This week, Tampa hosted the 2020 Synapse Summit, an innovation convention showcasing the best that Florida has to offer in terms of startups. Rich among investors and entrepreneurs alike was a deep-seated love for Florida and a desire to showcase its talent. Industry leaders talked about wanting to change what Florida is known for – instead of alligators, “Florida man”, beaches, tourism, and agriculture – they want people to think of it as a tech hub – a place worth investing in.
The summit began 2 years ago, and has seen major success. Registrations more than doubled since the previous year – from 3,300 to over 7,000. A lot of new businesses attributed the scale of their success to Synapse networking opportunities. From Lazarillo, an app helping the blind map out buildings, to SoleVenture, a freelance payroll management system, there were solutions to problems many didn’t know were problems at all.
The 2-day event took place at the Amalie Arena, the hockey stadium that’s home to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and according to Brian Kornfeld, President and co-founder of Synapse, that was very strategic, to create buzz unlike that of a traditional tradeshow floor. At any given time, there were 3 or 4 stages in use – with talks including “Cryptocurrency & Digital Assets: The Future of Programmable Money & Payments”, “A Corporate Take on Healthcare Innovation”, and “From the Production Floor to Artistic Experience: Digital Technology Impacting Life and Art”. There was something for everyone, if they could cough up the $150 general admission fee.
One live series that attracted many due to its entertaining format was “Pitch Madness,” a debate-style business competition where two founders go head-to-head, with 30 seconds on the clock to answer questions about how to handle complex issues regarding their businesses. Judges include executives and investors, who choose a winner to go on to the next round. I spoke with Tyler Kelly and Spencer Lyon of Pitch Madness who “felt that companies just talking about their product or services wasn’t that interesting because it didn’t really get at the heart of who they are as a founder. Anyone can memorize a pitch about their company and regurgitate it on stage.” So far, Pitch Madness has put on events in Monte Carlo, Dubai, and in various cities around the US.
The Florida-centric vibe comes from the pride that so many of these entrepreneurs feel for their state. Linda Olson, Founder and President of Tampa Bay Wave, a startup support network, found when she was starting her tech business in the late ‘90s, that “everything we needed was already here” but the connections were being made by word-of-mouth. There wasn’t a structure set up to connect like-minded entrepreneurs who were facing a lot of the same problems. Olson expressed that “Synapse is phenomenal,” because it is finally showcasing the wealth of talent in the region, something Florida, and Tampa Bay in particular, has always had a problem doing. Multiple executives, including Olson, mentioned how, “There’s plenty of money here, but the state of Florida as a whole was getting less than 2% of the venture capital every year.” Florida Funders Managing Partner Tom Wallace wants Florida to go “from the sunshine state to the startup state.”
With 324 exhibitions and over 7,000 attendees, the venue was full of hunger and passion; hunger for investment and passion for problem solving and changing the way entire industries are viewed. Judah Longgear of Nickelytics, an “ad tech provider that leverages the gig economy to help brands increase their brand awareness through its high quality vinyl wraps” wants to subsidize transportation costs through advertising. Soon enough, your Uber driver might be a lot easier to find when you know he’s got a local lawyer’s ad sprawled across the side of his car.
Benicomp is a health insurance provider that uses smart technology for preventative healthcare with the aim of saving both employers and employees costs, and gathering more accurate data. Steve Presser, President of Benicomp, wants to change healthcare in the US by removing the financial repercussions, and subsequent fear, of getting health screenings.
At Synapse, coincidentally, I kept hearing the word “grit”; if entrepreneurs know one thing, it’s the need to develop what Nicole DeLoux of Shimmy calls “that cockroach mentality” to succeed, and there were countless founders exhibiting just that. Maybe Florida isn’t just swampland filled with weird criminals after all.