BIG bridges gap between Manatee inventors and investors

cschelle@bradenton.comOctober 28, 2013 

SARASOTA -- Diana Lueken is an artist with a budding fine-art print-press studio idea, but she and her business partner need some big-time help to get to the next step.

"We're open-minded to anything that would be better for us, anything that could get this business up and going," said the Ringling College of Art and Design graduate.

They need gallery space, funding, a way to set up education programs at the studio -- and they need business answers.

That's where Suzette Jones steps in. She's project director for a new initiative called Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast funded through Venice-based Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Jones is playing matchmaker and concierge between inventors, entrepreneurs and people with expertise in the Bradenton-Sarasota community to guide startups like Lueken's to the next step.

"She needs a coach, or a business planning mentor that can help you through that process, and I would assign her what I would call an idea coach to hand-hold and be her cheerleader," said Jones.

BIG is part of a Gulf Coast Community Foundation strat

egy to focus on recession-resistant industries in a region heavily reliant on real estate and tourism. That can be done through creating an "innovation economy" such as exists in Austin, Texas, or Asheville, N.C., the foundation determined. To build an innovation economy, BIG is designed to support entrepreneurs.

"Our process is ideas plus resources equal opportunity, and everything I do is to feed that equation," said Jones, a longtime entrepreneurial consultant and investor.

Gulf Coast Community Foundation is committing $100,000 toward the program to pay for Jones' salary and for marketing. Jones' service is free to the public, and the program does not take an equity stake in companies.

Because the community potentially has so many business ideas, BIG is focusing on a sector at a time.

The college crowd is up first, as Jones visited colleges in Manatee and Sarasota counties last week, and will have regular office hours at area colleges.

After that she will connect with different segments in Manatee and Sarasota counties to help BIG grow. Anyone with a business idea or who can be a mentor/resource can sign up at BigGulfCoast.org.

Filmmaker and Ringling College student Arash Zandi said he wishes BIG was around when he was trying to make his first film.

"I think what Suzette is doing is great, because she's basically like a job center -- except she provides all the resources you would need, like, for making a movie in this town," Zandi said. "Just finding those resources was a huge step."

The service is not just for student inventors -- it's for anyone in the community with a business idea.

"One of the first business ideas that came up was from someone that was retired who actually needed help from college students in social media and design, so it was almost a reverse, really," said Mark Pritchett, senior vice president for investment for the foundation.

Finding partners

BIG is about a month old and appears to be clicking already.

About 100 ideas have been submitted from the community, Jones said, and several need app developers.

"We already have identified a gap, and hopefully we can influence some sort of resource to educate, train, develop more developers because that's what's needed right now," she said.

Some are just at the idea level, while one involves a $10 million company, she said.

Pritchett's goal is to have enough participation where the foundation can hold three events for businesses to pitch ideas to prospective investors.

Ringling College is taking the lead among local colleges to help move BIG along. Credit for bringing Ringling on board with the concept goes to Dean Eisner, a Ringling College trustee and former president and CEO of auto auction/wholesaler giant Manheim.

The Longboat Key resident wanted a system similar to Miami University's Launch Pad, where students are matched with business executives and entrepreneurs to develop their business ideas locally and prevent brain drain.

"There were opportunities here and are opportunities are here to start businesses," Eisner said. "What was needed is a way to connect students with people in the community. We have a wealth of seasoned executives here."

The network of support goes beyond executives to include marketing specialists, professors, inventors, accountants, lawyers and politicians.

Some mentors will show inventors how to move an idea off the cocktail napkin onto the next stage, he said, and at some point a business might need space to set up. BIG could then refer the entrepreneur to incubator space, which could either be a newly proposed incubator in Bradenton or the privately owned HuB in Sarasota, which is also considering opening a Bradenton location.

Eisner contends Bradenton-Sarasota has top-notch industries and facilities that can compete with any major metropolitan city. Facilities include sports performance (IMG Academy, Nathan Benderson Park, Major League Baseball spring training), marine biology (Mote Marine Laboratory, South Florida Museum), digital arts and entertainment (Ringling College, Feld Entertainment) and health care (Roskamp Institute, Coastal Orthopedic).

"Deep research translates to commercialization and business," Eisner said. "Part of the hope is that we develop those and we can develop more business than the talent base that we currently have."

Ringling is also connecting students with businesses through a Patterson Foundation-funded initiative called Collaborative Enterprises, where students will work with companies that need product design help.

The companies provided critiques and real-world deadlines for students, said Cynthia Gravino, associate vice president for Collaborative Enterprises.

"Much like Suzette, I'm in start-up mode, too," Gravino said.

This initiative can work with BIG through Jones to help find industry experts who want to either hire students or consult with them.

Incubating connection

For BIG to work seamlessly with companies in need of space, BIG needs an incubator. Not every business needs incubation, but with privately owned HuB fully leased in Sarasota, the closest incubation space now is in St. Petersburg and Tampa.

A resolution could be on the way.

HuB is exploring bringing a version of its incubator and collaborative work space to Bradenton, as are tech entrepreneurs Sara Hand and Stan Schultes. The unnamed incubator, detailed in Sunday's Herald, received a funding commitment from University of South Florida Connect and Florida High Tech Corridor Council, to provide a matching grant to get the incubator off the ground.

BIG and incubation space can help battle the brain drain of students leaving the community after obtaining degrees. Ringling College estimates about 80 percent of its graduates leave the Sarasota-Bradenton area, said A. Charles Kovacs, director of Ringling's Center for Career Services.

That's why BIG's first-year focus is on students, Jones said, who would in turn help build long-term companies and provide more options for skilled workers.

"We want to try to retain some of the great brains that this area is producing," she said.

Both incubators share many common goals with BIG, but haven't talked long enough about how they could help each other, officials say. Hand and Schultes have keen interest in working with the region's four key industries that interest Eisner and BIG.

Schultes and Hand say they need a pipeline of inventors to help support their incubator proposal.

"Ideally, the BIG project could refer people starting up businesses, and we would certainly stay in contact with them," Schultes said. "It's hard to know how the process would work."

BIG essentially would help screen applicants by finding the right mentor for the right stage of the business.

Jones believes there is room for HuB and Schultes and Hand to work in this community with BIG.

"I think whatever incubators open, they'll each have their little niche, and they will fill very quickly," Jones said. "At least this groundswell I'm seeing is contagious."

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

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