#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Linda Olson, President of Tampa Bay WaVE (Tampa Bay, FL)
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
What’s your role in your ecosystem?
I am the founder and president of Tampa Bay WaVE, a nonprofit that aims to help local startups reach breakout success. Back in 2008, I was just one of several local tech entrepreneurs who was frustrated with gaps in the local ecosystem, but I was also committed to staying and growing my company in my hometown. Originally, Tampa Bay WaVE was merely a peer group for local tech entrepreneurs, but we quickly realized that we entrepreneurs needed to play an active role in solving our region’s ecosystem issues.
Today, WaVE supports around 80 local startups and I spend a lot of my time on outreach to mentors, investors, and other resources that these startups need. But in addition to that operational work, I also work to help foster a culture or mindset in the region that fully embraces the benefits of a vibrant tech & entrepreneurial ecosystem for everyone. I often like to say that my mission is to break the local myth that “It can’t be done here.” I believe Tampa Bay has all the ingredients for a vibrant ecosystem, and we will leave no stone unturned until we reach that point.
Can you tell us a little more about Tampa Bay WaVE?
Our ecosystem in Tampa Bay is full of highly skilled entrepreneurs and tech talent, and the role of Tampa Bay WaVE (a ‘by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs’ 501(c)(3) nonprofit) is to help local founders build, launch, and grow breakout tech businesses in our region. Our job is to not only help entrepreneurs start companies but to also nurture and support them to help them become profitable or fundable or both so they can also stay here and grow here too.
We do this by providing a sustainable source of the critical connections and resources they need to succeed. Thus our primary role in the ecosystem is first as a community builder that helps to connect entrepreneurs, talent, mentors, and other key players. Second, WaVE acts as a feeder to the local investment community by helping local startups become profitable and fundable.
WaVE also offers flexible office space and community event space to better support the startups we serve. Our main location in the heart of downtown Tampa offers an innovative coworking atmosphere, plus opportunities for one-on-one consultations with mentors and subject matter experts. We also recently opened a second downtown location for rapidly-growing post-revenue companies that need plenty of room to expand until their businesses are ready for more traditional commercial real estate options.
What’s the most exciting thing that has happened in Tampa Bay in the past year?
There has been a tremendous amount of excitement generated in Tampa Bay in recent months around the announcement of a $3 billion real estate redevelopment project that will transform downtown Tampa for decades to come. Through his own investment fund, joined by Bill Gates’ Cascade fund, Jeff Vinik (owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning) acquired 40 acres of vacant waterfront land that will be developed into a planned community. The complex will host a new USF medical school and a heart institute, as well as corporate headquarters, residential, hotel, and meeting space, shops, and restaurants.
This news has created enthusiasm for Tampa Bay’s future, spurring other massive real estate development projects nearby. In addition, Vinik has created other headlines over the past several months as he has made a handful of personal investments in local startups. This has sparked much-needed dialogue throughout the community around the need for an innovation-based economy that will attract and retain high quality talent here. You can read more about this here.
While Vinik and these efforts are making headlines, the local ecosystem has also benefitted from the emergence of several new sources of seed and angel funding options over the past year, as well as a significant increase in funding activity. In addition, we expect more funding options to develop since Tampa Bay received both a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant (awarded to the University of South Florida) and a U.S. Small Business Administration grant (awarded to Tampa Bay WaVE) in the last year to help with the launch of new seed funds.
What is the biggest challenge you face in Tampa Bay?
Broadly, Tampa Bay is not yet known for its tech industry, either nationally or here at home, so our startups face challenges around finding a critical mass of early adopters in the local community and beyond. Since early traction is critical to helping startups attract capital, this is a major source of frustration for many local companies. WaVE and several others throughout the region are working diligently on changing this perception. Solving this issue is critical to retaining companies in our region and ensuring that the next great local startup has a chance to reach its full growth potential here.
Beyond this larger issue, we also face challenges around capital access. Florida is the 3rd largest state in the country, but ranks 13th in venture funding. Thus, Tampa Bay also struggles to have a healthy early stage capital market. While more capital is not the sole answer to the region’s ecosystem challenges, our local startups will struggle to reach full potential without sufficient capital sources. While there definitely has been some progress at the seed and angel investment stages within the past year (as noted above), solving the capital gap for local Series A funding sources is becoming more critical.
What are some of the inputs that have helped your ecosystem grow?
First, as mentioned before, the recent emergence of new sources of seed and angel funding in the region have been instrumental in growing our ecosystem.
Second, while many of these new funding sources have only emerged in the past year, the feeders to these funding sources (like WaVE and various university accelerators and incubators) have also seen an uptick in the number of quality startups entering these programs. Tampa Bay is starting to gain a reputation as a great place to start your company for its extensive resource availability and supportive ecosystem. In fact, in the past year, WaVE has actually seen a sizable number of startups moving to Tampa Bay from other parts of Florida and beyond in order to join these programs.
Third, as we see more startups being formed and more quality sources of support for these startups, more local startups are reaching profitability and becoming fundable, as evidenced by the increasing number of companies getting funded. For example, in the past 12 months, WaVE has quadrupled the number of post-revenue companies it is actively supporting.
Fourth, as more companies are receiving funding and hitting newsworthy milestones, the region is also seeing an uptick in media coverage of the local startups and the ecosystem here. This factor is useful in motivating local startups, attracting & retaining local talent, as well as helping feeder organizations like WaVE attract additional mentors and other resources to help local startups. WaVE has doubled its mentor network in the past 12 months with no sign of slowing down.
Finally, the Tampa Bay region is gaining a reputation for its supportive startup community. For example, Tampa Bay was recently one of six communities in the U.S. selected by TechStars to host a Startup Week for three years in a row, with plans for a year four, because of the collaborative nature of the ecosystem players and the consistently enthusiastic participation by all groups with these annual events. The Kauffman Foundation also enjoys not just one but two host locations for its 1 Million Cups in Tampa Bay, both of which are regularly well attended.
What are the most unique features of your startup community?
First of all, Tampa Bay is home to MacDill Air Force Base, where you will find the HQ of USSOCOM & USCENTCOM. With its massive returning veterans population, Tampa Bay is a hotbed of military and defense tech startup activity—think drones, iron man suits & more!
In addition to the defense industry, Tampa Bay also enjoys other unique industry niches such as: Hospitality / Hospitality Tech, EdTech, and HealthTech/BioTech
Finally, Tampa Bay has several unique resources that help to attract and produce entrepreneurial and tech talent for the region:
The University of South Florida’s Center for Entrepreneurship, which has the best entrepreneurship graduate program in the Southeast and is ranked No. 10 in the nation by Entrepreneur and The Princeton Review.
The University of Tampa’s Lowth Entrepreneurship Center, which also has a terrific reputation for its entrepreneurial education and was recently awarded the National Model Program Award for undergraduate entrepreneurship programs by the United States Association for Small Business and Entrepreneurship.
SOFWERX, an intermediary organization created under a partnership between Doolittle Institute and the United States Special Operations Command that assists with collaboration, innovation, prototyping, and exploration with industry, labs, and academic partners.
The Florida-Israel Business Accelerator (FIBA), a Florida-based technology accelerator that is designed to establish and grow successful, high-growth Israeli and Florida tech ventures in the Tampa Bay Area.
Are there specific public policies that have enabled innovation or startup growth in Tampa Bay?
Hillsborough County, the largest local county in our ecosystem, launched a very innovative granting project in 2015 called the Economic Development Innovation Initiative (EDI2) to help foster the local entrepreneurial community. Since its launch, it has funded 87 events with over $670,000 in grant money disbursed to help grow the ecosystem, including the three Startup Weeks mentioned before.
Have you had interactions with local or national policymakers?
WaVE enjoys strong relationships with several local governing authorities including: Hillsborough County Economic Development, Tampa-Hillsborough Economic Development Corp, Tampa Bay Partnership, City of Tampa, City of St. Petersburg. And as two-time recipients of grants from both the EDA and the SBA, WaVE also has strong ties at the federal level.
If you had one wishlist item for something policy leaders could do to help your startup ecosystem, what would it be?
One must be familiar with the geographical layout of Tampa Bay to understand the impact that better transportation solutions would have on our region. Today, the Tampa Bay MSA sustains more than 3 million residents without any true mass transit system. While fantastic entrepreneurial pockets are developing in our region, commuting between these pockets can take up to an hour or more by car, thus limiting the connectivity in our ecosystem which has a detrimental impact on the growth and viability of local startups.
What is your goal for the next year? The next 5 years?
We have several goals for the next 5 years. One of our biggest goals is to foster a community-wide commitment to deploy at least $100 million of investment capital to local startups in the next 3-5 years. Again, capital by itself is not enough to change an ecosystem, but if the community continues to work on the other ecosystem issues, along with commitments from various players in our ecosystem to join us in the combined $100 million goal, this would be transformational.
Related to this, WaVE has a goal to see the launch of a seed fund for its client companies within the coming year, with a plan that would help fund at least 20 of our companies. On top of that, WaVE has a goal to have at least one of those funded companies have a significant exit within the next 5 years.
What are some startups to watch coming out of Tampa Bay?
There are so many great startups in Tampa Bay, but here are some exceptional WaVE companies:
Harness, which offers a mobile platform that helps non-profits, alumni associations, religious organizations, and political campaigns to effectively collect from and engage with their donors.
iTrekkers, a platform that connects customers to a network of independent, vetted guides serving the outdoor adventure market with all-inclusive & very affordable experiences. Think Trip Advisor meets Angie’s List meets Opentable, but strictly for the outdoors.
Knack, which was developed in the Gator Hatchery—the University of Florida’s Entrepreneurship & Innovation Center’s student incubator—and provides a mobile marketplace for students to find tutors.
PikMyKid, a comprehensive school dismissal software that makes school dismissal management smarter, safer, and cheaper. PikMyKid has already expanded beyond the U.S., and they were awarded Sole Source Certification for the NYC Department of Education.
Priatek, a marketing tool that helps to create meaningful consumer engagements through fun experiences. The startup has created an omni-platform network of touchscreen kiosks located in high-traffic locations, mobile apps, and social engagements where consumers can access targeted promotions for the businesses of their choice.
Lumastream, a lighting company that has developed the only end-to-end low-voltage LED lighting technology on the market.