By Tracey McManus
Tampa Bay Times, St. Petersburg, Fla.
On any given day in one of these cubicles, a business owner may be working on a medical smartphone app next to another entrepreneur tweaking a handmade invention.
Conversations in this office space inside the iDatix Corp. building on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard focus on marketing strategy and how to secure patents. Once a week, they sit around a conference table with Coronas and wine in plastic cups to talk about what each accomplished over the past seven days.
At Clearwater’s only official business incubator, a small but growing number of entrepreneurs receive daily networking opportunities, access to work space and motivation from peers while trying to grow their businesses. The idea is to give resources and mentoring to new startups as well as established companies, boosting not only the individual businesses but also Clearwater’s tech industry as a whole.
Now with a $25,000 annual investment from the city, pledged in November, the Technical Arts Facility for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, or TAFFIE, is working to reach more business-minded people across the area
“There are 25 tech companies and 900 tech employees (in Clearwater) and there was nowhere for us to get together, nowhere for people to get started,” said TAFFIE founder Steve Allen. “We lose a lot of our great talent to other metro areas, and some of it is due to a lack of awareness of cool tech companies in Florida.”
Allen, chief executive officer of iDatix Corp., a firm that helps companies automate operations, opened the incubator on the third floor of his building in November 2014, offering $300-a-month memberships for a personal cubicle or $125-a-month memberships to come and go in the open space.
Members have access to a 3-D printer, vinyl cutters, and a space to bring clients, which can help legitimize business owners otherwise working from home.
“Obviously I’m not going to invite (clients) to my garage,” said Carl Edwards, a TAFFIE member and founder of Smart Energy Technologies, which designs and manufactures LED lighting.
Edwards launched his company about three years before joining TAFFIE and had already secured big-name clients like Honeywell and the Miami Parking Authority. But he said running the business from his home kept him from being able to learn from his peers or interact with other entrepreneurs.
After joining TAFFIE last year and working out of his cubicle there almost daily, Edwards said he has gotten tips from other members on how to secure new clients and has access to a professional board room to hold meetings, an upgrade from his living room.
“It’s kind of water cooler talk about your business,” Edwards said. “You have people who say, ‘Have you thought about this, what about that?’ It’s the daily interaction to cultivate relationships with other companies that just innately helps you. Then you take that and apply it.”
Geri Lopez, director of economic development and housing for Clearwater, said the city’s investment in TAFFIE is part of an overall goal to make Clearwater an “entrepreneurial ecosystem.”
Clearwater has traditionally struggled to attract big tech industry because infrastructure for companies to open shop is largely built out, she said. To lure innovative companies with high wage jobs, the city had to get creative.
Lopez said officials looked at other business incubators, like those in Tampa and Sarasota, and saw how these quasi-think tanks helped strengthen tech communities and network with workers coming out of school looking for jobs.
With clusters of tech companies already in Clearwater’s downtown and U.S. 19 corridor, she said the hope is the incubator can help lure new workers and companies by energizing the budding tech community.
“We really want to be seen as a thriving hub for entrepreneurship and especially for technology,” Lopez said. “Our hope is that with all the upcoming changes to U.S. 19, that would really be one part of that mecca for office and professional services of any kind.”
Revenue from memberships, the city’s contribution and private donations has helped keep TAFFIE functioning, even enabling the hire of an executive director, Elaine Mann.
Allen said the city’s annual $25,000 contribution will be used to pay for monthly professional development meetings, where entrepreneurs will get help from professionals with social marketing, business strategy and advice on how to grow their business.
“Building this community of entrepreneurs is important for all of us,” Allen said. “This is helping people who have wonderful ideas, people who want to make progress on their own goals.”