Column: The startup revolution is thriving in Tampa Bay

Published April 26, 2019

A little over a decade ago, I invested in a Tampa Bay area startup called Revolution Money. Just two years later, it was acquired by American Express. Revolution Money provided secure payments through an internet-based platform, lowered transaction fees paid by retailers and increased access to credit and debit cards for lower-income consumers. Ken Chenault, the then-chairman and CEO of American Express, said the company had "cutting edge e-payment offerings." And it was built right here in Tampa Bay.

In the 12 years since that investment, the Tampa Bay region has continued to transform into an attractive environment for innovation. Last year, named Tampa Bay one of the top 40 U.S. cities for entrepreneurs and the top-ranked market for women-owned businesses. The last point is particularly impressive, as women remain woefully underrepresented in the startup world, receiving less than 10 percent of venture dollars last year. These accomplishments didn't happen by accident, they are the result of the ongoing work and collaboration between the region's government officials, business leaders and startup community to make Tampa Bay a high-tech city that draws young talent and startups.

That's why I am bringing my Rise of the Rest Road Trip to Tampa Bay on May 1 to shine a spotlight on the growing startup community here and the extraordinary list of the more than 60 startup support organizations that support it. Over the past five years, Revolution's Rise of the Rest bus tour has visited 38 cities and traveled more than 10,000 miles to witness what is happening in startup ecosystems that are frequently overlooked by Silicon Valley investors. In addition to Tampa Bay, for the first time we are spending the majority of our tour in one state, visiting Orlando, Miami and the Space Coast. We will end the week in Puerto Rico to better understand the role of entrepreneurship in helping to rebuild the island's economy following Hurricane Maria.

During the Road Trip, we convene business leaders, government officials, startup founders, ecosystem builders, local investors and business-support organizations to see how the region is supporting its startup community. Each city I have visited in the past five years on tour is vastly different, but each one is capitalizing on the factors that make their city unique. And Tampa Bay is no exception.

With citywide expertise in development and real estate, developers and city officials have put extensive thought into the built environment in Tampa Bay to make it an attractive place for young people to live and work while also leveraging the benefits of technology to make the city safer, cleaner and healthier for the entire community. As a result, the region is home to several incubators, co-working spaces and accelerators including Station House, Tampa Bay Innovation Center, Tampa Bay Wave and the forthcoming Embarc Collective, each designed to uniquely support entrepreneurs in the region.

Additionally, Tampa Bay is actively addressing a concern we recognize and discuss in many cities: the regional brain drain of tech talent to traditional hubs. Tampa Bay is working to reverse this trend with programs like the University of South Florida's Center for Entrepreneurship, a nationally ranked program designed to support budding founders and leading technological minds.

And in a quest to become a high-tech city, Tampa Bay has taken into account emerging technology like driverless cars and formed partnerships with companies like Waze and Tesla to help residents make better transportation decisions and effectively make the area easier to get around and more desirable.

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On Wednesday I'll spend the day visiting companies such as the Penny Hoarder (one of the largest personal finance websites in the world, ranked by the Inc. 5000 in 2017 as the No. 1 fastest-growing private media company in the United States), Ablenook (a company making easy-to-assemble modular homes that can be deployed in disaster-relief scenarios), and SOFWERX, (a Ybor City organization and rapid prototyping lab designed to bring innovation to soldiers in the battlefield), we will end our day with a pitch competition.

The competition will feature eight local early stage startups competing for a $100,000 investment from Revolution's Rise of the Rest Seed Fund, our early stage $150 million fund backed by current and former locals Jeff Vinik and Sara Blakely, as well as other investors and entrepreneurs such as Henry Kravis, Ray Dalio, Meg Whitman, Mike Bloomberg, Jeff Bezos and Eric Schmidt. And in a sign of enthusiasm from the Tampa Bay community, we have already moved from our first pitch competition site to a larger venue at ConnectWise HQ, because of the overwhelming response from residents who want to show their support for the finalists.

However, despite what appears to be great enthusiasm for building an innovation ecosystem, there is more work to be done. According to National Venture Capital Association data, Florida receives less than 2 percent of all venture capital funding. And Tampa Bay just a fraction of that. It's emblematic of a larger problem where nearly 80 percent of all funding goes to just three states: Massachusetts, New York and California That's a dynamic we all need to work to change. I look forward to seeing firsthand how Tampa Bay is successfully working to do that for the next generation of startup founders.

Steve Case is the co-founder of AOL and the chairman and CEO of Revolution LLC, a Washington DC-based investment firm as well as Chairman of the Case Foundation and author of the Third Wave.