When national media first started taking note of Tampa Bay’s tech sector back in 2015, the coverage wasn’t all that serious.
Inc. Magazine wrote that the region was “booming with small business spirit” — emphasis on “small.” GeekWire’s writeup focused on the area’s “sun and sand,” and not much else.
The coverage often took pains to point out that Tampa Bay was no Silicon Valley. Investment was happening, but it wasn’t much more than a trickle. And besides, could a city that was busy sipping cocktails on the beach ever attract real investment?
Nearly a decade later, people are taking Tampa a bit more seriously. And if not, they certainly should be.
In late 2021, Tampa was ranked ninth in the nation for growth in tech sector talent by the United States Commercial Real Estate Services, and eighth in percentage population gain for Millenials. It was tangible proof of what locals have been seeing for themselves: Tampa Bay is growing like crazy, and tech is driving the trend. ID.me, TrustLayer, and Procoto are just a few of the tech-focused firms that have either opened offices in the area or relocated entirely in the past year. And the growth is only accelerating.
October brought perhaps the best proof yet that the Tampa Bay region had outgrown its reputation as just a beach and vacation community. That’s when Ark Invest announced that it would relocate from New York City to St. Petersburg, bringing with it more than $50 billion in assets under management.
Leaving the historical center of global capitalism to a city with three percent of New York’s population was nothing if not a bold statement about where the region is heading. As a firm focused on blockchain systems, artificial intelligence, crypto, and other emerging technologies, the decision was even more meaningful for what it says about Tampa Bay’s growing role in the tech universe specifically.
When the company shifts its operations to a brand new, 45,000-square-foot facility in St Petersburg, they’ll join a long list of other companies that have made Tampa Bay home in recent years. And that proximity to other tech world stars is a big part of the draw.
Ark’s co-founder and CEO, Cathie Wood, emphasized as much in a statement when the move was announced.
“Our relocation and the ARK Innovation Center will allow us to be more innovative and to impact the broader community while shining a spotlight on the technological advances and creativity permeating the Tampa Bay region," Wood said in a press release.
The company plans to shift a “substantial number of employees” to St. Petersburg over the next few years, and to hire more locally. They’re also the named sponsor of the Ark Innovation Center, which, with help from local economic development funds, will aim to attract even more business to the area.
Tampas’ growth has been driven by a range of factors intersecting at the right time and, seemingly, the right place.
At the political level, Mayor Jane Castor has embraced all things tech, even pledging to take her salary in Bitcoin. Florida’s political leadership as a whole has been similarly enthusiastic. Governor Ron Desantis has put up millions for skills training for the new tech economy, while Miami Mayor Francis Suarez has been gently trolling Bay Area leaders with billboards around San Francisco enticing tech workers to move south.
But if you look at what founders and CEOs have been saying about why Tampa Bay drew their attention, there are deeper — and maybe more durable — reasons for the enthusiasm.
One is the University of South Florida and its increasingly lauded STEM programs. It’s no secret that American tech centers tend to cluster around institutions of higher learning. Silicon Valley tech firms might as well install a conveyor belt at Stanford’s doorstep for all the graduates they draw. The small city of Boston wouldn’t have nearly the same recruiting power without the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in its backyard, along with institutions like Harvard.
University power and a warm political embrace have converged with the longstanding cybersecurity industry with companies like Digital Hands and ReliaQuest in the Tampa Bay region. Military contractors have had a strong presence in the Bay for decades, and the OGs of Tampa’s tech scene didn’t arrive here by accident, either. MacDill Air Force Base, which houses U.S. Central Command and the U.S. Special Operations Command has provided a direct link for industries working in those spaces.
There’s also a more difficult-to-quantity factor driving Tampa Bay’s tech scene: Tampa Bay’s tech scene.
The kind of growth the region is experiencing builds on itself, and as more companies expand operations in the region, the more other companies will follow. Tech companies love locating near each other to poach talent and create the kind of competition that drives innovation.
If assembling forward-looking companies in the same place produces something more than the sum of its parts, the Ark Innovation Center in St. Petersburg is the most literal expression of the concept. Construction of the $15.8 million facility just broke ground, and the hope is that it will draw top talent by putting the region’s brightest in the very same building. The Center will join other incubators already operating in the area, like Tampa Bay Wave and the Embarc Collective both located in Tampa.
The Pinellas County Economic Development agency put up $11.3 million for the Ark facility, which is being built on land donated by the city of St. Petersburg. (Ark Investment added another $2 million, and scored naming rights for the facility.)
Of course, the coverage in 2015 wasn’t all wrong about Tampa Bay. It still has “sun and sand,” and the weather is still perfect most of the year. With its relatively low cost of living, beautiful weather, and proximity to beaches, tech companies are betting they can convince hot-shot graduates and tech sector veterans alike to head south.
Wood, of Ark Investment, hinted at those other draws when she was asked why she chose the Tampa Bay region for her move. She cited the synergy of the growing tech scene and the university talent. But another factor?
“Quality of life,” she said.