Is Tampa Bay The Next Great Innovation Hub? Synapse Thinks So.

By Raubi Perilli |

  | Feb 13, 2020  /  Solutions |

When you think of a major innovation hub, you likely think of Silicon Valley or New York or even a smaller market like Austin.  

But, Synapse is working to make the Tampa Bay area synonymous with innovation -- and it’s working.

What Is Synapse?

Synapse is a Florida-based non-profit established in 2017 with a mission to connect “entrepreneurs, investors, and other stakeholders to accelerate success in Florida’s thriving economies.”  

Co-founders and Tampa Bay residents, Brian Kornfield and Marc Blumenthal were inspired to create Synapse after recognizing the substantial growth in Florida (in particular in the Tampa Bay region) and seeing both massive potential and a big problem.  

The massive potential was the growing innovation ecosystem.  

The big problem was that there was no way to bring it together to cultivate it.  

Florida has the 17th largest economy in the world with a gross domestic product (GDP) of more than $1 trillion, and six markets in Florida were recently listed as top Surge Cities by Inc. Magazine (with Orlando coming in at #19 and Tampa at #20).

But unlike other major innovation hubs, Florida hasn't quite developed a strong community and network needed to support the growth and the people creating the ideas and businesses leading to that growth.  

Kornfield and Blumenthal sought to change this problem through Synapse.  

Synapse is one organization that offers three ways to support Florida’s growing innovation ecosystem.

  1. Synapse Connect is an online platform that connects members of the innovation community. Founders, investors, corporations, services providers, and governments can use the online platform to find partners and support for their projects and vision.
  2. Synapse Challenges are a type of idea crowdfunding for ideas. Organizations looking for solutions post a challenge, and innovators submit their ideas for fixing it and earn a chance to win prizes, build their portfolio, and develop relationships with innovative Florida organizations.
  3. Synapse Events are in-person events designed to bring members of the innovation community together in one place to share ideas and build meaningful relationships.

Synapse Events have had the biggest impact in the organization -- a fact that was reflected this week when the 2020 Synapse Innovation Summit was held in downtown Tampa.

The 2020 Synapse Summit

The 2020 Synapse Summit took place on February 11-12 at the Amalie Arena in Downtown Tampa.  

Image Via @synapseflorida

It was the third Synapse Summit held in the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning (although the very first Synapse Summit is considered to be a smaller gathering of local thought-leaders that helped pave the way for the larger Synapse that we know now).  

Over 7,200 founders, investors, corporations, services providers, students, and university and government employees gathered under one roof to make connections, learn, and showcase their businesses.

There were seven stages, over 350 speakers, and more than 300 exhibitors -- all displaying the innovation happening right here in Tampa Bay.

Exhibit Halls Highlight Tampa Bay’s Range of Innovative Companies

Proof that Tampa Bay is evolving into a great breeding ground for startups and successful businesses was spread across two floors of exhibitors at Synapse.  

From fintech and healthcare to software, apps, AI, and blockchain tools, a variety of exhibitors showcased both innovative new concepts and success stories.  

Startups like Unbound, an app that helps travelers discover and book their perfect travel experiences, to Blue Halo Biomed, a new type of catheter that can reduce infection rates, show the range of innovative new businesses that are starting and growing in the Tampa Bay area.  

While businesses like Connectwise showcased what is possible on the exit-side of big enterprise. The Tampa-grown IT service management company was acquired last year for $1.5 billion -- turning 70 local employees into millionaires. Synapse also highlighted one of the Bay Area’s most notorious founders.

Self-Made Billionaire Spanx Founder Had Her Homecoming

Before Sara Blakely was the billionaire founder of Spanx, she was living along a canal in Clearwater Beach and attending Clearwater High School.

Synapse was a sort of homecoming for her. With her parents, family, and friends in the audience, Blakey took the main stage for a keynote that shared parts of her story that led to her founding her billionaire dollar shapewear company. Proudly proclaiming that her husband often says, “You can take Sara out of Clearwater, but you can’t take Clearwater out of Sara,” she shared anecdotes about early days of her company.  

Image Via @synapseflorida

Inspiring the room full of entrepreneurs, Sara encouraged founders not to wait for permission. Sara says her ability to not embarrass easily is what gave her the guts to do non-traditional (and not approved) things like traveling to department stores that were selling her products and acting like a salesperson and setting up her own displays.

As a Florida native, Blakely was the ideal keynote to highlight the talent and potential surrounding the Bay Area.

Incubators and Investments Show This Is Just The Beginning

For innovation to flourish and grow, it takes more than good ideas, ambition, and drive. It often also takes money.

Synapse also pulled that into the equation and highlighted the many organizations in the Tampa Bay area that are helping new startups launch and grow.  

The event’s Pitch Madness Startup Debate created a competition between eight new organizations for the grand prize of $10,000.

And, during the event, JPMorgan Change announced a two-year $500,000 investment to the Tampa Bay Wave and Embarc Collective to develop a new program that will increase training and access for women-owned technology startups.  

Image Via @TampaBayWave

Embarc Collective also hosted an after-party event welcoming attendees to explore their brand new state-of-the-art 32,000 square-foot collaboration facility that houses more than 40 startups.  

Along with the Tampa Bay Wave, an accelerator, mentoring, and working space in Downtown Tampa that has raised $233 million and supported more than 300 start-ups since 2013, Embarc is another example of how the Tampa Bay area is cultivating community and spaces to develop new businesses.

Synapse Into the Future

Synapse is doing what Kornfield and Blumenthal had hoped. It’s bringing Tampa’s most innovative community members together in one place -- sparking connections, collaborations, and community support.

The reach is starting to expand out of the Bay Area and bringing more people to see Florida and Tampa Bay as a real, growing innovation hub. Kornfield estimates that about 60% of attendees for this year's event were from the Tampa Bay area, while about 30% came from other parts of the country and the world.  

Synapse says, “Innovation lives here.” And, we're all starting to believe it.