- March 4, 2016
Dieter Kondek comes as close as you can get to an entrepreneur who has done it all.
Kondek has been an executive for large corporations such as IBM and Dell in Europe, he's helped companies go public and has raised venture capital for a host of startups. The native of Germany is now CEO of InsulinNG, a Naples-based company that makes diabetes-testing kits that will soon be available in drugstores.
After years of funding startups in San Francisco, Kondek grew tired of the expense and time it takes to reach the West Coast. So he's setting up shop in an unlikely place for tech startups: the third floor of an old building on Hendry Street in downtown Fort Myers with a creaky elevator.
Welcome to The Rocket Lounge, where you're just as likely to hear people chatting in German as English. The idea is to provide inexpensive space for European and U.S. entrepreneurs to launch their technology companies and participate in an accelerator program privately funded by Kondek and his partners.
As part of that effort, Kondek plans to raise $5 million by September for an angel fund to invest in the most promising tech companies. Separately, Kondek and his partners are raising another $30 million for a health care fund.
The idea is to create a hub for tech startups that will draw more investors to the area. “We want to convince VCs to open here,” Kondek says. “They follow the deal flow.”
Kondek has a track record of success in this arena. He is the co-founder of Society3 Ventures, a venture firm that hosts European and U.S. companies in San Francisco and gets them ready for investors by mentoring them and presenting the best ones at organized pitch events. “We've done about 1,200 startups,” Kondek says.
But startups have been priced out of San Francisco. Housing, salaries and other costs of living are astronomical. “We can't afford to live and start our companies in San Francisco,” Kondek says entrepreneurs have told him.
Kondek says he explored setting up The Rocket Lounge in another Florida city such as Tampa, Sarasota or Miami. But there is a well-established connection between Germany and Southwest Florida. Like many Germans, Kondek has a vacation home in Cape Coral.
Besides, Florida is closer to Europe than California, especially with Air Berlin's nonstop flights from Germany into Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. “Fourteen-hour flights are a problem,” Kondek says, referring to the distance between Europe and California.
Still, Fort Myers isn't exactly the hotbed of technology. “We have to start now,” says Kondek, who draws parallels to Austin, Texas, which has become a technology hub in recent years thanks to visionary entrepreneurs and venture capitalists.
A key to success is Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. “We need the university to deliver the software engineers,” says Kondek, who hosted Ron Toll, the university's provost and vice president for academic affairs, at The Rocket Lounge's grand opening recently.
In addition to the university, Kondek says other ingredients for a successful technology hub are here, too: wealthy individuals and entrepreneurs who can mentor startups. “I see this as the Southwest Florida technology ecosystem,” Kondek says.
Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss