough Community College want to provide almost "preincubator" services to diverse student bodies pursuing certificates or degrees in entrepreneurship.

"There is most certainly a movement under way in our county toward effectively supporting and encouraging startups and early-stage entrepreneurs," says Nicolle Panuthos, who heads SPC's business and entrepreneurship program.

New York tech entrepreneur Andy Gold, recently relocated to Tampa Bay, teaches startup skills at HCC. He's helping to launch by next fall the school's Innovation Center, a less intensive support service than a traditional incubator, for student entrepreneurs.

"There's a buzz about this area for startups," says an optimistic Gold. "I think it is a slow-moving buzz. But it is a buzz.

"Competition is a great thing," he says. "The more incubators, the more existing incubators have to elevate their game. And the more colleges with entrepreneur programs, the more other colleges have to up their game."

At USF's Tampa incubator, Wendy Plant is lending help to both the new Pasco County incubator in Dade City and one proposed for Bradenton in Manatee County.

"There are many startup programs in the community, and the successful ones will continue," says Elmore at the Tampa Bay Innovation Center. "Others will fall out from a lack of leadership or funding."

FirstWaVE's Olson agrees. Let the market sort it out.

Olson counts nearly 130 startups that are FirstWaVE members. But there's room for only 30 in the facility's accelerator program. That suggests there's still plenty of demand for more incubators out there, she says.

"Personally, I am thrilled with the volume and quality of our startup candidates," says Olson. If New York City can boast nearly 130 incubators, she says, why can't Tampa Bay be home to more than the dozen or so now operating or in the works?

"If we have 20 successful incubators and accelerators, how can that be bad?"

No argument here. The proof will lie in the economic fate of the companies they graduate.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

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