Tampa Bay's entrepreneurial ecosystem? It's still young and could use a boost, new study says

HubCentrix business start-up CEO Jerry Robinson discusses his firm's wellness maintenance software and is working to create a watch people could wear to help monitor a variety of health signals that could connect to his software platform. Robinson operates from the TEC Garage business incubator in downtown St. Petersburg. ROBERT TRIGAUX | Times
HubCentrix business start-up CEO Jerry Robinson discusses his firm's wellness maintenance software and is working to create a watch people could wear to help monitor a variety of health signals that could connect to his software platform. Robinson operates from the TEC Garage business incubator in downtown St. Petersburg. ROBERT TRIGAUX | Times
Published Nov. 17, 2016

TAMPA — A deep-dive analysis of the state of Tampa Bay's young "entrepreneurial ecosystem" — the foundation of services that supports innovative business start-ups here — finds the region is making fair progress.

But in a refrain all too familiar to other economic development groups here, an academic team assessing the ecosystem's health concludes there's a need for stronger leadership, less duplication of efforts and an investor base more attuned to the risks and opportunities of backing start-ups.

Last but most familiar of all: There's a serious need to build a specific brand for Tampa Bay that will resonate broadly with entrepreneurs and investors across the country if not the globe that this region has its start-up act together.

So say some of the key findings of the Tampa Bay Ecosystem Study, a year-long project led by the University of Tampa and funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the premier advocacy and research group for entrepreneurship in this country. The project's goal is to develop a model to strengthen not only this area's entrepreneurial ecosystem but also those in other cities.

That model includes the development of a benchmarking system to measure the health of the Tampa Bay ecosystem for entrepreneurs, providing a baseline for the community to see what progress is taking place among start-ups and entrepreneurs.

"We want to put a Fitbit on Tampa Bay," said University of Tampa business professor Rebecca White. "Knowing how you are doing makes you more aware what to improve and what's working well."

Researchers hope the findings could make a significant impact on the future success of local entrepreneurial ventures.

Study results were presented Tuesday evening to more than 100 business leaders and UT students at the University of Tampa's John P. Lowth Entrepreneurship Center, a recently opened addition to the campus and one of the latest signs of regional commitment to helping innovative start-ups gain traction here.

In an interview, White, the James Walter distinguished chair of entrepreneurship and leader of the project, said the key goal of the study is to engage the diverse mix of people involved in Tampa Bay's ecosystem. The project, headed by academics from five universities, conducted in-depth interviews with 47 people from six groups.

Professor Diana Hechavarria teaches entrepreneurship at the University of South Florida and is part of the academic team behind this study. She cited study findings that show Tampa Bay's warm weather and low cost of living are big appeals to entrepreneurs. But the lack of quality mass transportation across the region is a negative.

Attendees at Tuesday's event echo Hechavarria's. Do not undersell our assets such as our beautiful climate and low taxes. Those assets equate to great recruiting and retention tools for the talent and entrepreneurs this region needs.

So what happens now? "We do not want to do a one-off project and walk away," White said. "This is just starting the conversation." By the end of Tuesday's event, which included ample discussion with the audience, White suggested a series of town halls could happen in 2017 to solicit more feedback and encourage a more collaborative regional effort.

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Entrepreneurial ecosystems are created by and for entrepreneurs, White said. Yet the entrepreneurs interviewed for this project felt the most powerless to influence their fate.

So how exactly is Tampa Bay's entrepreneurial ecosystem doing? That's tough to answer. Anecdotally, regional start-up activity appears strong. But it is scattered in incubators, accelerators, universities, coffee shops and (yes) garages across the bay area. One attending entrepreneur, SavvyCard CEO David Etheredge, noted that area start-ups tend to hit a ceiling here once they grow to a certain size and feel pressured to relocate to find stronger investor interest in the next stage of funding a company.

Early reaction to the in-depth study is positive.

Linda Olson, president of the 3-year-old Tampa Bay WaVE business accelerator in downtown Tampa, said her group is "thrilled" with the report and fresh data to back up "what a lot of us in the trenches" know first-hand.

"We have something very special happening in Tampa Bay with so many new companies being formed, and so many entrepreneurs who prefer to build those businesses here over other communities," she said. WaVE has successfully recruited companies from Gainesville, Chicago and other locations.

Olson wanted to know more about "why" the area ecosystem did not work more together.

"There is no lack of willingness to collaborate. As I see it, we have a lot of underfunded organizations with people working tirelessly," she said. "So I suspect any lack of collaboration may really be a symptom of not enough hours in the day because there is too much to do — too many start-ups and entrepreneurs who need help in our still-evolving ecosystem."

No question, start-ups are percolating all over the metro area. Tuesday morning, for example, I stopped by the open house at one incubator called TEC Garage in downtown St. Petersburg and met briefly with three entrepreneurs all eager to practice their pitches on me.

Start-up HubCentrix is trying to claim a stake in the health care market with its wellness management software, said CEO Jerry Robinson. Colleen Sullivan, co-founder of Autism Lizard, said her start-up's online and customized therapy for the parents of autistic kids is getting some early attention. Area experts at BayCare and Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, for example, are looking for better ways to cope with the heavy demand for autism services. And Tomoko Discovery's online platform lets lawyers preserve court-admissible evidence from online sources.

All cool, innovative start-ups. Will all three survive and prosper? Start-up odds are stacked against 100 percent success — but who knows? Regionally, there are incubators and other havens for start-ups numbering in the hundreds or more spread across Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and even a few in Pasco and beyond.

That makes for a lot of entrepreneurs struggling for attention, with more on the way.

"It's a good problem to have so many entrepreneurial support organizations to help grow this segment of the business community. Most of these organizations did not exist five years ago," said attendee Stuart Rogel, president of Graylan Ventures and former head of the Tampa Bay Partnership. "It's also a good problem that entrepreneurs know enough about these organizations to encourage them to work more effectively together."

Also in the audience was Tampa Bay Technology Forum executive director Daniel James Scott, who is both a serial entrepreneur and a former instructor to university students here about how to become a better one. "It feels we now have clear, concise focus about what and how we can improve as a start-up ecosystem," he said.

Still, the UT study points to some "bottlenecks" slowing Tampa Bay's entrepreneurial ecosystem. Among them:

•How to devise a more cohesive leadership regionally for the start-up community.

•How to educate area investors long accustomed to cutting real estate deals with traditional forms of collateral about the opportunities of putting money into start-ups.

•How to get more media coverage of the area start-up community.

•How to develop a stronger vision for start-ups here so Tampa Bay's reputation as a place for entrepreneurs gains more credibility. There is frustration here on this topic as numerous national articles point to new and smaller metros becoming hot spots for entrepreneurs. Among those named are Nashville, Omaha, Raleigh, Indianapolis and Boise. Tampa Bay? Not so much.

Fix issues like these, the project says, and the odds here for entrepreneurs to succeed will rise.

Then there is the more fundamental matter of regional self confidence.

"We have a bit of an inferiority complex," White said of this metro region. "We are probably better than we think we are."

SavvyCard CEO Etheredge thinks so. "Tampa already has a superior startup ecosystem that, if we solve the issues with access to capital and cooperation among entrepreneurial support organizations, could become the Austin of the Southeast."

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.