The History of Innovation – Innovation is often described as the ability to see what others cannot. This was certainly true amongst the earliest settlers of the area we now call Tampa Bay. While others saw “mosquito country,” others saw a land of bountiful nature in which an important seaport and a future city could be built. These pioneers envisioned a city that would play an important economic, military and social role in the new State of Florida (1845), and that is what Tampa Bay has become.
Later, industrious businessmen such as Henry Plant who brought the railroad to Tampa and Don Vincente Martinez Ybor who built a “company town” when he moved his cigar manufacturing operations to what was scrub land just northeast of Tampa helped realize the vision of the early pioneers.
Tampa became one of Florida’s largest cities when its population grew from fewer than 800 residents in 1880 to more than 15,000 in 1900.
The 20th century saw Tampa Bay emerge as a modern financial, trade, and commercial hub. Some notable innovations of the time included Tony Jannus’s 1914 flight between St. Petersburg and Tampa, the world’s first scheduled commercial airline flight.
Another notable first was the founding of St. Petersburg College in 1927. The college was founded to provide low-cost post-secondary education at a time when college was something that was out of reach of most people, and it was the first such college in Florida. In 1928, Drew Field Municipal Airport opened and was soon leased as a sub-post to MacDill Field. Drew Field became Tampa International Airport in 1950 and MacDill Field
became MacDill Air Force Base. As home to both U.S. Special Operations Command and U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base has played a major role in both U.S. military history and the Tampa Bay economy. The presence of the base and its personnel in the Tampa Bay community has led to a large number of defense contractors to locate in the region and collaboration between the private sector and the military has been a source of innovation. Several high-profile projects such as the TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) project executed by the Doolittle Institute’s SOFWERX have begun to emerge from this collaboration.
In 1956, Florida’s public university system welcomed Tampa’s University of South Florida (USF) to their ranks. In the 1980’s USF emerged as a major research institution and is now advancing the frontiers of medicine, science, engineering and the arts. Through USF Connect, the University drives commercialization of research and economic development.
In 1981, the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute was established in Tampa and has been a pioneer in cancer research and treatment. One innovation from Moffitt was M2Gen®, a health informatics company focused on accelerating the discovery, development, and delivery of personalized medicine. The presence of USF Health, Moffitt Cancer Center, and MacDill Airforce Base have stimulated an innovative healthcare sector in the area where companies with leading innovations are growing and collaborating. Companies such as BlackStone Medical Services, a home sleep testing company, can operate alongside larger firms such as the Laser Spine Institute.
But not all Tampa Bay innovation has come from large organizations or universities. Some locally founded successful technology companies have included myMatrixx, Tribridge, Tech Data. However, arguably the most successful local tech company was TRADEX Technologies, an early B2B marketplace, who was acquired in a stock-swap acquisition worth $5.6 billion.
Many of these companies were built without a lot of local support. However, today there is a robust ecosystem of organizations that provide a lot of support to technology companies and entrepreneurs such as the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, the Tampa Bay WaVE and all the companies you see featured in this book.
Tampa Bay has come a long way from its early days as a swampy backwater town and has begun to transform itself into a hotbed of innovation.