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Monday, Nov 24, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Henderson: New ideas happening right here in Tampa

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Christian Kotscher had a lot of time to think. He was stuck in traffic at the bottom of a hill near the Atlanta airport earlier this week. Oh, did he have time. He said it took four hours of inching through gridlocked traffic for a few miles just to reach the hill.

It took another two hours to climb the hill.

There he was, a man alone with his thoughts.

I’ll paraphrase for him: If only the right people had received timely information that a major ice storm was about to paralyze the largest city in the South, officials might have been able to dispatch salt trucks and other equipment to that hill before it became too treacherous to climb.

Cars went up, cars slid back down.

Cars went boom when they bounced off other cars.

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Kotscher told his story to me Friday morning at Buddy Brew, the cozy little coffee shack near downtown Tampa. For the last couple of years, an eclectic gathering of movers, shakers and tech-makers gather there each week to brainstorm and network.

Here is what this means for you:

Kotscher created a company called metrotech, which, not surprisingly, provides the kind of information to planners that might have helped Atlanta avoid the icy nightmare on the roadways commuters endured this week. He is talking to local leaders about moving the company here, to tap into what is an increasing availability of tech-savvy workers.

Just look around. They are everywhere, and it’s not just college buddies working out of their garages — although there is some of that. Gatherings like the ones at Buddy Brew bring people with skills and ideas together in a free-flowing exchange that basically goes, “What if we tried this?”

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Take Renz Kuipers, for instance. He helped create Carvoyant in Odessa, which brings new meaning to the term “smart cars.” A platform, already built, allows a device to be installed in cars as old as 1996 models. From there, apps can, among many other things, reload a parking meter when a driver is running out of time.

He says it can alert a driver to a specific problem in the car, then offer nearby locations where it can be fixed. It can pay your tolls, or even work on your expense form for the office.

“To give you an idea,” Kuipers said, “think about what happened when Apple’s cellphone turned into a smartphone.”

His company has two full-time employees and three founding members. The rest of the workforce consists of independent operators with specific skills. That’s the general model for much of the local tech community, and the talent pool is growing. Potential defense cutbacks in the coming years could leave a lot of highly skilled workers at MacDill needing opportunities, for instance.

Where does this end?

No one knows. It’s not like service and warehouse jobs aren’t lovely, but if Tampa could become a hub for these brainy, motivated people, we all would benefit. That might take some government cooperation in the form of public-private partnerships, but even then it will take an attitude change about the kind of Florida we want going forward.

Do we want to offer tax and other incentives for existing companies to move here? Maybe, but it might make better public policy to encourage the kind of thinking that creates products we don’t yet know we need. I mean, there was a time when the idea of carrying 1,000 songs on a device that fits into your pocket was ridiculous.

Or, as Kotscher said, “If you give people data they can trust, they can make better decisions.”

What do you imagine people in Atlanta would have given this week to know what their ride home was going to be? One thing is certain: They had a lot of time to think about it.

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