Much has been written about Tampa Bay's growing prominence as a hub for startups — particularly in technology.
One of the entrepreneur organizations that helped make it all possible, TEC Garage, wants to stay just as relevant as the companies it has nurtured. That's why the St. Petersburg-based organization has developed a slate of new programs aimed at going above and beyond the role of a traditional business incubator. That includes a renewed focus on individuals.
TEC Garage's parent, the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, was founded 15 years ago. Funding comes from a variety of sources, including a 2003 state grant; a 2012 federal grant; contracts for services; fees from clients; and corporate donations from companies such as Jabil, Duke Energy, Florida Blue and Tucker/Hall. Its annual budget is around $500,000.
In 2014, the organization moved from Largo to downtown St. Pete, where TEC Garage was born. It's a co-working space with an emphasis on personalized, one-on-one coaching for aspiring entrepreneurs.
“We provide weekly coaching,” says TEC Garage Director Steve Parker. “The best thing about being an entrepreneur is that you don't have a boss. The worst part is ... you don't have a boss.”
That's why TEC Garage created the Accelerate, Accelerate Plus and Catalyst programs.
Participants in the Accelerate program receive four hours of one-on-one coaching per month from an experienced entrepreneur and 24/7 access to TEC Garage's co-working amenities, including conference rooms. The Accelerate Plus program adds access to the incubator's Business Leader Mastermind Series, a peer advisory group. The Catalyst program, meanwhile, is a monthly series of educational talks specifically developed for entrepreneurs. The Accelerate program is $300 a month, while the Accelerate Plus is $400 a month.
“Sometimes entrepreneurs can have a tough time finding out what their priorities are and what they need to do,” says Parker, 58. “With our weekly coaching sessions, we hold them accountable.”
Parker adds that TEC Garage's depth of coaching is “a differentiator.” For example, he'll sometimes spend his days off visiting with potential suppliers for TEC Garage's clients. “We'll make sales calls, we'll help them develop pitches, we'll help them with business plans, financials ... virtually every aspect of their business.”
Parker's background is in the high-tech instrumentation and lighting industry. The other TEC Garage's primary business coach is Tom Binion, who works in residential real estate development.
TEC Garage serves startups in various stages of development, from new ideas to companies bringing in $1 million or more in revenue. In 2015 and 2016, it worked with 35 companies that created more than 200 jobs, paid at least $7 million in wages and attracted some $8.11 million in capital investment. Collectively, TEC Garage's clients have brought about 70 products to market and hold 100 patents, the organization says.
Tonya Elmore, who spent many years as a coach and now is president and CEO of TEC Garage and the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, says TEC Garage 2.0, with its individualized focus, is a big improvement on previous incubator models.
“In the early days, we relied heavily on mentors,” says Elmore. “That worked well for some clients, but not so well for others. It often came down to the time that the mentor could put into it. They'll come in, meet with one of our clients and work with them for a couple of months, then they get busy and go back to their real jobs. That led to frustration on the client side.”
One of the biggest success stories at TEC Garage is Tampa-based PikMyKid, founded by former restaurateur Saravana Pat Bhava. It's a smartphone app that allows teachers and school administrators to safely dismiss students from school, and it notifies parents when their children leave the school grounds.
In 2015, Popular Mechanics named PikMyKid one of its “Six Startups to Know.” In 2016, PikMyKid was selected for funding in the Florida Venture Forum Early Stage Competition.