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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 10 months ago

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An entrepreneur — barely of legal age to drink alcohol — hopes to nurture and grow the Southwest Florida tech scene.
by: Ted Carter Contributing Writer

A growth spurt and a deeper well of funding could be ahead for Southwest Florida's tech startup sector through an ambitious project initiated by a young Fort Myers entrepreneur.

But while Matt Hurley, 21, is young, he's not a novice. For starters, he launched, ran and sold a successful web marketing agency before his senior prom. Hurley's current vision, backed by several investment partners, is to create a business incubator that will shelter and invest in promising young tech companies that spawn other companies and investments. Hurley says his partners include “individuals, family offices and corporations.”

The project, H2 Innovation Center, is planned for the former 123,000-square-foot Atrium Executive Center at the southwest corner of College Parkway and Winkler Avenue. By summer 2018, Hurley expects to welcome the first of what he hopes will be around 125 startups. He expects to draw tenants from within the region, state and nation.

The project has the potential to be a welcome addition to the Southwest Florida tech startup scene, joining Endeavor Workspaces in Fort Myers and VentureX in Naples. “Startup capital is particularly scarce in Southwest Florida, so having another source of early stage capital is great for the region,” says Timothy Cartwright, partner at Fifth Avenue Advisors and chairman of Tamiami Angel Funds.

With H2, Hurley is also chasing the ultimate economic development dream: A region with a diversified economy that's better able to withstand a battering of the real estate market like that of the recession.

Leases and other landlord-tenant concerns will be part of everyday business at the center. But commercial real estate is not the strategy, says Hurley. “We don't look at it as a real estate deal,” he says. “Real estate is the fuel.”

The idea, instead, is to build an infrastructure to foster the startups in a process that leads to a technology hub. Help with leadership and financial skills and mentoring to bring business and personal growth will be among the incubator's offerings, Hurley says.

The fact that Fort Myers isn't a traditional tech mecca is an advantage, says Hurley, not a drawback. That's because midsize markets such as Southwest Florida, Hurley says, give startups and early-stage companies better opportunities to be discovered than places like Boston and San Francisco. “It's hard to work through those markets and find the real potatoes on what's really going on,” he adds.

A key challenge will be to fund the startup of the facility. The purchase and extensive remodel of the former Atrium building, Hurley says, will run about $20 million. That includes an overhaul led by Fort Myers-based Stevens Construction. The incubator will occupy about 42,000 square feet and additional square footage will go to shared workspaces. Office suites and an “innovation” theater also will be included, Hurley says.

Hurley expected to close on the purchase of the building Oct. 31. That was delayed, and Hurley, in a late October interview, says he plans to close on the purchase “in the near future.”

A solid piece of the capital H2 will put toward the project comes for the 2016 sale of Hurley's Torchlight Productions. That's the online marketing company Hurley started at 17 in 2012 with Cypress Lakes High School classmate Steven McIntyre. The firm became “very successful,” Hurley says, brokering digital ads and building websites and apps for clients nationwide. Hurley declines to disclose the sale price for Torchlight. “What I will say is I feel very blessed to have been able to make it happen as it has afforded me significant financial opportunities,” he says.

Hurley expects he and his partners will mostly self-fund the project, though some community bank financing is likely. “My intent is to go long-term,” he says, noting Torchlight “did not afford me the opportunity to do what I am doing now.”

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