BRADENTON -- Bradenton is suddenly in the spotlight for business incubators thanks to some help from the University of South Florida and two Sarasota investors.
USF, through its USF Connect program in Tampa and Florida High Tech Corridor Council, has entered into a letter of intent to back a business incubator within the city of Bradenton. USF Connect would provide 2-to-1 matching funds for money raised to start the incubator.
The effort is being led by Sara Hand, a business consultant, venture capitalist and entrepreneur in charge of her own firm, SP Hand and Associates in Sarasota, and her co-partner Stan Schultes.
Hand and Schultes consider Bradenton the perfect place for a business incubator because there is still so much available commercial space, paired with its up-and-coming image thanks to Riverwalk and the Village of the Arts, three breweries on tap and the inviting Old Main Street.
"Software people like a couple things: they like good beer, and they like to ride bikes," Schultes quipped.
The duo's incubator will be a private company that is backed by public funds
-- primarily from grants, foundations and universities -- as well as some private investment.
The venture would serve entrepreneurs in Manatee and Sarasota counties and would differ from other publicly backed incubators by focusing on technologies not created on university campuses, he said. Typically, the bulk of businesses incubated at Florida's research universities are from technologies invented on campus, and private incubators tend to focus on information technology.
"What we're doing is not trying to be picky about what it is, but we tend to focus on the major economic areas in Sarasota-Bradenton like sports performance and advanced manufacturing," Schultes said.
The Florida High Tech Corridor Council is an economic development partnership covering 23 counties, three state universities and 11 community colleges to invest in businesses and provides grants. USF Connect is an arm of USF's business incubation program where it helps to develop new and existing businesses.
Hand and Schultes are well-respected in the Sarasota-Bradenton tech and entrepreneurial community. They recently held a multi-day tech community and investor event in Bradenton to connect with inventors and investors, helping spark a movement to make Bradenton a high-tech hub called Spark Growth.
Hand is a past president of the Sarasota Chapter of the Gulf Coast Venture Forum, a co-founder of BarCamp Sarasota-Bradenton, a networking group for the tech community, and is on the board of directors of the Suncoast Technology Forum.
Schultes, a software developer, has helped develop Fortune 200 companies from small start-up phases, is also a Barcamp Sarasota-Bradenton co-founder, is a board member of the Suncoast Technology Forum and the Florida High Tech Corridor Core Council.
In setting up their incubator, the two are weighing the interest of USF, Ringling College of Art and Design, New College of Florida, State College of Florida, Bradenton Area Economic Development Corporation and Economic Development Corporation of Sarasota and the City of Bradenton in joining forces in some fashion.
Several of the schools, led by Ringling College, are already working together on a project called "Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast," or BIG, that acts as a concierge service to connect student innovators with entrepreneurs and business leaders in Manatee and Sarasota counties.
Small steps, giant leap
If everything comes together, the Bradenton incubator could open by the spring, Hand said. The agreement would bring the first seed funding from USF to help support the endeavor; applications could be accepted as soon as the end of the year.
The duo is working from a 2011 business plan by Axcel Innovation LLC in Charlottesville, Va., whose owner, Gary Evans, is an expert in research commercialization, management of intellectual property and raising capital. The plan shows how the Bradenton-Sarasota area can best attract an incubator, and includes best practices from incubators at Florida's major research universities.
Some funding is already committed for the incubator, Hand said, but the total and from whom is still being worked out. USF's technology and bio/life sciences development arm, USF Connect, is doing what it can to advance the deal.
"We're supporting this initiative, and we're happy to help them," said Wendy Plant, who oversees USF's Tampa Bay Technology Incubator program, a component of USF Connect. "It's still at the stage where they're figuring out where they can manage to do it in a way that's low-cost through partnerships."
USF Sarasota-Manatee will let USF Connect take the lead for funding as the local campus will not get into the new incubator business for now, said Dr. Arthur Guilford, regional chancellor of the campus.
"There may be a role for us in the future, but not right now," Guilford said.
Business incubators provide space for start-up companies to have a dedicated area to do work while collaborating with other entrepreneurs, and provide some administrative services, such as a receptionist/operator. This incubator could be expanded where universities partner with these businesses for class projects, Plant said, to provide an immersive learning opportunity.
Education would be a key component of the incubator, Schultes said, and an accelerator program would also be offered to guide companies that start from scratch and get them to incubation.
The incubator company has yet to incorporate as a business, but now that USF is providing an opportunity for matching funds, Schultes and Hand will have to raise capital to start up the incubator.
The Bradenton incubator would need a medium-sized space, or about 20,000 square feet, Plant said; a site has not been selected.
Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area EDC, is cautiously optimistic about the business incubator coming to Bradenton. She said the discussions are in the very early stages.
"In concept and theory, this is a very interesting proposition," Hillstrom said. "If it should come to fruition, it would be a good thing for our region."
A 2011 University of Central Florida study found just how good incubators can be to a region. For every dollar invested, $10 came back into the community for four of its well established, or mature, incubators under UCF's program in the Orlando metro area, the study found. For nine of its incubators the return was $5.04 for every dollar, according to the report.
Baking a business
Having enough incubation space could do wonders to keep more talent in Bradenton and Sarasota.
Business incubators are critical for budding filmmakers like Ringling College student Arash Zandi.
Zandi, a Welsh man with Iranian descent, knocked on doors, talked to anyone willing to listen and used crowdfunding website Kickstarter to raise $20,000 for his short film "No Real Than You Are." The short film about Florida's OxyContin epidemic is being used to help market the story to be turned into a feature-length film, directed by his friend Vincent Dale.
The problem Zandi had was, once he had the money raised, he needed to find artists, sand sculptors, locations and other resources to make his film. He found some of what he needed at the HuB, a private incubator in Sarasota where he rented space for five weeks.
"One of the bigger challenges is to find the perfect office spot," Zandi said. "We were very aware that finding the perfect business spot would allow us to make connections and make bigger connections."
While at the office, he managed to raise more money by networking.
"It's a great space to kind of settle down and work on your project and be surrounded by all these other people that can do your website for you, and do business cards for you, and help to do your poster," Zandi said. "I feel like I came to Sarasota at the perfect time because this city is blooming."
Digital artists Bobby Chiu and Kei Acedera know what a struggle it is to get a movie business off the ground. The two, now in Toronto, founded digital animation studio Imaginism Studios and are working on the sequel to 2010's "Alice in Wonderland" with DreamWorks studio.
The two are visiting Ringling College to share what they need to make their start-up business as an independent artist a success. The first is having a professional space, which Chiu and Acedera didn't have at the studio's infancy.
"In the very beginning, we started off where we were all in one condo and it was no furniture, it was only desks. When we started to expand, we got another condo and walked down the hall. We didn't have time to move into a bigger space," Chiu said.
Another Ringling design student, Edyta Jaworek, would love to find space and an investor in Bradenton-Sarasota. She then could convince her business partner to come down from New York to develop AlumConnect, her database software project for universities to better track alumni and their skills.
"If I was here and my partner was here, we definitely would need space because right now we're working out of his living room," said Jaworek.
HuB plans could be axed
This incubator project by Hand and Schultes could jeopardize the chance that Sarasota-based private incubator/collaboration workplace HuB, owned by entrepreneur Rich Swier Jr., will expand into Bradenton.
"If they are going to do an incubator, then I don't see a need for the HuB there," Swier told the Bradenton Herald. "We want to see Bradenton to succeed, and wish them the best to make it happen."
Swier toured downtown as recently as last week to see his options for real estate and office space, said Dave Gustafson, executive director for the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority.
Swier had conversations with the city through the summer after being connected to city leaders through Ben Bakker, who is now on the city's planning commission. Bakker is vice president of HJB Properties, a leasing company in Bradenton, and his family owns property downtown, including the Bank of America building at 1201 Sixth Ave. W.
The HuB hosted an event here in September to gauge interest in the Bradenton community. The firm recently celebrated having its 40,000-square-foot headquarters on Fruitville Road being fully leased.
Schultes, who has known of Swier's plans while he and Hand map out their own incubator, is disappointed by Swier's new stance.
"In our view, that doesn't compete with what we're doing," Schultes said. "I don't think it would be detrimental to have both in Bradenton."
"They're different business models, and their focus is different, so they could co-exist," she said.
One key difference is that the publicly backed incubator wouldn't ask any investor for an equity stake in the developing company, and its budget, funding, success and performance are open for inspection. The HuB doesn't take equity into every company. Some companies lease space, sometimes for free, and offer accelerator programs and started up an educational component, too, called HuBEd.
Gustafson also voiced confidence in both incubators, saying he will continue to work with Swier, Hand and Schultes to bring them all here.
Gustafson likens the scenario to other competitors in a shared industry -- Walgreens opens near CVS, and McDonald's and Burger King are never too far apart from each other either. People want choices and variety.
"I can't imagine that we won't have another type of similar businesses coming before us shortly," Gustafson said.
Looking at the big picture, this says much about Bradenton that two high-tech incubators want to be here.
"I think our area is ripe for that. We have the creative class, we want more of the creative class," Gustafson said. "It just shows that Bradenton's continuing to grow up."
Mayor Wayne Poston welcomes business incubators here and knows they will have a positive effect, but it's too early to tell what kind of impact they could have on the city. The city has had conversations for a few years that it needs a business incubator, he said. He welcomes both to Bradenton, but acknowledges that neither is certain.
"We're just having conversations to see if there is a fit," Poston said.
The Bradenton Herald looks at "Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast," or BIG, an initiative being implemented by Venice-based Gulf Coast Community Foundation that could be the bridge between the inventors and a new incubator in Bradenton.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck. Reporter Janey Tate contributed to this story.