Luck as important as business models for tech towns

cschelle@bradenton.comMay 4, 2013 

Dell's chief innovation officer, Jim Stikeleather, speaks Friday at the Economic Development Summit inside the Manatee Performing Arts Center. The summit brought technologists and high-tech entreprenuers to Bradenton to discuss best practices for tech start-ups. CHARLES SCHELLE/Bradenton Herald


BRADENTON -- Jim Stikeleather may be a guy at a big company, but he's not really a big company guy.

As chief innovation officer at Dell, Stikeleather thinks like an entrepreneur, and looks for innovation in small businesses because to him, corporations need to be nimble for consumers.

"What you traditionally think of as large corporations, they are in the process of morphing themselves into affiliations of small corporations," Stikeleather told an audience of about 100 at the inaugural Spark Growth: Riverwalk 2013 Economic Development Summit held Friday at the Manatee Performing Arts Center. "They're changing the way they manage. They're changing the way they organize, and they're changing how they put their value propositions together."

The smaller structure feeds into the more personal experience consumers want in their technology choices. Companies like Dell, Apple and Samsung provide the hardware and a basic structure, while the app choices, support and data carriers are decisions left to consumers, he said. That is the future of a service economy, he said, calling it a "serendipity economy."

The Spark Growth summit brings together entrepreneurs, technologists and economic development officials to showcase Bradenton, spark a conversation on the technology start-up climate in Florida and Bradenton and assess how to improve. The conference is also designed to spark the idea that Bradenton is a great place to oper

ate a high-tech business. Fast Company magazine, ranked the Sunshine State No. 1 for innovation in its May issue, helping raise its repuration.

The four-day summit attracted serial entrepreneurs like Christine Urban who also works as a business analyst for the Small Business Development Center at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee.

While she's here to learn, Urban planned to experience Bradenton and Sarasota for the first time. During her three nights here, she planned to visit the Village of the Arts, the beaches and downtown areas. And that's exactly the bonus organizers want -- to expose tech-savvy business people to the Friendly City, the Riverwalk and budding neighborhoods to attract their tech businesses here, said Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton.

"Bradenton is an epicenter," Isham said. "It is not only the Friendly City, but has the possibility to be the Creative Friendly City," Isham said.

Isham said Friday afternoon she talked to three entrepreneurs who wanted more information about Bradenton.

Tech companies are already here.

Brian Caswell, president and founder of the Economic Development Fund based in Sarasota, invested $250,000 in a Lakewood Ranch company with digital kiosks that measure traffic of customers who use hand sanitizer dispensers at a high-end grocery store.

"The grocery chain realized all customers are trained to go, 'Where's my hand sanitizer?'" Caswell said.

The company, which Caswell declined to name, will use the data to sell advertising on the kiosks, he said.

The grocery store chain "agreed to sign a lease with the company for three years to put the kiosks in their atrium at their entry way," he said.

Still, Florida is far from having a bevy of successful tech companies. The state has plenty of available technologies to be commercialized, but it needs more success stories and high-growth companies to create a critical mass of talent and jobs, said Laurence Liebson, founder of i-Netix Inc., a technology management and consultant company.

What about a high level of success with a company in Bradenton or Sarasota. What would it take?

"Serendipity," Liebson said. "You never know where someone might start a company."

Mike O'Donnell relocated his company from Seattle to Florida, where he grew up. He chose to do business in Tampa and live in North Port.

He credits some successes here, with the private incubator HuB in downtown Sarasota, but companies and entrepreneurs need to work together more across the region, O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell gave the state a scorecard, marking A's for quality of life, business climate and a support system for his business, but the access to capital earned a C-plus and access to talent earned a B-minus.

"We educate them, they leave, but I think that's beginning to change," O'Donnell said. "The talent that is here are pretty happily employed."

O'Donnell is doing his part by launching the Founders Institute Tampa to develop other entrepreneurs.

"Florida will explode whether talent is coming home or relocating here," he said. "If you put them to work and let them lead, amazing things will happen."

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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