By Caitlin Johnston
Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.
The entrepreneurs gathered their ideas, opened their Uber apps and fervently hoped to snag a ride with one of the 10 investors riding around Tampa Bay listening to 15-minute pitches Friday afternoon.
St. Petersburg businesswoman Sherry Sacino waited anxiously throughout the three-hour window for an available car to appear on her screen. By 1:15 p.m., just 45 minutes before the event would end, she gave up hope and decided to grab lunch at the Tavern at Bayboro. She had just ordered her food when a notification flashed across her screen.
Her Uber driver — and a local investor willing to potentially fund her project — were eight minutes away.
“It was absolutely wild,” Sacino said. “(The investor) seemed very engaged, she asked very relevant and solid questions, and she made me feel as though my project was valuable.”
Uber selected Tampa Bay as the third market for its Shark Tank-esque event, UberPitch, in which startup founders or budding entrepreneurs can use a special code to request an Uber ride with a potential investor. The ride is free.
“This doesn’t happen everywhere,” Florida Funders CEO Dave Chitester said. “They’re not doing it in Pittsburgh and Houston and Austin.”
Florida Funders is an online venture capital firm that participated in Friday’s UberPitch, along with investment firms Stonehenge, TiE Tampa Angel Forum, Innovations Capital Group and Tessitura Capital.
“They said we want to do this in Tampa Bay,” Chitester said. “We’re coming up as a noticeable startup hub nationally.”
The rideshare company, which has faced regulatory hurdles and backlash in Hillsborough County, previously tried UberPitch in San Francisco and Philadelphia. Its choice of Tampa Bay speaks to the area’s emerging startup status — and flies in the face of the 1 1/2 -year-long battle the company has waged against local regulators over insurance, permits and background checks.