In a 1920s West Palm Beach building that boasts an adjacent carriage house with a crank elevator, Joe Russo envisions a hub for technology entrepreneurship.
Russo is the executive director of Palm Beach Tech, a non-profit that is part co-location workspace, part trade association. It was founded two years ago with the goal of bringing together tech entrepreneurs and start-ups.
Today, Palm Beach Tech boasts 127 dues-paying members.
Some of those firms, like West Palm Beach-based HelpedHope, a consultant, are what Russo terms “part-time” members needing access to meeting rooms for appointments with investors and such on at least a weekly basis. Others like Tropitron Engineering, which does electrical engineering for the Defense Department, he says are full-timers, meaning they use office space and services on a daily basis.
“Everyone has to get started somewhere,” said Russo. “This is the type of place where ideas can start taking root.”
Like other proponents of tech business development in the Palm Beaches, Russo quickly cites the key milestones in Palm Beach County’s tech history, which include IBM developing its first personal computer in Boca Raton in the early 1980s and the development of engines for the Cold War Blackbird aircraft at Pratt & Whitney’s aerospace campus. The point: There’s more to the county’s business backdrop than just sunny beaches and farms.
“We just want to build a community, at the end of the day,” said Russio. “We obviously need money to do it.”
Money would help, yes, but it’s far from the only ingredient. Witness the effort to spend Florida’s piece of an early 2000s federal stimulus bill to lure and build a Disney World of biotech largely headquartered in Palm Beach County.
What it really takes is critical mass. As in a lot more thriving tech-oriented businesses — enough to build a brand on and to lure the golden ingredient, huge sums of angel and venture capital investment.
That has eluded Palm Beach County, and South Florida, and Florida for that matter. But it’s not to say it can’t happen. And it’s not say that efforts like Russo’s, multiplied across the state and then linked, can’t be linchpins.
At Palm Beach Tech, the business model revolves around memberships, which range from individual ($50 per year) to Tier 1 ($5,000) per year. Amenities range from a weekly newsletter to unlimited job board postings to assistance with press release distribution.
Then there are the Meetups, monthly gatherings featuring a guest speaker. The next event is July 25, at the FAU Tech Runway in Boca Raton, featuring Joe York, the president of AT&T Florida. Previous speakers included John Prince, president & CIO of HotelPlanner.com, who was the June Meetup speaker, as well as officials from tech-centric companies like Zipcar, IBM and Uber.
There are also opportunities mentoring, which takes place on the first Friday of each month.
Russo says one of the biggest hurdles facing tech start-ups is a very traditional one: Getting attention. Getting their name out there.
“Everyone’s biggest challenge is telling their stories,” said Russo.