Tampa is still developing an innovative tech ecosystem, but the area is on an accelerated track to be Florida’s — and perhaps even the south’s — newest business hub.
As a Tampa native, I grew up participating in STEM events and competitions. Looking back, I’m unsure if this was the product of my parents’ determination to feed my interest in these areas or if the school system was just that good to keep me engaged from elementary through high school.
I was inspired by movies like “Short Circuit” and “Space Camp” as a child and I would go to the Museum of Science and Industry, University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College campuses. These places felt like home. You see, STEM was a thing back then, just not presented as sexy as today.
I moved back to Tampa almost 16 years ago from the University of Central Florida with an industrial engineering degree. The landscape had changed, yet it was still not fertile ground for breeding successful startups and collaboration.
Back in the early 2000s, as an entrepreneur in Tampa, you would struggle to find help and you most certainly would not feel inspired to stay in the area. Back then everyone in Tampa traveled to Silicon Valley or another city to participate in a hack-a-thon or spent spare time researching where to relocate. Fast forward to today. We have so many programs, organizations, co-working spaces and events geared towards entrepreneurial success.
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The startup landscape has drastically changed on the West Coast of Florida. No really, drastically! Now we have countless organizations and events focused on taking wild ideas and birthing them into viable products. We have large global companies like Microsoft and electronics manufacturer Jabil — the St. Petersburg-based firm is one of the largest in the Tampa Bay area — with over 30,000 employees. New tech firms are setting up offices to take advantage of the talent Tampa is cultivating and attracting.
Plus, we have groups of educators and county programs pushing STEM unlike ever before. The public library system and tech education schools such as The Iron Yard offer code-learning programs to kids and adults. There’s Saturdays at Bar Camp, evenings at F*ck Up Night to learn about mistakes and lessons learned, and there’s Tampa Bay StartUp Week.
It was once hard to find these types of events. Now there is not a week without multiple events happening geared to startups across the four counties making up Tampa Bay.
Visit any area city, county or university website and you will find a list of numerous programs. Even sites like Meetup.com show maker space, IoT followers, 3D printers, women coders, geeks and more where they can gather regularly in the area. These things are enticing for outsiders and are attracting them to the possibility of building their dream while enjoying the diverse culture and beaches.
In Tampa, It is no longer a matter of learning how to turn an idea into a business. It is more about finding funding.
Most organizations are bootstrapping it or trying to use crowdfunding. There have been a few notable sales of startups like Wufoo, or large funding raised for CareSync Inc or TAO Connect. However Tampa entrepreneurs still
need help with obtaining the resources to scale. Funding groups such as the Florida Funders and Florida Angel Nexus are helping to make strides in the state.
Tim Horton is principal of VectorVC, a private investment group with offices in Tampa and across the globe.
“Tampa needs to teach investors, just like the programs teach entrepreneurship,” Horton said. “If it isn’t a restaurant (one of the riskiest investments ever) or a property deal, then Tampa Bay investors don’t know how to look for, evaluate or find the best opportunities in other businesses. The reason Silicon Valley is the model is because they learned how to grow an environment of non-traditional funders in the early 90s when no one else understood what this interWeb thing was going to be.”
Education on investing may be lacking in the area, but people like Jeff Vinik — investor, entrepreneur, and Tampa Bay Lightning owner — are helping to fill the gap.
With the support of Bill Gates, Vinik is focused on pushing Tampa as the tech hub of the south.
New York-based business accelerator group Dreamit recently announced the creation of a Tampa office.
The reality of a West Coast boom for funded innovation finally seems within reach.