Featured Network Partners: Microsoft BizSpark

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Featured Network Partner

Company: STAR Tec
Interviewee: Tonya Elmore, President

Florida is known worldwide for its long stretches of sandy beaches and days of endless sunshine. In the Tampa area, however, on the Western coast of the state, Florida has an even bigger reputation as Startup paradise.

One of the primary sources for that reputation is Star Technology Enterprise Center (STAR Tec), a business accelerator and incubator for technology entrepreneurs and Startups. Launched in 2003 in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Energy and Pinellas County, STAR Tec offers a unique “mind to market” model for working with entrepreneurs. From concept through exit strategy, Startups are getting the help they need to succeed.

Tonya, a founding member who is now President of STAR Tec, shared with us her thoughts on Startups, BizSpark and why innovation matters in any community.

Q: Why was STAR Tec created?

Elmore: Helping Startups find success is ultimately why STAR Tec was created. The Pinellas County Commission and the Department of Energy wanted a business incubator to help the community. They knew a successful innovation center would bring powerful credibility to the Tampa Bay region’s stature as a technology-friendly community plus help the community through things like job creation.

You know, a lot of things can destroy a business – failure to plan, lack of market research, lack of financial planning and budgeting, and failure to seek advice from a professional. When a Startup has the resources to help reduce risk, solve problems faster, and shorten the learning curve, it can increase the likelihood of success.

Q: How do Startups use STAR Tec?

Elmore: We offer a variety of services to them depending upon what they need. For example, some might be in the very early stages and require marketing research assistance or mentoring to see if their idea is truly viable, while others might be further along and need items such as conference, office or manufacturing space.

We have several programs, each designed for technology entrepreneurs at various stages of business development. Typically, clients stay within the TEC Launch Program for 6 months, the TEC Venture Program for one year, and the TEC Accelerator Program for two to three years. That’s why we say STAR Tec is a “mind to market” acceleration model: Regardless of where a Startup is in the business process, we can provide the help they need to bring a product to market and sustain a viable business.

Q: Who is eligible to apply to STAR Tec?

Elmore: Any Startup is potentially eligible – they don’t need to be located in our county or state. We average about ten new clients annually. They can apply if there's a good fit for them within our program, and we always want to make sure that we can provide value back to the company.

We have a formal vetting process before they actually get accepted into the program and a reputation for being tough to get into because we have traditionally focused formally on first-stage Startups who are ready to move on to the next level. We’re adjusting to increase our pipeline activity, however, to help more Startups who aren’t even at the first-stage level yet. In the past, we’ve helped those kinds of companies on an informal basis but now they will have access to the full array of services we can provide.

Q: What’s the connection between STAR Tec and BizSpark?

Elmore: BizSpark is a real advantage for our Startups, particularly those developing software products. We offer it as a resource for any Startup that comes into our partner network. If they follow through – which many of them do – it tells me a lot about their drive to succeed.

Not only is Microsoft providing the BizSpark program but we also have partnered with the local Microsoft team to create Tech Talk, a monthly breakfast meeting we hold on the Microsoft premises. We invite an expert to come speak to local entrepreneurs about all kinds of business topics. We post it on our Web site as a podcast, too, for anyone who can’t attend in person. Tech Talk is another good opportunity to tell entrepreneurs about BizSpark, plus they can network with a variety of people in the community.

Q: Tell us about the mentors and advisors involved with STAR TEC.

Elmore: Since STAR TEC is not housed at a University, it has the distinct advantage of working with many academic institutions. Members from St. Petersburg College, the University of Tampa, the University of South Florida and the University of Central Florida currently serve on the STAR Tec Board. Additionally, STAR Tec has worked with several defense labs, research institutions, and technology transfer organizations all over the country. We’re very fortunate to have the level of support we have from our community which includes serial entrepreneurs from the CEO Council of Tampa Bay who volunteer to coach our Startups.

For more information, contact Tonya Elmore at elmoret@startecflorida.com.