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EDA Grant For Florida Startups Yields Lakeland Group Investment

Seeds sown by Tampa Bay Wave and Upsurge Florida lead to investment in Wave member technology company, JustProtect.

Seeds planted by a federal grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) to promote investor awareness and seed funding activity in Florida have recently blossomed into a significant investment in the Tampa-based technology company, JustProtect.

The recent, undisclosed six-figure investment was made by newly-formed Lakeland-based Lakeland Venture Investments (LVI) and establishes new community ties between the emerging tech ecosystem in Lakeland and Tampa Bay. Notably, LVI’s investment is the first significant Tampa Bay area investment to be born out of the EDA grant made to technology accelerator Tampa Bay Wave.

But first, a little background….

In early 2019, the US EDA’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurshipawarded a 3-year grant to a new partnership between Tampa Bay Wave and  Orlando’s StarterStudio to increase access to capital “from the Space Coast to the Gulf Coast” where risk capital is generally in short supply.  This effort, now renamed Upsurge Florida, has led to the formation of at least one seed fund, the Central Florida Tech Fund, and uncovered hundreds of previously untapped prospective investors eager to help Florida’s burgeoning tech startup ecosystem with new sources of capital.

With additional financial and other support from the Vinik Family Foundation, Tampa Electric, University of Central Florida and Kirenaga Partners, Upsurge Florida held a series of in-person accredited investor roadshow presentations in 2019 and early 2020, forming hundreds of new accredited investor connections.  At one such event, longtime community leader and entrepreneurship advocate, Chip Webster, began a conversation with Allen Clary, an event speaker and Director of Investor Relations at Tampa Bay Wave. Ultimately, this conversation led to the revelation that a new early stage investment fund, Lakeland Venture Investments (LVI), was just getting started in Central Florida, and they were looking for fresh investment opportunities.

Lakeland, Florida’s Next Major Tech Hub

Founded in the summer of 2020 by 30-something Lakeland natives – David Ward, Wesley Barnett, and Chad Corbitt – LVI plans to invest in Florida based tech companies that can help build ties to Lakeland’s burgeoning new tech economy. In recent years, Polk County leaders have been working with both public and private sector entities to make Lakeland a major destination for world-class technical and engineering talent.  In the heart of Florida’s High Tech Corridor, LVI is just the latest addition to “Central Florida’s Innovation District, which includes nearby Florida Polytechnic University and Catapult Lakeland’s new 38,000 square foot coworking and innovation hub in downtown Lakeland.

“LVI’s mission is to connect Lakeland to the broader central Florida startup market and harness the diverse talent we have at our disposal in Lakeland and broader Polk County,” says David Ward, Business Advisor, Lakeland Venture Investments. “We seek to support innovative companies with a great track record and chance at continued success – and take them to the next level, utilizing home grown talent from Lakeland, the Catapult coworking and incubator space, and central Florida.”

It Takes a Village to Build a Thriving Tech Economy

JustProtect, a cybersecurity company that specializes in regulation-compliance software, joined Tampa Bay Wave’s 2019 TechDiversity Accelerator program, a 90-day accelerator program funded by the Nielsen Foundation. Previously, JustProtect had also participated in DreamIt Venture‘s Tampa-based accelerator, a program that had received investment from Tampa investor and Tampa Bay Lightningowner, Jeff Vinik. Originally founded in 2017 in New York, JustProtect relocated to Tampa in the last year, citing the region’s growing and supportive ecosystem as one of the primary factors. You can read the full story of JustProtect’s relocation story on Tampa Bay Inno here.

As an alumni of Wave’s 90-day accelerator, JustProtect has continued to receive ongoing support from Tampa Bay Wave, such as access to Wave’s mentor network and other exposure opportunities. Rebranded as Wave’s CORE Membership, this ongoing support program also provides tech startup companies with access to investment capital.  Thus, once Wave understood there was a potential match between JustProtect and LVI, the connection was made.

Vikas Bhatia, CEO and founder of JustProtect, sees the benefits of LVI’s Lakeland location as well, saying, “The significant investment from LVI and association with the Catapult hub means we can continue to focus on customer acquisition and expansion, continue to innovate as well as build a talent pipeline from Florida Polytechnic University.”

Next Steps for Upsurge Florida

The Upsurge Florida initiative is just getting started, according to Linda Olson, President and CEO of Tampa Bay Wave.  “Seed fund investments born out of Upsurge Florida have also been made in the Orlando and Space Coast areas, and recent developments in Gainesville add to the success and progress we are seeing in the Tampa Bay, Sarasota and Bradenton areas.”

Additional virtual Upsurge Florida accredited investor events are planned for later this year, and continued progress in regional seed investment in Florida’s early stage tech companies across the corridor is showing promising activity, explains Tampa Bay Wave’s Allen Clary.

“Over the past year, the I-4 corridor from the Space Coast to the Gulf Coast has experienced significant growth in the number of accredited investors getting involved and new, innovative startups – both key ingredients for long-term health of the Florida technology ecosystem. As our region continues to be internationally recognized as an emerging hub for technology startups, success feeds on itself – I have no doubt that this is just the beginning.”

Florida’s Startups Raising Investment Capital Despite COVID19

JustProtect is just one of several Central Florida companies raising money over the past few months. Within Tampa Bay Wave’s portfolio of companies alone, at least six tech startups have raised investment capital, collectively upwards to $10 million, including several in the healthcare and related industries.

Stay tuned to Wave’s blog for future stories about such local investments….

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