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  • | 10:00 a.m. November 7, 2014
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The Tampa Innovation Center, a nonprofit entrepreneurship center, is moving from its 11-year home in Largo to St. Petersburg. Though it is quite the downsize, moving from a 30,000-square-foot facility to 6,000 square feet, Tampa Innovation Center President Tonya Elmore says they couldn't be more excited.

The move is the first step in the Tampa Innovation Center's drive to find more entrepreneurs to help build businesses in Pinellas County. Working with a $400,000 grant from the state of Florida, the center's move was part of its latest project, an incubator in downtown St. Petersburg, called TEC Garage.

The 6,000-square-foot facility in St. Petersburg College was designed specifically for entrepreneurs and collaboration, says Elmore. The space has nine offices that are all rented for staff and startups and room for an additional 30 to 40 coworkers, at $100 a month. For $200 a month, a coworker can also receive the benefits of being an incubator client.

Incubator clients have access to mentors and one-on-one coaching. Companies with established management are assigned a vetting committee, with a venture capitalist and business consultant to help evaluate ideas. Perhaps the best part about working at TEC Garage is constant interaction with other entrepreneurs, says TEC Garage client Jerry Robinson. “You walk to get a cup of coffee and you end up sharing ideas. It's rare to do that,” he adds.

Before committing to the shift in facilities, the Innovation Center hired a consultant to do a feasibility study for the new location. The consultant determined the biggest need was for a facility downtown.
“There's a lot going on in St. Petersburg,” Elmore says. “A revival of sorts with the old becoming new again, and millennials coming downtown.”

So far the advice is working. Since the move a couple weeks ago, the Tampa Innovation Center has more than doubled its clients, to more than 30 companies. “The timing is good; five years ago we wouldn't have seen the same impact,” Elmore says. “It wasn't as sexy to work with entrepreneurs five years ago.” The organization has also seen increased interest from mentors and investors, she adds.

The Innovation Center's other clients, including a number of researchers and scientists for defense industry companies, will continue to work at the STAR Center in Largo. The long-term plan is to move the labs to a 40,000-square-foot facility to downtown St. Petersburg, with the TEC Garage as a satellite office. Though a land lease agreement is in place, Elmore says the move is still a few years away.

As a stipulation from the grant, the Tampa Innovation Center has to continue to prove it is making an economic impact in the area, helping increase job numbers, Elmore says. “We have five years; I think we'll do it in the first two years.”

TEC Garage Clients

Jerry and Mary-Jo Robinson's marketing firm wanted to find a way to help clients take ownership of their digital media files. When they couldn't find a solution up to their expectations, they decided to build their own. That's why they created HubCentrix, an online platform to store and view more than 150 different file types from presentation materials to logos to audio and video. The Hub library allows companies to manage digital media and share internally and externally, providing a visual of the file, without needing the file-type software installed on the device. Though they have managed to sell to a range of companies including Madico, the Sun Sentinel, a real estate agency and a large manufacturing company in Milwaukee, the Robinsons think the TEC Garage will help them determine how to scale the business.

When Ron Pothul's teenage daughter got in a car accident from texting and driving, he knew there needed to be a solution to distracted driving. So six years ago he came up with an idea to create a lock box for a driver's phone that prevented a car from being started until the phone was locked inside. Now Pothul is working with his son Jeff to bring the product to market. With their first release targeted for the end of the year, the Pothuls have been surprised to find that the target market most interested in the product is the trucking industry. As new clients to the Tampa Innovation Center, the Pothuls are most excited about the mentorship they'll receive once they move into TEC Garage in January.

Pik My Kid
When restaurateur Saravana Pat Bhava sold his chain of 11 restaurants, he started doing a lot of the household chores, including picking up his daughter from school. Bhava was frustrated by the lack of security and organization in the after school pick up. “We use more technology today to protect milk and eggs in the grocery store than we do for kids in school,” Bhava says. So Bhava worked with his wife to develop PikMyKid, an iPhone app for schools and parents to make school dismissals less chaotic. The app has been live for two months, fully installed in six schools, and Bhava says requests come in every day, everywhere from Fairfax County to a school in Brisbane, Australia. In September, Bhava raised $230,000 to build a minimum viable product, and is currently working on a second round of funding, hoping to raise $500,000.


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