Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
2 min read May 2021 — Tampa Bay is growing a tech ecosystem that is not only disruptive but also inclusive. Tonya Elmore, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, spoke with Invest: and shared her vision of the region’s future, while also discussing progress on the new innovation center that should break ground in the summer.
What were the Innovation Center’s biggest highlights and milestones from the past year?
One of the highlights for the Tampa Bay Innovation Center was completing the design for its new 45,000-square-foot state-of-the-art facility. We worked closely with our community partners over the past few years to make the project a reality. Innovation Centers have proven crucial in growing and solidifying local entrepreneurial ecosystems. A key component of the new facility will include a digital fabrication lab outfitted with 3D printers and laser cutters that will help entrepreneurs design and test their vision for products. The venue will serve entrepreneurs and small businesses at every stage of their business providing access to mentors, investors, and other critical resources. In addition to the digital fabrication lab, there will be 30,000 square feet of dedicated incubator space, classrooms for training programs, a wellness room, podcast studios, a large event space, a community cafe and 10,000 square feet for corporate innovation partners. We expect to break ground over the summer on the building. Completion date is set for July 2023.
How did the Innovation Center manage the pandemic?
In October 2019, we launched our first accelerator program. Since then, we’ve had two more accelerator cohorts go through the program. Due to the pandemic, the last cohorts had to pivot to virtual cohorts. Everything worked successfully despite the virtual shift. We were able to attract companies from the Northeast that would not have participated otherwise because we required participants to attend weekly sessions in St. Petersburg. We were also able to attract nationwide mentors to be part of the program. Additionally, our other programs that had met face-to-face were successfully shifted to virtual sessions. These included our TECH Talk series, Product Discovery Session and CO.STARTERS programs.
How do you see the role of women in the tech field?
I’ve been working in my industry since 2003. In the early years, I had little opportunity to work with female entrepreneurs in tech. More recently, we have had much more engagement in our programs from female founders. To attract more diversity to our programs, we are launching a bootcamp program that will serve as an earlier stage pre-incubator program designed for female and minority founders interested in starting tech companies. Studies show that interest in tech starts in middle school. If more female students are introduced to tech earlier then they are more likely to pursue computer science and engineering degrees in college. From that point it is important that companies and academia work to encourage females to pursue those opportunities in the tech industry. Women are often left out of those conversations and the steps required to get them into the tech workforce. When I obtained my executive MBA in 2002, I was one of six women in the class. During that time, female graduates went on to pursue careers in human resources or non-profit organizations.
How have you seen companies rethink their digital approach due to COVID?
Companies have migrated to virtual meetings, but there is a whole layer of security that makes companies hesitant toward moving entirely online. We are seeing more businesses taking advantage of digital marketing. We refocused and increased our digital presence during the pandemic due to the lack of and restrictions on networking events. Companies throughout the country were experiencing the same challenges. Even investors adapted to investing in companies regardless of their proximity.
What is your outlook for the Innovation Center and the local tech economy toward 2022?
There is a collective effort to grow innovative companies in Tampa Bay. We see an opportunity with increased numbers of founders and entrepreneurs relocating to Florida from the Northeast and the West Coast. This is important to our region from a growth and talent perspective. While we are focused on growing tech companies locally, our partners are working to attract tech companies or their operations from outside our region to Tampa Bay. This influx forces us to reinvent ourselves and our programs to stay current with what the entrepreneurs and founders need. The biggest opportunity for us is to evaluate the type of programs that are being provided and identify those that are going to be more helpful to our community.
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