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County initiative’s funding to advance tech start-ups reaches $600,000

— A year-old county economic initiative created to advance start-up technology businesses and bring high-paying jobs to this area has shelled out about $600,000 so far to fund incubators and forums to assist entrepreneurs.

The money, doled out in the form of grants by the Hillsborough County Economic Development Innovation Initiative, or EDI2, is helping to create an “ecosystem” designed to bring business experts to the Tampa Bay area and draw in venture capitalists ready to fund some big ideas, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who initiated the program.

“We listened to the start-up community and we are supporting the entities that are bringing collaborators here,” Sharpe said. “The goal is not to tell people what to focus on. The goal is to nurture the tech start-up ecosystem, then they will flourish and grow.”

This is the third funding cycle for the program.

Groups like Start-Up Grind and TiE (The Indus Entrepreneurs)Tampa Bay have received grant money, which they are using to host community events, bringing in business professionals to help people “move their concepts forward in a collaborative environment,” said Lindsey Kimball, director of Economic Development for the county.

TiE Tampa Bay, for example, hosts events each month, pairing experts with entrepreneurs, said Director Kamlesh C. Darji. “One of the things we do is mentor businesses, start-up and existing. We are a catalyst for innovation and growth. We actually have members who will see an idea and to keep it robust, they will invest in it.”

Recently, TiE Tampa Bay, a global organization with a local chapter, brought in speaker Knwal Rekhi, the first Indian-American businessman to take a venture-backed company public on the NASDAQ stock exchange. A venture capitalist, angel investor and entrepreneur, Rekhi now serves as the managing director of Inventus Capital Partners.

“We actually bring global resource experts to Tampa,” Darji said. “Capital and mentors, people who have done it.”

Darji said TiE Tampa Bay is using its $25,000 in grant money to fund the speaker series.

Start-up Grind, another global organization with local ties, hosts “fireside chats” for entrepreneurs once a month, inviting people in who have built and sold multiple companies.

“So far, I know connections we have made at the events have resulted in three companies getting funded,” said Start-Up Grind Director Joy Randels. The group has hosted seven events here to date, using its $2,000 in grant money to video the events and post them on line.

Derek Anderson, originally from Carrollwood, founded Start-Up Grind 2 1/2 years ago and the group now has chapters around the globe, Randels said. “We are educating would-be entrepreneurs. We get venture capitalists and angel investors to come. In the audience, connections are made.

At its events, Randels said, presenters allow the audience to interview them on subjects like how they built their businesses, their thoughts on rapid innovation and how they raised venture capital.

“We post the presentations on line, so people all around the world see what is going on in Tampa Bay,” Randels said. “It educates people here and shows people outside of our community what we are doing.”

EDI2 has a set of criteria it uses to decide which groups gets grant money, Kimball said. “We look at the impact their project will have on the community, as a whole. They provide us information on how they will improve and strengthen our entrepreneurial community.” EDI2 will fund 50 percent of the cost of an event or series of events.

“We have two buckets,” Kimball said. One bucket provides grant money direct to service providers like Tampa Bay Wave, a local incubator for some 150 technology ventures. The second bucket is for professional entities that host events for the entire community, like Start-Up Grind, she said.

So far, 60 groups have applied for funding through EDI2 and 30 have received grants.

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