COVER STORY

New Circuit

Local startups set their sights on making Northeast Florida a hub of tech activity

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In January 2012, the Northeast Florida technology startup community was just getting started.

CoWork Jax, a membership-based co-working space in Downtown Jacksonville and a hub for entrepreneurs in Northeast Florida, had just opened. UNF played host that same month to the first Startup Weekend Jacksonville. While The Bungalow co-working space in Jacksonville Beach had been in motion for almost a year, St. Augustine-based accelerator The Factory opened two months later that March.

In that same month, CoWork Jax launched Fast Pitch, a monthly event organized by Paige Calvert that gave presenters five minutes to crystallize their ideas to an audience of potential investors, designers, developers and others interested in innovation. After their speeches, the pitchers took questions from the audience: “Does this have revenue?” “Is this good for college students?” “Have you researched HIPAA laws?”

Then, One Spark crowdfunding festival in April of this year gave a platform for many creators to test ideas in front of an audience.

Though it’s been percolating for a while, the scene is now gaining steam. Success stories, such as Restroom Alert — a mobile app that allows users to anonymously send feedback about businesses’ restrooms — and personally funded apps like Dunzo — a Web-based platform for making lists — show the community is growing.

Pete Cochrane was the president of Path.to, a website that connected employment-seekers with careers that announced its closure in July, and is the co-founder of Aurora, a mobile app that tracks users’ GPS coordinates to play music assigned to that location. He said Jacksonville’s startup culture from a year ago — or even six months ago — has changed, especially the activity Downtown.

“Pretty much everybody knows everybody, and we all help each other out.”

In addition to Downtown, other communities have sprouted in Jacksonville Beach and St. Augustine.

One Spark had a huge impact on spotlighting Northeast Florida’s entrepreneurs. Angel Torres, who co-created Aurora with Cochrane and heads up CoWork Jax-based Web design company The Logica, pointed to the crowdsourcing festival as a means to showcase budding entrepreneurs.

“I think people started to believe what Jacksonville can do for their ideas,” he said.

But Jeremy Vaughan, co-founder of St. Augustine incubator The Factory, said Jacksonville’s startup scene has been growing longer than the plotting of One Spark. Elton Rivas, a co-creator of One Spark, said he was involved in a couple of tech startups that fell through, prior to getting together with other entrepreneurs to start CoWork Jax and One Spark.

Rivas said it was hard to find a space for tech startups in Jacksonville where entrepreneurs could focus on starting an idea and building it into a business. Then, in January 2012, CoWork Jax opened its doors.

UNF alumnus Conrad Decker, inspired by the Washington, D.C., tech scene, decided to leave the cold behind and started The Bungalow in Jacksonville Beach in March 2011.

He said The Bungalow gives co-workers a space in which to learn from others. The space has about a dozen members, including technologists, creatives and marketers.

Around the same time CoWork Jax launched, Startup Weekend Jacksonville hosted its inaugural event. All Startup Weekend events around the country follow the same basic model: Attendees pitch their ideas and receive feedback from their peers; teams form around the top ideas, spending 54 hours creating business models, coding and designing; and end the weekend with presentations and critical feedback. The event helped budding entrepreneurs such as Liz Pierce find partners in the tech community.

Now, she works virtually with her team on their mobile app, MomentStrong, which allows companies the opportunity to monitor their employees’ health and gives employees built-in and external content to keep them motivated as they work for better overall wellness. Pierce met MJ Charmani, the founder and former chairman of accelerator iStartJax, at the January 2012 event.

Charmani said his team began iStartJax and Startup Weekend because the resources for someone with great ideas were sparse. After his team attended Tallahassee’s Startup Weekend, they were inspired to bring the event to Northeast Florida.

He said Startup Weekend has helped gather Northeast Florida entrepreneurs and give their ideas validation. Then, they learn how investors assess a startup’s potential. He said once the companies start building customers and delivering services, growth will come. The second Startup Weekend took place in January this year.

Two months after that first Startup Weekend in 2012, Vaughan and Mike Potts opened The Factory to house Potts’ software developing company, feature[23], and to provide mentorship for entrepreneurs in an alternative space to CoWork Jax.

Meanwhile, Calvert, the managing director at CoWork Jax, organized the first Fast Pitch, inspired by a local entrepreneur who held similar events in 2011 which Calvert said were really popular but didn’t recur regularly. Calvert estimated 15 people attended the first event, and the number has risen to about 100 a month. The June and July events were so well-attended, many had to stand during the presentations.

At the June event, two of the five presenters, Marco Ignacio and Corey Grusden, pitched strictly tech ideas. Ignacio pitched GratSee, an app that would allow users to communicate with their servers at restaurants and help them figure out how much to tip, based on the service they received.

Grusden, who moved back to Jacksonville in May by way of San Francisco and New York City, pitched five different ideas he’s created, including a digital weekly newsletter that lists Northeast Florida tech events.

After his success with findmeapet.org, among other entrepreneurial endeavors, Grusden returned to Jacksonville because of his family, friends and network here — and a desire to make things happen in the tech community. He said the newsletter will help the tech community network.

Entrepreneurs said success would draw attention to Northeast Florida and define it as a place where tech startups can flourish.

When Cochrane’s Path.to announced its closure, 14 of the 16 employees — the other two live in Chicago — moved to Downtown idea-incubator Ignite, a natural transition since hiring giant Adecco owned Path.to and Ignite.

“My hope is that the majority of us stay and keep fighting toward what we want to do,” Cochrane said.

Path.to won’t die completely, though. It stopped taking new job listings in July, but Ignite accelerator startups Oppify and Wicked Smart are absorbing elements of it. Oppify connects job-seekers with a narrower list of potential employers. Wicked Smart gives college students and recent grads a direct line to paid internship experience. Both made Fast Pitch presentations in July.

Cochrane said Path.to could have limited its features and focused on the single problem their customers wanted to solve — finding the one person through one résumé who was perfect for a certain company — in order to remain open. When he explained to Adecco and Ignite that he wanted to shut down, he pointed to Path.to’s success in inspiring other entrepreneurs to create their own products.

“It’s the lessons learned; it’s what I want to be able to share with people that’s important,” he said.

For Cochrane, not monetizing quickly enough was the main contributor to Path.to’s closing. And even though Aurora is available for free, the 10,000 downloads and 200 musicians waiting to join the app show the potential for profit, he said.

While outsiders may not be able to name big startups that come from Northeast Florida, success here is possible. Marketing strategist Jen DeVore started the digital marketing company Rock My Image from CoWork Jax. She had an office at the beach for her personal marketing consulting business before she joined one of her partners, digital strategist Kenny Harper, at the Downtown hub.

DeVore said CoWork Jax’s atmosphere helped perfect their business pitch, a result of people approaching her daily, asking about her business. Calvert said some of her daily CoWork Jax duties are listening to people pitch their ideas and giving feedback. Rock My Image outgrew the space at CoWork Jax in May and moved to its own office in San Marco.

DeVore said co-working space helps build a network “grassroots style” and build a fan base. She said Fast Pitch was a great opportunity to get feedback and showcase their project, and she encourages entrepreneurs to attend and pitch their ideas.

“Just start somewhere,” DeVore said. “Launch something.”

One Fast Pitch success is Restroom Alert by Dornsife and Max Leaver. The team said the app allows users to text in negative — or positive — restroom experiences at restaurants or businesses. If a stall is running low on toilet paper or the restroom is unclean, the app sends a text to the business that a complaint has been filed and should be addressed.

Dornsife and Leaver have attended many Fast Pitch events; Dornsife said he goes religiously.

“The Jacksonville startup scene is still really, really young. It’s a year or two years old since it really started to build it,” Leaver said. “It’s been interesting at Fast Pitch, because I think the audience has grown faster than the pitchers.”

Leaver lives in Washington, D.C., but has had a hands in many Northeast Florida startup efforts, such as being a part of the team that launched CoWork Jax and One Spark.

But not all area tech startups are active in the tech startup social scene. Ed Baldwin, the CEO of management system Profile Gorilla, works from an office in his house and said he doesn’t get out to many events. That doesn’t mean Baldwin hasn’t used the services in the area to launch his business.

Profile Gorilla, along with Restroom Alert, is a leader in The Factory’s accelerator program. As an accelerator, The Factory helps startups prepare for conversations with investors. Baldwin uses the space to meet with his business partners to access feature[23]’s developers.

Baldwin launched Profile Gorilla in mid-June with a $150,000 grant from the University of North Florida Small Business Development Center. The center offers its clients accelerator-like services and advising. Kevin Monahan, a certified business analyst and the center’s special projects director, said the loan environment is tough.

For tech-specific startups, UNF SBDC certified business analyst Jared Bailey said they have a handle on the tech side of their business, but they still need help presenting themselves and networking. Monahan said all business owners have to wear several hats, and the center looks for which hat isn’t fitting quite right.

Bailey lauded Jacksonville Startup Weekend for being the first event to bring technology-minded people together, even though it earned praise from all different sectors in the startup sphere. It brought some momentum to entrepreneurs who are no longer afraid to showcase themselves and their ideas. 

“The growth period is in full swing,” he said.

Excitement is high, but businesses need to make money to survive. Many entrepreneurs, such as Pierce, said it will take Jacksonville launching enough successful startups before more investors willing to fund tech startups come to the area. But Vaughan, who meets with investors for his various projects and for the accelerators in The Factory, said the money is here. So did Grusden, who said it may take reaching out to area investors in the real estate industry to see why it’s worth investing in tech.

Pierce and Jose Fermin said they spoke with Stache Investments Corporation during One Spark. The firm, led by Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, promised $1 million worth of investments to One Spark creators. Fermin said Whata.TV was one of 30 businesses Stache met with during the April convention. Whata.TV is an app in development that gives users the ability to watch live international television from their countries of origin. Fermin said he hopes to become a Jacksonville startup investor, if Whata.TV is the success he projects it to be, so that he can give back to the community that supported him during One Spark.

However, Stache investors funded Heritage Farms (which also received a $280,000 mortgage from Stache Investments), Pure Treats, Original Fuzz, Hatchware and Floppy Entertainment through an accelerator program called KYN and led by Rivas.

Through KYN, the businesses receive $35,000, plus office and meeting space, mentoring and pitch opportunities with potential investors and venture capitalists.

Two of the businesses are tech-related. Hatchware designs digital menus for restaurants, and Floppy Entertainment develops user-friendly games.

Cochrane said health care-focused incubator Healthbox selected one of his startups, Rostr, a collaboration with Torres that keeps track of high school athletes’ health, for its first class of startups in Jacksonville. Healthbox Florida mentors its startups at CoWork Jax. According to its website, Healthbox has locations in Boston, Chicago, Nashville and London.

For now, the financial investment hasn’t matched the energy of the tech community’s networking events.

“It’s been a rolling ride, and I know it’s only the beginning,” Calvert said. “And if it moved this fast this year, it’s gonna move even faster next year.” 

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