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Resource center helps launch, build, grow businesses

— Local tech entrepreneurs were hard-pressed, just a few years back, to find like minds with whom they could network.

Today, a good number of them are collaborating, commiserating and calculating under one roof, joining a growing movement here of technology incubators and accelerators.

Tampa Bay WaVE, a nonprofit supporting 150 local technology ventures, was recognized last week by the Hillsborough County Commission for realizing the wave of opportunities this area has for entrepreneurs, offering numerous services to area upstarts and existing businesses and helping them to procure more than $8 million in capital.

The WaVE started off in 2008 as more of a ripple, said Linda Olson, one of the new-age entrepreneurs who had sought out others with whom she could share ideas, find capital and perfect a business plan. Just finding each other proved a challenge.

“It was like turning over stones,” she said. The “entrepreneur ecosystem” here, Olson said, was fractured.

Eventually, she set up monthly luncheons with other entrepreneurs who were already moving along with ideas and on their way to growing but sought collaboration. What they found was that there was also an abundance of upstarts out there seeking help. Turning them away from the private group became a real challenge.

Today, the Tampa Bay WaVE offices in the Sykes building downtown are flush with activity, serving those with new ideas and those trying to move to the next level with their products. “The wave of possibilities” is being realized, Olson said.

“This is not a bunch of 20-year-old, hoodie-wearing Mark Zuckerberg wannabes,” Olson said, referring to the well-known founder of Facebook. “There are also a lot of seasoned business people who are going to be wickedly successful because of their experiences.”

Once she and her peers launched the idea, the WaVE grew from miniature to mondo in what seemed like a split second, she said. “Essentially, overnight, we went from all volunteers with a zero budget to operating with well over a half-million-dollar operating budget,” thanks to a federal challenge grant the University of South Florida helped the group obtain.

Tampa Bay WaVE officially launched its First WaVE accelerator program in March 2013, and Olson’s former lunch mates became her fellow board members. A few tech businesses now share office space with them and are also mentoring WaVE members who spend a few days a week, or every day of the week, there working on their projects.

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“We have hundreds of events every year for entrepreneurs,” said Jake Filloramo, accelerator manager for Tampa Bay WaVE. “And we have roundtables once a month. Anyone is welcome.”

Matt Belcher found out about the group strictly by accident. After riding his self-made electric skateboard to Publix in South Tampa one day, a man approached him to chat, then suggested he check out Tampa Bay WaVE.

The material science engineer got help with his company, Marbel, on patenting “the lightest electric vehicle in the world” and got connected with a freight forwarder to deliver the parts he needed, among other assistance.

Having raised nearly $400,000 on the Kickstarter website recently, Belcher is preparing to hire a couple of employees. Then, he’ll begin more rigorous production of his 9.9-pound skateboard designed as an alternative form of transportation to use in areas like Channelside, where he and his wife live.

“They’ve helped connect me with all the right people,” Belcher said. He plans to manufacture right here in Tampa and hire local talent.

Tampa Bay WaVE “helps entrepreneurs find their gateway,” Olson said. “You can do a lot from home alone in your jammies, but sometimes, you need to get out” and join with others to collaborate. “We have a greater chance of succeeding if we stick together. It’s all about collisions of talent, mentors and investors.”

Several other companies are now on their way, as well, with help from Tampa Bay WaVE, including Mama Bear, an app that helps parents track their children in vehicles and online. Mama Bear recently procured $1.4 million in capital funding. There is also St. Petersburg-based SavvyCard, a Web-based system that helps business people network and recommend each others’ services. The company has raised about $1 million, to date.

Entrepreneurs are not invited to join Tampa Bay WaVE just to hang out. They are expected to meet milestones if they wish to stay in the program, Olson said. “We sit down with every company we vet into the program. We come up with six-month milestones and hold them accountable. A lot of these folks have day jobs and homes with mortgages and kids. They can’t quit their job for three months to pursue their entrepreneurial adventure, and we understand that.”

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Tampa Bay WaVE is out to break the myth that it can’t be done here, she said. “If our guys can break the $8 million mark, others can, too.

“Tampa Bay has everything right here to be successful. It’s really a great place to launch and grow a tech startup,” Olson said. “And those businesses that got the capital, they turn that money around and create jobs, over 200 jobs so far, hiring developers, Web designers, hiring salespeople and creating various other jobs.”

County commission Chairman Mark Sharpe, who presented Tampa Bay WaVE with the commendation last week, said its success speaks loudly. “Before Tampa Bay WaVE, we were working on an island. What Linda’s group has been able to do is say there is a place that is open 24/7 that is here to help you out.

“There are so many cool projects underway,” Sharpe said. “I’m just really pumped up about this.”

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