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.
UberPitch shows that the company’s commitment to the bay area goes beyond providing reliable transportation, said Christine Mitchell, general manager for Uber in Tampa Bay, in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
“We’re also committed to partnering with local businesses and helping to foster more local innovation,” Mitchell said. “We are thrilled to have been able to match dozens of local entrepreneurs with potential investors through UberPitch, giving Tampa Bay’s startup community more opportunity to turn their business ideas into a reality.”
More than 200 people in the area requested rides. More than three dozen got the opportunity to make their pitch to potential investors.
Their ideas ranged from an app for finding tattoo artists to a cooler with built-in speakers, strobe lights and charging outlets to Sacino’s concept that allows people to create personalized storybooks.
While some of the ideas were still in early developmental stages, Florida Funders’ Sheryl Hunter said there were several pitches from investable companies. Florida Funders typically makes investments that range from $100,000 to $200,000.
“We kind of fill that gap between friends and family money that gets you off the ground, and we create a bridge between that and going to another stage,” Hunter said. “So many companies desperately need money during that bridge, to go to the next level, to hire more people, to hire more coders, just to get to the stage where they are interesting to a venture capital firm.”
While eager entrepreneurs might be a little out of their comfort zone pitching in the backseat of a car instead of a boardroom with display boards and PowerPoints, Chitester said 15 minutes is enough time for an investor to get a sense of whether a project is appealing or not.
“It’s called an elevator pitch for a reason,” Sacino said. “Sometimes you really are in an elevator. At least the Uber had beverages and air conditioning.”