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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 5 months ago

Summit organizer builds on momentum

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National buzz over Tampa’s arrival as a go-to region for tech startups and companies continues to percolate. Brian Kornfeld has played a key role in the rise.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

Clearwater native Brian Kornfeld did the rocket scientist thing after he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a master’s from the University of Florida, both in aerospace engineering. He moved to Los Angeles and worked for Northrop Gruman.

But Kornfeld longed to get back to Tampa and launch his own business. He returned to the region, got an MBA from USF in 2014 and started a software company — a startup, he says, that soon became “a complete and utter failure.” One reason it flopped, Kornfeld heard, was people told him Tampa wasn’t really a tech startup kind of town. “One of the things I kept hearing was there was not enough talent, not enough money and not enough customers,” says Kornfeld, 37. “But that didn’t make sense to me. I had to find out why.”

The led Kornfeld to a series of meetings and events, where, eventually, through a friend, in 2016 he met Jeff Vinik, Tampa Bay Lighting owner. Vinik was making a splash in the local tech scene by investing in nascent companies. The pair bonded over the lack of one big, overarching entity to connect the region’s far-flung startups, entrepreneurs and investors. Those conversations, Kornfeld says, “changed the trajectory of everything,” specifically leading to a new organization, Synapse. The goal: Create a coherent brand, message and gathering place — both online and in real life — for the Tampa region and Florida’s technology professionals and entrepreneurs.

‘Florida is not just a place for tourism and development. The state has an entrepreneurial culture. It’s not just Florida Man and alligators.’ Brian Kornfeld, Synapse

“Florida is not just a place for tourism and development,” Kornfeld says. “The state has an entrepreneurial culture. It’s not just Florida Man and alligators.”

Synapse is a nonprofit, run under the Florida Next Foundation, an organization founded by onetime Florida gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink. Ned Pope, an official with Tampa-based software consulting firm AgileThought and the former president of Florida Next, is on Synapse’s board; Kornfeld says Synapse absorbed the Florida Next board and created a doing business as entity under it in 2018.

Synapse essentially has three side to its mission. One is an online platform to connect people in the tech community. Another is a series of crowdsource-based technology challenges to find and award young talent. A third side is events, built around the Synapse Summit. The 2020 Synapse Summit is scheduled for Feb. 11-12 at Amalie Arena. The organization’s third consecutive annual big-ticket event, scheduled speakers include Spanx CEO Sarah Blakely and Priceline founder Jeff Hoffman.   

The summits, Kornfeld says, give Synapse and its connection mission a big platform. “We needed a way to kick this thing off,” he says. “We don’t have a [technology] village in Florida. We don’t have any way for people to bump into other people. That’s how you can really connect people.”

The first summit, in March 2018, had about 1,500 attendees. Last year that figure jumped to about 3,500. Synapse officials expect to have about 6,000 people attend the 2020 summit. Kornfeld is also thinking wider, hoping to put on Synapse Summits in other cities and regions, including Jacksonville, Gainesville, South Florida and Tallahassee. Synapse also hosted a summit last fall in Orlando — at a biker bar — that drew 1,200 attendees.

One of the keys to a successful summit, Kornfeld has learned, is to set up the booth and exhibit floor in a circular fashion with a deliberate order, say a fintech startup next to GTE, one of the largest credit unions in the state. That helps build networking and camaraderie. Another key is to make lots of seats and room at the bar areas, where Kornfeld says a high volume of networking takes place.

For the 2020 summit, another big part will be virtual reality, augmented reality and how the technology intersects with health care, financial and other sectors. “I want people to have an immersive experience,” Kornfeld says.

That immersion carries through to companies and entrepreneurs gaining customers, investors and other leads through Synapse. “I’m proud that Florida is starting to get some attention on the national radar,” Kornfeld says. “People are starting to take notice of us.”

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