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Community Stories

How a Tech Accelerator Is Reimagining Its Role by Investing in Artists

What happens when a tech business accelerator decides to invest in its community’s artists? Everyone flourishes–the tech professionals, the artists, and the wider entrepreneurial community.

The Tampa Bay Innovation Center (TBIC), nestled on Florida’s Gulf Coast in the city of St. Petersburg, has been serving the region for more than 15 years. Initially, like most tech accelerators, TBIC mainly focused on cultivating innovation and serving tech professionals. One of the ways it offered this support was through CO.STARTERS programs, which TBIC adopted in 2016. 

“We’re in a very grassroots region that’s still growing,” explained Tonya Elmore, President and CEO of Tampa Bay Innovation Center, “so we wanted both a formal business canvas model and program with a national network for participants.” 

But St. Petersburg has a bustling arts community, and Tampa Bay Innovation Center wondered if they might be able to broaden their reach and support the artistic community as well as the tech community.

Given Tampa Bay Innovation Center’s reputation as an expert in entrepreneurial support and business development, it made sense when the nonprofit arts agency Creative Pinellas reached out to TBIC in 2017. “It was only natural to partner with them and create a curriculum that makes success for those in the arts an attainable reality,” Creative Pinellas explained. 

While Tampa Bay Innovation Center’s CO.STARTERS cohorts had initially launched with a high ratio of tech professionals to artists, as news of TBIC and Creative Pinellas’s partnership spread through St. Petersburg’s artistic community, the ratio flipped.

Photo sourced from Florida Trend
“The creative sector is a very important part of the overall ecosystem for a tech community. The feedback we hear back from CO.STARTERS participants is that it has been life changing."
-Tonya Elmore
President and CEO of Tampa Bay Innovation Center

From the spring of 2017 onwards, cohorts became heavily artist-oriented, especially since Creative Pinellas covered the cost of the program for local artists. When Chris Paradies, the longtime Chairman of the Board at TBIC, started facilitating TBIC’s CO.STARTERS cohorts, he noted that the people who were most enthusiastic about starting new businesses were artists and creatives. 

Seeing that their art has business potential has been transformative for local artists. “The artists learn that they have to figure out who their customers are, and that they might have to change their mindsets. That’s what will make their businesses successful,” Chris explained. 

“We started supporting artists knowing that the CO.STARTERS method is good for anybody,” Chris continued, “but then we just realized there was so much need in that particular community for someone to come in and say there’s a different way of doing this: you can set up a business that serves the customer you want to serve.”

As any experienced ecosystem builder knows, when one sector of entrepreneurial support flourishes, the entire ecosystem is strengthened. 

“The creative sector is a very important part of the overall ecosystem for a tech community,” Tonya affirmed. “The feedback we hear back from CO.STARTERS participants is that it has been life changing.”

Tonya and Chris affirmed that the artists and tech professionals encourage and learn from each other during the cohort, and support each other afterwards. “It’s really great to have the cross-pollination between former CO.STARTERS and the new starters.”

Despite the unlikely pairing of art and technology, the Tampa Bay Innovation Center is an example of two different entrepreneurial communities working together to improve their wider ecosystem. Artistic communities and tech communities have a lot to learn from each other—Tampa Bay Innovation Center is proof of that.

After all, as Tonya noted, “creativity is essential to innovation.”

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