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Incubators playing key role in nurturing Tampa Bay area startups

Tribune staff
Published: June 30, 2013 Updated: July 1, 2013 at 06:49 AM
Businesses along the 5600 block of Park Boulevard in Pinellas Park are part of a development to help new businesses. LUKE JOHNSON/STAFF

PINELLAS PARK - Over the past several months, the City of Pinellas Park has been buying up aging properties on the north side of Park Boulevard and renting them at low cost to startups, artists and student entrepreneurs.

Last month, Clearwater officials signed an agreement with a small but growing web design firm to help pay its rent in a new downtown office space and place it in an incubator program for local IT companies.

In St. Petersburg, Mayor Bill Foster recently announced the creation of a small business center called the Greenhouse where advisers from the city, chamber of commerce and other groups will help new entrepreneurs get everything from permits to loans.

As the economy slowly recovers both in the Tampa Bay area and across the country, business leaders say it's the startups that will ultimately lead the way to more jobs.

But they need help.

"Money is harder to get now, no doubt about it, and there's a recognition that the traditional manufacturing operations that used to be the backbone of this country are not here any longer," said Dave Goodwin, St. Petersburg's planning and economic development director.

"There's a new economy growing, and it's entrepreneur-based."

Across the Tampa Bay area, several business incubators run by nonprofit groups have started in recent years, offering these entrepreneurs low-cost workspace and expert guidance to help them establish a strong customer base or land outside investment.

St. Petersburg's new Greenhouse will link entrepreneurs to these programs, while assisting others directly with creating business plans or obtaining small business loans through partners such as GulfCoast Business Finance or the U.S. Small Business Administration.

More importantly, by bringing all of the city's public and private business support programs under one roof at this two-story building at 440 Second Ave. N., startups will get the professional connections and expertise they need to lure outside investment, Goodwin said.

"That's going to generate thoughts and ideas and, hopefully, interest from the investment community," Goodwin said.

Foster envisioned the Greenhouse as a way to convert the city's Small Business Assistance Center into a 24-hour, one-stop shop for business owners.

"If you come to St. Pete and you want to open up a café but you don't know anything about opening up a business, we will literally walk you through the process," Foster said.

Even though it will serve as a larger umbrella for a myriad of city programs, the Greenhouse is just a piece of a larger business ecosystem in the Tampa Bay area that's helping to raise the area's profile as a small business hub.

Groups such as the Tampa Bay WaVE, Gazelle Lab and the Tampa Bay Innovation Center have been offering classes, training and mentoring for years to startups across the region, mostly in technology-related fields.

WaVe, a Tampa-based nonprofit, has helped start dozens of web and mobile technology ventures that make everything from smartphone apps to robots used for educating children.

The Innovation Center runs incubator programs to help startups in medical technology, informational technology and variety of other ventures from its headquarters in Largo.

Its clients employ 100 workers who have launched more than 70 new products since the center's inception in 2003.

Clearwater web design firm Great Circle Studios will be the first entrant in the Innovation Center's new virtual incubator.

Staff from the center and a board of area business leaders will advise the 12-person firm in the coming months as it begins hiring new staff and growing its client base.

Unlike traditional incubators, where small firms use an organization's physical office space and equipment until they reach their growth goals, the Clearwater program is remote, with advisers helping via teleconferencing.

"A software company can get a 100 square-foot space and launch from anywhere," said Tonya Elmore, the center's director.

Clearwater city officials estimate there are about 600 people working in the IT sector in and around downtown, and they'd like to see that number go up.

The Innovation Center is also looking to build a physical technology incubator in St. Petersburg focused on marine science, biotechnology and health care - industries that require large and expensive lab space.

A state grant will pay for $400,000 of that project, and Elmore said the center is conducting a study about demand in the local market that should open the door to federal dollars.

Technology startups located downtown St. Petersburg will have ample opportunity to collaborate with and potentially do business for major marine science and medical centers such as SRI and Johns Hopkins Medicine, said Mike Meidel, Pinellas County economic development director.

Under the guidance of incubator staff, a startup with a handful of people has the potential to grow into several hundred, he said.

"What you're creating is not just a physical space but a network of people and resources," Meidel said.

City leaders in Pinellas Park have a slightly different goal for their business incubator: reviving a neglected commercial district.

Their first move was to buy out a homeless shelter in the middle of Park Boulevard's 5600 block that had been looking to expand.

Since December, the city has spent more than $1 million to purchase eight lots on the north side of Park Boulevard, all except a chiropractic office, the Bottles Pub and City Councilman Rick Butler's realty office.

The city has also purchased more than a dozen small lots in the United Cottages development behind the district, building two-story homes on two parcels that are now being rented to a commercial sign business and an artist.

A group from St. Petersburg College's entrepreneurship program plans to fill out one of the vacant office spaces on Park, and a metal artist is moving his studio into the old Dolphin Plumbing building on the block's west end.

"The biggest thing lacking for most start-up businesses is money and support, and that's where we come in. You need a place? Yeah, we've got a place for you," said Butler, who opened his real estate business here in 1979.

Tenants will pay low rents for the first few months, and the leases will gradually increase as expected business grows until they become successful enough to move out into more expensive space.

"We're hoping they're going to buy into it and they're going to improve the neighborhood," Butler said.

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