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Big tech dreams get a boost with local incubators

As Bruce McElroy’s mother fought bone and breast cancer three years ago, he was stunned by her increasingly complicated prescription regimen. It took McElroy, his sister and his brother-in-law, both of whom are in the medical field, to sort out her medicine.

“They were coming up with some pretty complex medication schedules,” the former marketing and advertising executive said. “Every other day, you take 25 milligrams of this, and every third Thursday you take 15 milligrams of this, and it would all fluctuate in between.”

He thinks he has a solution: He’s designed a patient-empowered medication reminder, built around a tablet computer that organizes medication schedules, delivers information about interactions, side effects and cautions for those medications, displays when medication is to be taken, can detect whether a medication bottle has been removed from its holder and can notify family members and caregivers if medication is not being taken properly.

McElroy’s company, MTM Research, is among hundreds of tech startups surfacing in the Tampa Bay area. Many credit that to entrepreneurship programs at the area’s universities. But another factor is prompting tech insiders such as GeekWire to describe the area as having “startup fever in a big way.”

A dozen or so tech incubators, collaborative programs that help entrepreneurs solve some of the problems commonly associated with building a startup, have popped up around the Tampa Bay area. The heads of nearly 200 companies are rubbing elbows, collaborating and brainstorming at just the top four of those incubators combined.

“When you’re first starting out, you need resources,” said McElroy. “And those resources are people that have done it, or people that can point me to the people that know how to do it, and that’s what TEC Garage has given me,” he said, from the tech workspace tucked away in St. Petersburg College’s downtown campus. “Sure, if you’re an engineer and you come up with a part that goes on a car, you can probably do that in a silo. But for everything else, I think you have to have a place like this. It’s been great. It’s been fabulous so far.”

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Tech incubators, accelerators, co-work spaces and camps offer various levels of equipment, space, seed funding, mentoring and training. They typically vet membership to entrepreneurs with valid, constructive ideas that can be turned into revenue, but workshops are often open to the public.

The organizations receive funding through grants, sponsorships, program fees and occasionally public funding. Some private incubators and accelerators take stakes in the companies they work with.

At a conference room at the University of South Florida, a group of students who were members of the Student Innovation Incubator brainstormed on a recent afternoon.

The incubator allows access to high-tech collaborative office space, grant funding and industry mentor pairings. There are 39 student start-ups in the program in its third year.

“It’s such a vital thing to have those resources. They’re very complex,” said Shelby Povtak, a senior who started Tampa Tableaux, a project linking dancers and artists for monthly site-specific dance shorts filmed at iconic Tampa Bay area locations. “I feel like this incubator gives (entrepreneurs), especially in biological and medical, the opportunity to change the world.”

In the same building in USF’s Research Park is the crown jewel of local incubators, the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator, with over $1 million in shared lab equipment available to startups, labs complete with fume hoods, deionized water, flammable storage, office space and, most importantly, connections.

The USF incubator currently houses 64 startups. “About a third of them are joining the program with an existing relationship with the university,” said Stephanie Ashley, director of business incubation and economic development. “Other companies are either from the local community or from outside, but want that relationship with the university. There is the space opportunity, yes, but it really is those relationships with our students as potential interns and future workforce, and faculty.”

Entrepreneurship advocates often talk about building a “tech ecosystem” that feeds off itself. With events, meet-ups, access to capital, places to hang out, incubators and accelerators, and a huge push from USF, USF St. Petersburg, the University of Tampa and community colleges, that’s starting to happen here, said Tonya Elmore, president of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, which hosts the TEC Garage.

“There’s this whole ecosystem, and it’s so critical, because those parts have been missing for a period of time, whereas you look at other communities across the world, they weren’t. There’s this whole startup mania,” she said. “For the first time I see people coming from out West wanting to move to this area, because a lot of good things are happening in this area. Not in mass quantities, but in the past, we never saw that.”

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In the GeekWire article penned after a visit to Tampa Bay Startup Week in February, co-founder John Cook said the area is “making a serious play to create one of the country’s most desirable entrepreneurial hubs.”

In an interview this week from Seattle, he said the establishment of new incubators and accelerators was one of the reasons he drew that conclusion.

“It’s not something that is unique to Tampa, but the fact that it is percolating there is a good sign that there is interest in building an entrepreneurial culture,” Cook said. One drawback for the Tampa Bay area: Being so far away from the venture capital centers of New York and Boston.

A lot of regions struggle with that, he said, but in many areas, state governments are making efforts to spark the capital need. One way to sell that is the economic development potential of home-grown startups.

“The point is that having a vibrant tech ecosystem is how a community like the Tampa Bay region can make sure it’s going to have a part of its economy that is going to be relevant for the future,” said Linda Olson, president of downtown Tampa’s Tampa Bay WaVE. “Tech talent, as well as tech entrepreneurs, are going to go somewhere, and we want them to stay here.”

Through his company, Sigil, recent USF computer science grad Chris Collazo is designing a website that aims to revamp the way companies and their customers interact, similar to the way the software industry does.

He said the USF facilities — he hopes to jump from the student incubator to the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator — provide “a disruption of the status quo” for entrepreneurial students.

He cited the traditional career path of a USF student — graduation, maybe an internship, then a steady job.

“Does that end up being a net gain for Tampa? Yeah, they got a job, but they’re not necessarily starting a new business that’s adding value to the area. And that’s a terrifying prospect.”

Students with an entrepreneurial bent are intimidated by the prospect of starting a business, with legal issues, structural issues, taking a risk and not having a “real job,” when those students could instead seek a more stable situation.

“Then an incubator comes along and gives them those resources and tells them, ‘No, this is possible, here’s what you need to get started, we’re going to help you.’ That’s a huge relief of pressure.

“When a student has something available like that, when they now have the option to consider, ‘Do I want to go the normal path or do I want to actually innovate and do something new,’ suddenly it’s possible, and that’s a huge benefit for the Tampa Bay area at large.”

 

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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